Fitness and exercise goals often take a back seat to other life matters for your clients. These matters dramatically contrast with coaches and trainers whose lives are more likely to be consumed with fitness. I don't know about you but I dream of training even when I'm awake.
Our clients may come into the gym burnt out from a long day, lack of sleep, and/or other life stressors. The sum of everything happening outside the gym amounts to what I call "mental baggage" and can seriously affect training.
I've enjoyed building relationships with my general population clients and helping them cope with their mental "baggage" has been an interesting experience. Some of my clients will arrive at our appointment with pressing matters on their minds but wait until the end of the session to discuss it with me. A listening ear can often improve the mood of a client who simply needs to blow off steam and rant.
Other times it will be obvious that the client is mentally occupied but he won't mention it at all during our session. I always leave it to the discretion of the client to initiate a discussion about something that I believe is bothering them. Granted, we all know the business model plays into this aspect of relationships with clients and Jon went over it in detail with his description of how to deal with the Always Off Track.
If you are in a one-on-one personal training setting without logistics you can utilize more "breaks" and "let's just chat" moments. However the group model's strict logistics may hinder the individual from speaking with you about a life issue until before or after the session for fear of disrupting the group's flow, if they even speak to you at all.
Is mental distraction a good, normal, bad, or undesirable behavior?
Should we be trying to change our general population client's mindsets to that of athletes which tends to be less "distracted" during training? If someone is preoccupied with issues outside the gym should we just stop the session and try to help? Should we require our clients to "leave it at the door" when they come to train with us, and if so, does that make us heartless? Or should trainers put aside their excitement about training and cater to their clients' mental needs and listen to their outside complaint?
How do mental distractions or mental "workload" affect exercise performance during the actual training session?
Recently, the European Journal of Applied Physiology published a study investigating how mental workload and cognitive demand affects exercise performance. The study included 12 subjects (balanced by gender) who performed a shoulder exercise while either doing nothing else at the same time or a mental arithmetic task (mental workload).
The researchers looked at endurance time, strength decline, fatigue indicators, and stress measures. They found the more mental workload that occurred, the shorter endurance times were and the more strength declined. The results also indicated that greater mental workload during the shoulder exercise resulted in greater stress levels. The researchers concluded the "findings from this study provide fundamental evidence that physical capacity (fatigability and recovery) is adversely affected by mental workload."
So, we can say that "mental baggage" during the session can absolutely affect exercise performance. Whether or not we should be ignoring or trying to fix our clients mental baggage is another issue. Nevertheless, I feel at the very least appreciating this study can help us make better informed decisions about how we deal with our clients.
Building relationships is priority at the end of the day, in my opinion, yet we also need to find ways to help our clients mentally "escape" outside issues that could potentially dampen their exercise performance. I've found the more I build a relationship with a client, the more they end up asking for my input on their situation without me ever alluding to it at all.
Thursdays article by Jon will go over his system of programming on the fly when clients become notoriously distracted.
Mehta RK, Agnew MJ. Influence of mental workload on muscle endurance, fatigue, and recovery during intermittent static work. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Aug;112(8):2891-902. Epub 2011 Dec 6. PubMed PMID: 2214