Keeping clients motivated is among the toughest problems that personal trainers face. No matter what we say or what we do, our “most difficult” clients can make limited and erratic progress because they keep sliding back to where they started. As frustrating as it can be for both parties, finding ways to motivate the client is still part of the trainer’s job description. The strategies for motivating someone and the principles behind motivation are myriad and complex, but there is one method, inspired by mythology, that I found to work well.
If you’ve poked and prodded to no avail, try setting your client straight with the "Ulysses contract."
At its core, a Ulysses contract is an accountability system. It is a freely made pact between you and your client. Your client agrees to refrain from a certain behavior and you hold them accountable by withholding or enforcing certain conditions. This is not at all the same thing as punishment burpees.
Before I dive more into the details of how to use the Ulysses contract, it’d be better understood within the context of how I dealt with Barb (not really her name). Barb was my most difficult client.
Barb was severely obese and kept losing and gaining the same 40 pounds. She’d get really focused for a couple of months and lose the weight. But her motivation would fizzle out and it'd all go downhill from there. She would skip training sessions and fall off the meal plan that was working so well for her. Then lo and behold, she’d gain most of the weight back.
This went on for three years. My task felt Sisyphean. One step forward, two steps back. Rinse and repeat.
I admit there were times when I did not look forward to our sessions together. The lack of lasting results was frustrating. Through it all, Barb kept renewing her training contract with the club I worked for. Despite the constant roller coaster of progression and regression, Barb recognized that she needed my help.
She wanted better health. So I didn’t give up on her.
Barb needed more than just a better meal plan, extra workouts, and a pep talk. After many false starts, I finally found that in a Ulysses contract.
The Ulysses contract derives from the pact that the mythical hero Ulysses is said to have made with his crew. The idea was for Ulysses to sail past the Sirens and hear their song without being lured toward them and risking the safety of his ship. According to legend, Ulysses put wax in his men’s ears and had them tie him to the mast so that he could not break free.
In essence, Ulysses made a pact between his future self and his present self to resist temptation. And thus, the Ulysses contract is loosely based on how he anticipated his faltering willpower and came up with tactics to make it "foolproof" (no tying people up necessary, promise.) It's also a form of extrinsic motivation.
For modern day context, Ulysses contracts can sometimes encourage people with mental health challenges to agree to take their medication. Their doctors are instructed to disregard their future instructions in favor of their current agreement. Even living wills can be considered a form of a Ulysses contract.
For us personal trainers, it can be a powerful way to motivate the client. The idea, however, isn’t to make the client make leaps and bounds of progress, but to focus on the idea of small wins and a little progress.
When the time came around for my next client group challenge, I had a discussion with Barb about doing a 30-day Ulysses contract. Barb understood how the Ulysses contract would benefit her, but wasn’t eager to jump in. She hesitated initially, but after some gentle questioning, confessed that she didn’t have faith in herself anymore because she had screwed up so many times.
What I said to Barb next changed everything:
“If we don’t get you to at least make some small progress, I don’t see the point in continuing.”
Then I asked her what one or two very easy, small changes that she could implement just to gain traction and help her feel better.
When designing the Ulysses contract, stay focused on choosing behaviors to modify, not quantifying results to be achieved. Here are other things to note:
* Make it a voluntary pact: Have your client choose a behavior to focus on doing (or not doing).
* Choose a deadline: 30 days is usually long enough to establish a habit and not highly difficult to achieve. A short-term agreement could last between 30-60 days.
* Choose a consequence: This should be something that is painful to the client, psychologically. An example is donating money to a charity or political organization that the client dislikes.
* Choose a “referee”: It should be someone who will not let the client off the hook. Perhaps a family member, a best friend, children, or someone similar.
If your client wants to lose weight, have her focus on a limiting factor that might be affecting her progress. For example, if your client doesn’t eat healthy consistently, you can challenge her to cook some number of meals at home in the next 30 days. If she is successful, she will learn a new habit and gain confidence without you having to nag.
For Barb’s contract, she stated she would drink a gallon of water per day and cut coffee consumption down to two cups per day. She agreed to try this for 30 days. Her consequence for not following through was to donate $200 to a cause that would have caused her a lot of emotional anguish. For Barb, she would have had to donate to a political party that she vehemently opposed. She wrote the check, which I held onto initially.
When I sent Barb a text after the 30 days were up, she told me to destroy her $200 check.
She had met her challenge. On some days, she even cut out coffee completely. I have to admit there were a few fist pumps.
These were small wins that Barb had recognized were possible and turned her source of motivation inward. She finally believed in herself again and felt that she did have some control over how she could effect change.
After that day, Barb showed up to her sessions with more energy and more engagement. She seemed sharper and happier. She even did workouts on her own. Gone were the days when Barb showed up to our sessions sluggish and foggy-brained, and seemed to be depressed (which could have been symptoms of sleep deprivation and dehydration.)
Even though Barb is no longer a client of mine, I do know that she has kept her caffeine consumption down after the contract and has been showing up for A.M. workouts with her new trainer.
There is an art and magic of applying just the right amount of pressure. Not too much, not too little. Just right; and the Ulysses contract (or some variation of it) might just be the thing to help clients gain traction in their fitness program when “nothing else” seems to work.
The Ulysses contract is an effective method, and it doesn’t have to be a last resort for only the difficult clients.