A motivated client is a paying client.
In the world of personal training, some don’t feel it’s their job to motivate clients to adhere to the programs they create, and that’s fine. Others embrace the role of cheerleader and even de facto psychologist.
We are nearing the end of January, and it’s reported that 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions will fail by the second week of February. Is there something you can do to keep your new clients who are struggling with motivation coming back through the spring months and beyond?
For starters, you could tell them about my new book. Wink and nudge.
The reasonable trainer preaches being a tortoise and not a hare. Slow and steady wins the weight-loss race. If your client sees their dead grandma beckoning them toward the light, you’re pushing them too hard.
Often, the same approach is taken with motivation: slow and steady. A forced march of baby steps across a behavioral tipping point where habits are slowly formed and become “sticky.” This approach has merit, because behavior change is hard. Case in point: rampant obesity and low rates of exercise adherence.
But inspiration to get and stay fit can also happen in a flash. And research reveals such people make bigger changes and have higher adherence rates. (When I write “research reveals,” it’s all in that book I mentioned.)
A simple explanation of how this works involves social psychologist Milton Rokeach’s model of personality. It’s like that line from Shrek where he says, “Ogres are like onions.”
People are also like onions. When you cut them, there can be crying. Wait. What I mean is, we have “layers” to our personalities. At the outer layer there are our actions, our “behaviors.” Go down a level and we have “beliefs.” Another level and there are “attitudes.” Then even deeper are “values,” and finally, there is the core identity, the “self.”
When solely focusing on that outer layer of behavior change, baby steps are key, because suffering. We don’t like suffering, and if you minimize it, you’re less likely to backslide. The small changes are considered tolerable.
It reminds me of Winston Churchill speaking in the House of Commons in 1947:
“[D]emocracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
The slow and steady approach to behavior change sucks, but it sucks less than the others.
Except perhaps not.
How change can happen in an instant
Baby steps are concrete. They don’t always work that well, but the path is readily discernable. It’s a series of small, definitive actions where the most significant problem is adherence. But when you focus on changing deeper layers of personality—a person’s identity and values regarding exercise—adherence has the ability to be far higher, the change more profound, because passion has been ignited.
It’s also a more enigmatic approach.
Such profound change in identity and values, where a person has what I call “a holy sh*t moment” (which is why I call my book The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant), isn’t something that happens slowly. It’s not a tortoise. It’s not even a hare. It’s more like a ballistic missile of insight into one’s life, a finding of purpose. It’s a hard pivot that transforms a person’s being with an overwhelming sense of rightness about this new direction in life they feel compelled to take.
But the path to such a transformative experience is far from concrete. Psychologists John Kounios and Mark Beeman wrote in their book The Eureka Factor,
“Insights are like cats. They can be coaxed but don’t usually come when called.”
As a trainer, you may be in a position to help your clients coax such a cat.
If you converse with them about things other than programming and technique, getting into how they feel, psychologically, about their training, you can help inspire sudden change. It’s how they feel not just about their training but about themselves.
Telling people to suck it up and power through is rarely useful for those who are struggling. It’s better to tap into their emotional, passionate drivers based on those internal levels: the identity and values stuff.
I’ll tell you a story about my friend Chuck Gross. Chuck weighed over 400 pounds; he’d been heavy ever since childhood. He referred to it as an “anchor” on his personality. He’d tried and failed to lose weight many times, but he hated exercise and watching what he ate.
But one day, his wife walked out of the bathroom with an unexpected announcement: a positive pregnancy test. And Chuck felt the lightning strike. This time, he knew it was going to work. He knew he would get in shape and keep the weight off. “I didn’t have to struggle with my motivation,” he told me. “It came built in.” He lost 200 pounds and has kept it off for more than a decade.
This doesn’t mean you should start advocating pregnancies. It’s to drive home the point about identity and value changes. Chuck suddenly had a new mantle thrust upon him, that of a father. In an instant, he was inspired to become the man his child needed; being a fit dad was something that held tremendous value for him. (Incidentally, I wrote a piece about Chuck’s life-changing epiphany a few years back, and the PTDC named it the number-one fat-loss article of 2015.)
You can inspire your clients to become the best versions of themselves, and to live lives concordant with their deepest values, by appealing to their emotional drivers of what gives them purpose. Because perhaps that purpose will involve seeing what their bodies are capable of.
Make sure it sticks
Clients are prone to wavering motivation. Life gets in the way. The desire to stick with the program wanes. Trainers hate it when that happens. You don’t want to lose clients to apathy. You can design the best program possible that fits their abilities and matches their interests and gets them to achieve their goals, but if they lose their ambition for those goals you may struggle to pay bills.
It’s not your job to be the sole source of inspiration for a client to train, but you can play an assisting role by opening discussions on how they feel about the process, their progress, and their ambition for the future.
Because the standard-issue “rah-rah, you can do it!” isn’t enough. To help them unlock their exercise passion so motivation is no longer a scarce resource, you need to go deeper. Give them something to think about, even if it means giving them some psychological homework.
You do a training session with a client and it goes great. They’re in the zone, in a great mood. They crush it. Ask them why it was so great. Don’t accept “because you’re such a great trainer!” as an answer. Sure, it’s probably true, but you want to know what was going on with them, in their head, in their life, that tapped into some primal desire that made today such a kick-ass effort. Why did it feel good? What part of their personality was awakened in that moment?
Ask them if that person who kicked ass today felt more like the person they really are, deep down, yearning to be set free and reign supreme …
Ack. Barf. Sorry.
So maybe don’t use those exact words, but that’s the idea. You can nudge them toward a life-changing moment that awakens their desire to achieve great things with their body just by getting them to start thinking about it, by letting them know a rapid change in their motivation level is possible, by getting them to believe it can happen for them.
You can nudge your clients by recommending they spend some time thinking about their identity and values and how it relates to regular exercise. Tell them to spend some time analyzing these aspects of their personality. Advise them to put some real mental effort into it.
Then tell them to do something else.
The trick about a life-changing moment is that it doesn’t come while you’re actively trying to uncover it. Those thoughts need time to meander and collide, so they have a chance to gel in a profound way. Sudden insight arrives when one least expects it, when engaged in some form of distraction. It comes in the shower—the whole shower-thoughts thing—or while out for a walk, in nature, away from technological distraction.
I know people who had sudden insight strike while cleaning a toilet, while walking across a parking lot, while bonding with a shelter dog.
As a trainer, you likely can’t do a lot more than nudge this. As you well know, what they’re mostly after is guidance on lifting things. What’s more, sudden insight is a “comes from within” phenomenon. But there’s also the fact that most people don’t even consider the possibility of rapid mental transformation. Once you let them know it’s a thing that happens, they may begin considering it could happen for them.
And perhaps you’ll suggest they buy that book of mine to further help them achieve it.
And if it does happen for them? Don’t stand in the way. At last year’s Fitness Summit, my friend Kelly Coffey talked about her own life-changing moment. She went from killing herself with drugs and alcohol to wanting to crush herself with exercise. And the last thing she needed was someone to harsh that vibe by telling her to take it easy.
If someone comes at you inspired to go long and hard, show them the right way to do it so it doesn’t break them. Appreciate, admire, and encourage their passion.
Don’t kill their fire; stoke it.
This article is adapted from The Holy Sh!t Moment, by James Fell,