Being a coach is so much bigger than helping someone achieve narrow fitness goals. We want to inspire clients to be the best version of themselves inside and outside the gym. The connections we build with clients are far more important to their overall success than their grasping the science behind what we do. It is through these connections that we build buy-in, belief, and trust, all key for long-term success.
I’m a firm believer that our thoughts shape our reality and that our mindset is the first thing we must control if we wish to accomplish a goal. It’s my job as a coach to teach this to my clients and to get them to understand that the real success comes from dedication to the process and not to focusing just on the outcome. That next goal will always be there, but what will get them to hit those goals is the understanding, day in and day out, that they must choose to commit to the small things that make the biggest difference over time. Toward that end, it is extremely important to help clients become more aware of their thoughts and to teach them how to recognize negative self-talk.
For example, when a client completes a task in a new and challenging program, they sometimes respond with a condescending remark such as, “I still don’t look like that person” (insert professional athlete of some sort). I quickly call them out and ask them to reframe that to something that builds up, such as, “I’m getting stronger.” I teach clients to manifest their goals through their mindset, to leave the negativity at home, and to focus on the positive because, despite their mood in the moment, there’s always some to be found.
In a world that prizes instant gratification, most clients are looking for a quick fix. But delayed gratification is almost always the wisest path to success. This article, from Psychology Today, makes the point well:
“The way I see it, there are two paths we can take in any given situation: one is the path of avoiding pain in the moment, and the other is the more difficult path of delaying pleasure for a bigger purpose…. Some people don’t see the value in having patience during difficult times or working toward a goal; they want to lose the weight now and would rather buy the latest, greatest cell phone than save for retirement. We often make our life choices according to how we can avoid pain in the moment and, in doing so, fail to see that the path of delayed gratification is sometimes where the real solutions to our problems lie.”
It’s safe to say that the quick-fix, all-or-nothing approach is not the best way to achieve a goal. But what if the process became, instead, to get just 1% better every day? My desire as a coach is to inspire athletes to achieve their life goals by getting just 1% better in at least one area of their life: Every. Single. Day. Small shifts in behavior, repeated daily, produce sustainable progress. Whereas if someone tries to change everything at once, there is no time to create long-term habits and ways of living. Worse, if a client fails or burns out, that leads to more self-doubt. By getting clients to understand that small behavior and mindset shifts can change brain chemistry in a way that produces results that can last a lifetime, you’ll have happier, healthier clients that stick around to reap the rewards of their hard work.
Putting This into Practice
Over the past year, I’ve been blessed to work with Gordon, one of the hardest workers and kindest souls I’ve ever met. When I first met him, he was in his late 50s, deconditioned, overweight, and lacking the ability to move well, especially without pain. In fact, when Gordon originally came into the Onnit Gym, he was unable to walk farther than the entrance bench. He couldn’t perform daily tasks such as getting up and down from a chair or the floor, tying his shoes, getting a good night’s rest, or making healthy nutrition choices. He came to me in desperate need of help, and although I knew it would be the biggest challenge I had yet to take on, I was inspired by his willingness even to start.
At first we met 3x/week, then slowly increased that to 6x/week, with one of those sessions being a Fascial Stretch Therapy session. I always start off his session with about five minutes of stationary bike riding. Those first five minutes are essential to his program, because that’s when we connect, communicate. It’s been one of the best ways for me to get to know Gordon on a personal level and understand more of his story, his background, what he likes to do in his free time, and how his family is doing. I get a chance to check in with him about his nutrition, sleep, stress, and overall attitude for the day. I’m willing to bet that this ritual is one of the biggest reasons for both his buy-in and his success.
From the beginning, the goal for Gordon has been to get 1% better each day so he could live a longer, happier, healthier life. I knew that for Gordon to be successful, I had to get back to the basics and educate him on the importance of a healthy mindset and lifestyle. I had to help him understand that by making small changes to his daily routines and choices, he would reap the long-term rewards of the hard work put in at the gym. It started with asking Gordon to show up five to ten minutes early so he could prepare to make the most of our hour together. Once I saw that he was committed to that and would attack whatever I sent his way with a smile on his face, I began to encourage him to think about the next task he felt confident he could complete—for example, building a consistent sleep schedule, ensuring proper hydration, taking daily walks, engaging in positive self-talk. All these tasks are now a part of his daily routine, but it didn’t happen overnight! Most of these habits took Gordon a few weeks or months to get the hang of, and even now I still check in on his progress on a daily or weekly basis.
It’s been a little over a year since we started, and Gordon is experiencing incredible results! Not only has his movement variability increased (getting up and down off the ground with much more ease), but his strength and conditioning is much better, and his ability to move from one task to the next without needing to take a seat is amazing. His diet is something he now feels comfortable navigating on his own, and he finally brings a water bottle into the gym and is much more aware of his hydration levels. He’s also picked up some kickboxing and makes an effort to walk more throughout his day and get the best sleep possible. Some of these tasks might seem pretty basic and simple to most, yet for Gordon it’s taken a lot of work to get here, and there’s nothing better than to see the smile on his face as he continues to complete new tasks daily!
The best advice I could give trainers and coaches is to connect with clients on a personal level before anything else, and to try your best to understand how they got to where they are and what exactly is holding them back from reaching their full potential. They came to you for a reason. They’re looking for help, advice, inspiration, accountability. Everyone has that voice inside that either drives you to greatness or holds you back with self-doubt, so help your clients silence the doubt and engage the badass within!
Most of us are looking for someone to tell us that we’re capable. It’s our job as coaches to believe in our clients and to do so in a way that they begin to believe in themselves. Remind them every day that they’re winning just by showing up. Smile and greet them when they arrive. Stop worrying or stressing about the past or the future—if you remain present, so will they. Give them your undivided attention so you don’t waste their time. Hold them accountable to keeping a good attitude and work ethic, and help them to view any “failure” as a lesson, teaching them on how to move on quickly. We can’t let clients get hung up on setbacks. Train them to refocus that energy on the next step for their success. This is true for any lifestyle change you want them to make (mindset, nutrition, sleep, movement, breath). I try to do this by focusing on what my clients are doing well each and every day. We celebrate the small wins so they can find joy in the journey, which makes it much easier to stay on track with their program. They need to know that consistency and perseverance are extremely important if they want to see results, and taking pleasure in the work is key to both.
Through better connections and communication, you can gain a deeper understanding of clients’ mindset and lifestyle outside the gym. Then you can begin to educate them about the effects of their choices, because they must be able to make good choices when you aren’t around.
It’s our job to be a guide and facilitator, working with our clients to move them forward toward their goals. Toward that end, I love the six steps of coaching that Precision Nutrition uses:
1. Assess and Observe: Assess and gather data. Identify goals.
2. Understand the client and “build the story”: Build understanding.
3. Create and action-plan possible “next steps”: Plan and strategize.
4. Choose one next action step and test it: Take action.
5. Observe and monitor what happens.
6. Use outcome-based decision making.
After you’ve gone through that six-step cycle, you can make better choices to meet your client’s needs. The best part about this is that it is progressive, building success upon success.
One more piece of advice I have for coaches and trainers is to keep it simple. Simple does not mean easy. Start with the basics. It’s extremely important to teach clients how to breathe correctly so they can manage stress, better mobilize tissues, and increase their tolerance to carbon dioxide.
And remember to connect brain to body. At the Onnit Gym, we use a technique called “body mapping,” which is essentially a joint-by-joint routine that allows clients to check in with their body on a daily basis and have a conversation with each joint to better understand how they’re feeling that day. I’ve found this to be extremely beneficial when I’m cueing because clients develop much more awareness of how to call upon a specific area of their body during a specific movement or exercise.
Last but not least, always give clients a little of what they need mixed in with a little of what they want. This keeps training both challenging and fun. Once again, a little, over time, goes a long way.