What you’re in for:
- ~5,300 words
- 15-20 minutes reading time
“The list of experiences or achievements that a person hopes to accomplish during their lifetime.”
Do you have one?
I do. One of the items on mine is to drive a car very quickly around a racetrack (it actually isn’t on my bucket list but freefall parachuting doesn’t work for my analogy so just go with it).
As a result I recently took a trip to a race track. I suited up, buckled in and was ready to go!
I hit the accelerator HARD and screeched up the track. Approaching the first bend I attempted to turn too late and I was going too fast, BANG.
A high speed crash is a pretty sure fire way to do some serious damage to your car. The front end had taken a heavy impact, the wheels were buckled and the carburettor was shot (I heard that on a film once and thought it’s a sure fire way to win some BIG man points).
One of my life goals over in a flash.
But fear not, the mechanic reassured me he can get me back on the road in no time. Not only is he the quickest mechanic in town (you would hope so for what he charges) he also supplies top of the range parts that have been engineered with the latest, cutting edge technology. The only lasting damage may only be that sustained by my ego.
Great news! Not only can I be back on the road in no time, I am now better equipped with sharper breaks and better handling. This next time should be a walk in the park.
My Dirty Little Secret
Rather embarrassingly for me this isn’t the first time I’ve crashed while attempting to get around the racetrack; it’s not even the second. It’s actually the 6th time I’ve crashed and it’s not getting any easier despite the fact my car is now fitted with top of the range brakes, power steering and paddle shift gears (pretty sure that’s a thing).
Then why have I crashed so many times? Surely if I have the best equipment on the best car then it shouldn’t be a problem.
But what if we were making one huge oversight?
What if nobody had taken the time to actually teach me how to drive so I can stay on the damn track?
If I haven’t been taught to drive then there is a very good chance that no amount of fancy equipment, diagnostics or use or the latest research is going to keep me on that track!
Now I want to reframe this story into something more fitness based and well, relevant. Here goes:
The Car – Your clients’ weight loss/fitness goal
The Track – Their ability to work towards their fitness goals
The Mechanic – The personal trainer
The Equipment – Supplements, research, periodisation, nutrition/macro calculators, training plans etc
Their Driving Ability – Their ability to stick to the program – a.k.a. adherence
Someone sets themselves a goal of losing 10 lbs (this is your race car on the track). Their coach (the mechanic) provides them with a nutrition and training plan (new parts for the car) and off they go.
For a limited time, they are able to stick to the plan (keeping the car on the track) until it all comes to a shuddering halt and they are off the diet, don’t feel like going to the gym to do what they’ve been asked, and go “off the rails” (big crash – that bag of cookies absolutely had their name on it).
Now at this point, as a personal trainer you can:
- Provide them with some accountability
- Build their confidence
- Try a new nutritional intervention or training approach
…And back out on to the track they go, with what amounts to a new set of tyres and maybe an oil change. More likely than not, this is not going to help them stay on track long-term.
Because us trainers often get too caught up trying to give people better brakes (training and nutrition plans) without any consideration for how we can help them become better drivers (help to keep your client adhering to the plan).
You can be up to date with all the latest research, be able to accurately calculate people’s calorific requirements and plan well-structured and periodised training – but if you can’t get your client to stick to the plan, your training methods and dietary approaches are about as useful as a Kanye West speech on modesty – they simply don’t mean shit.
Becoming A Driving Instructor (Not Just A Mechanic)
In my opinion, lots of coaches (and people in general) have enough information to write training and nutrition plans that are appropriate to their client’s goal but spend almost no time working on how they can help their client adhere to said plans.
Think back to your CPD (continued professional development) over the last few months. What did you look at?
Nutrition? Training methods for fat loss? Kettlebell training?
I’d bet the majority of us spent far more time focused on being better mechanics when our clients really needed us to focus on being a better driving instructor.
Or to put it in a less convoluted way,
We need to learn to be better coaches – not just better trainers.
I know I certainly neglected this whole element of coaching for a long long time largely in part to the fact I never really fully considered it. I was all about the reps, sets and nutrition plans.
“Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know”- Daniel J. Boorstin
Thankfully learning how to build long term behavioural change, sustainability, adherence or however you want to put it, is currently an expanding field in the world of fitness. I am about as far from an expert in this as you could get but luckily for me there a number of individuals that we can learn from who are the experts. As the saying goes “I have no good ideas, only borrowed ones”.
My thanks go in advance to:
- Coach Stevo (Habitry.com)
- Cathy MacDonald (The Art of Communication)
- Charles Duhigg (The Power Of Habit)
- Kelly McGonigal (The Willpower Instinct)
- Daniel Hink (Drive)
- Simon Sinek (Start With Why)
- James Clear (Jamesclear.com)
- Carol Dweck (Growth Mindset)
- Leo Babauta (Power of Less)
- Nick Winkelman (EXOS)
…And a whole host of other individuals I am yet to discover!
Enhance Self Determination
Self determination theory (SDT) represents a broad framework for the study of human motivation and personality. To crudely summarise – SDT theorises that conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation. So how can we help improve these three pillars of self-determination?
People need to feel they have some form of control. It helps them take ownership of their goals and increases the likelihood that they will dig in when the going gets tough.
- Provide Your Client With Some Choices – It can be as simple as choosing between two lower body exercise variations, the music played during their session or the weight they lift that day. Whilst all will only have a minor impact on the training outcomes they can help create a sense of autonomy for the individual.
- Use Leading Questions – Leading questions can be great to get people to take ownership of their goals. Examples may include “What do you think would be the first thing I would change in your diet”? “What do you feel is the smallest change we could make in order to get the biggest impact?” The client often has the answers and you can simply help to bring them to the forefront. Hat tip to Scott Baptie of Food For Fitness for this one.
- Work As A Partnership – Yes, certain clients will try to do the bare minimum whilst others will try to commit death by burpees if you allowed it. You are in overall charge, but think of it more as a partnership and less of a dictatorship – especially as clients become more advanced and educated. They can drive the ship, you just help ensure it’s going in the right direction.
People want to feel like they are getting better and working towards their goals. As a coach we can help this in a number of ways.
- Set Them Up For Success. If your client is new to exercising and previously had a very poor diet, then putting them on a gruelling training plan and clean eating regime may sound like a great option but in reality it will probably overwhelm them. It may not happen in the first week or the fifth week but eventually it will become too much. Make it so easy they cannot fail. If you ask them to walk for five minutes two times a week there is a strong chance they will end up doing more. What we have done is set them up for success instead of imposing unrealistic demands that set them up to fail. Will this mean slower results? Potentially, but I bet they had fast, unattainable results in the past on more than one occasion; time for a different approach. We will cover this in more detail in the habits section.
- Tell Them What They Are Doing Well. Ever done a movement screen with a client that moves like a train wreck? We know most sedentary people that come in off the street won’t be able to do an overhead squat well. So why use it as a screen to then further highlight how poor they are further making the client feel less comfortable and less competent. Instead look at what they can do well (this is all relative to the client) and praise them for it. I don’t mean mindlessly provide praise every time your client slips out a fart, but reinforce what’s good and look to improve what isn’t whilst making them feel comfortable in what is normally an alien environment.
- Give External Coaching Cues. A very large body of evidence (over 100 papers) shows a clear improvement in a person’s ability to learn and retain new skills when they are provided external cues over internal cues. What do I mean? Internal cues are those that draw attention to the body. External cues reference the environment around the athlete. For more information I would look into the excellent work of Nick Winkelman from EXOS. You will literally learn how to teach your clients movements faster with better rates of retention. That sounds like a sure-fire way to improve your client’s feelings of competency.
- Small Group Work – Small group training is excellent for a number of reasons, many of which we will cover in the next section. But how does it create better client competency? It comes down to observational learning. Group coaching allows people to see an expert demonstration of the exercise (fingers crossed the trainer) and also novice demonstrations of the exercise from other members of the group. This helps them fill in the blanks quicker between what they are currently doing and how they can get to that expert model. Again helping to improve motor learning and feelings of competency.
We all want to belong and be part of a group, community or team. Very few of us can do it on our own. You just have to look at the huge success of CrossFit which has been in no small part due to the community spirit they foster. Help your clients relate to others and they in turn will pay you back with hard work.
- Create a Community – Social events, Facebook groups to share experiences or simply getting your clients together for a coffee once a month. Whatever it may be, bring people together build a community.
- Provide a Sense of Belonging – Give your group a name, smile and welcome people to the gym, take interest in their lives and what is going on outside of the gym. Be more than just the person that provides training and diet advice.
- Group Training – Group training provides team spirit, community and group accountability. Now people don’t just show up for themselves or the trainer, they do it for the rest of the group. Community is a very powerful thing indeed.
Find Their True Why
When people start their fitness journey they often start with the goal of losing weight, gaining some muscle or maybe improving fitness. In actuality they don’t want to lose weight or gain muscle. They are looking for the knock on effects losing weight or gaining muscle translates into. This may be increased confidence, to play a sport they love, improve their relationship with their body, be a better mother or father, take back control of their life’s after a relationship breakup, the list goes on. If we really want to help people we have to be able to discover their true why and then refer back to it from time to time to refocus our minds when motivation starts to wane.
- Use Open Questions –An initial client consultation is a great time to get to know more about someone and start to understand their why. Use high gain questions to elicit as much information as you can. These include “can you tell me”, “explain to me” , “describe” etc. Avoid closed questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Oh, and use silences.…People hate silences and will fill the gap by divulging even more information.
- Perfect Day / Best Version of You – This is a task that can be done verbally during a consultation or given as a little bit of “homework”. The idea being to visualise and note down an entire perfect day from the time they wake to the minute they go to sleep – what they did, where they went, who they spent time with and how they felt. This will help to uncover their true motivations and what is really important to that individual.
- Listen – We have all heard the expression that you were born with two ears and one mouth. Our goal should be to listen more than we talk. The consultation is not a time to tell the client about your fancy programming or the latest diet. Do you listen to respond, or listen to understand? How many times have you had someone talking and have been preparing your answer as they are speaking? If you have done that then you are not listening properly thus potentially missing out on your client’s needs, wants, values and beliefs. This is actually far harder than it sounds and for myself it’s very much a work in progress. Thank you to the brilliant Cathy MacDonald of The Art of Communication bringing this to my attention.
Caveat: At this point it’s imperative we as coaches know our boundaries. We are not counsellors and our clients need to understand this as well. Don’t get caught up trying to talk about issues you are not qualified to. Know when to refer out.
Give Them Your Why
There is nothing more frustrating than being made to do things that you don’t enjoy and don’t understand why you are doing them. If we can explain to clients why we do what we do it helps to provide them with some context, reassurance and understanding.
Educate – Education provides empowerment. An educated client is on the path to independence. When you educate your client it helps them to understand why they are doing what you have asked, this provides relevance to everything you do thus helping to keep a client motivated because now they see how your training and nutritional approaches fit into the larger picture of helping them achieve their goals.
Promote a Growth Mindset
The growth mindset, championed by Dr Carol Dweck from the University of Stanford, empowers people to understand that most traits we believe to be fixed (such as intelligence or willpower) can be developed. When people have a growth mindset, they focus on how they can improve instead of worrying how good they are at a certain task. This helps to motivate people during difficult times and allows people to differentiate between personal identity (“I’m a failure” or “I am fat”) and personal traits (“I failed” or “I have fat”), thus making the idea of change that much easier.
- End Of Day Reflection – At the end of each day ask your client to answer three simple questions.
- “What did I learn today?”
- “What mistakes did I make that taught me something?”
- “What did I try hard at today?”
This allows them to see where they are improving, highlights skills they have today that they didn’t yesterday and reframes failure into an opportunity to learn and thus still make progress towards their goals despite a setback.
- Small Wins – Fuel transformative change by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are in reach. Tour de France winning team Sky call this “maximising the marginal gains”. Instead of eliminating fizzy drinks cut back on them two nights a week, change a large cappuccino to a black coffee, walk to work instead of taking the bus , eat one portion or fruit per day (when they didn’t eat any before).There are hundreds of small wins we can find for our clients. Whilst they will be a benefit on their own they have the greater power of building an environment of success that tells your client change is possible.
- Encourage Effort, Not Results – It sounds counterintuitive considering all clients will come to you looking for a result. Results can be a powerful motivator, you only have to look at the set up of most slimming clubs to understand this. Results, however, only provide fleeting motivation and can lead to less than sustainable practices as people do anything in order to achieve a certain result – such as people taking laxatives prior to slimming club weigh-ins. It also begs the question: what do you do when your client does achieve good results? Instead, praise their efforts. The effort they put into food preparation, the effort they put in to getting to the gym after a long day of work or their effort during the session itself. This helps build the long-term habit of effort whilst simultaneously focusing your client’s mind on what they have under their control.
- Focus on Process Goals Over Outcome Goals – As I alluded to in the previous paragraph -whilst your clients will come to you with a result or outcome in mind, our goal is to focus their attention on the process rather than the outcome. Examples of process goals may include attending the gym 3 times per week, eating a portion of protein in the morning everyday this week, drinking 5 glasses of water per day – you name it. Anything that gets people looking to develop good behaviours rather just losing weight, for example. Focusing on process goals will eventually materialise into the physical results your clients desired. The reverse cannot be said when an emphasis is placed on outcome goals.
I think this could easily be a blog post in itself but I will keep it short. Habits are the cornerstones of our behaviours and if we are to form a healthy lifestyle that we can maintain then learning to develop new (positive) habits is a must.
“We are what we repeatedly do, therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit”- Aristotle.
- Start Small, Go Slow- As noted in Leo Babauta’s book “The Power of Less”, if we look to change more than three things at once then you have a less than 15% chance of sticking to these new changes or habits. Now think of the hundreds of things people try to change when starting a new diet and it’s easy to see why the vast majority of diets fail long term. Start small by focusing on the smallest changes that will have the biggest impact. Your client should be >95% certain they can maintain this habit. If it’s lower than 95% then you need to make the habit easier until they are almost certain they can maintain it.
- The Power Of Intention – Write down when and where you will carry out new goals or behaviours and it provides a 300% greater chance of following through. Write down those early morning gym sessions or food preparation nights into your diary if new behaviours are going to have the best chance of sticking around.
- Habits of Awareness – Habits of awareness do exactly as they say on the tin. They provide your client with some context of where they currently find themselves. A nutritional approach to this would be tracking food intake either for a week or a few days per week, to bring awareness. Thank you Coach Stevo for this one.
- Use an Existing Trigger To Develop New Habits. In order to initiate a habit we require a trigger to initiate the routine. Use your client’s current routine to help build new habits. This is done by simply listing two columns. In one column list everything that your client does throughout a day e.g. cleaning their teeth or driving to work. In the second column get your client to write down all the things that happens to them during the day e.g. sun rises, postman delivers post etc. Then simply match the trigger that best fits your new habit. A recent example for myself was trying to incorporate meditation. The best trigger for me was when I make coffee each morning. Therefore when I put the kettle on in the morning that triggered me to go and start some meditation.
Plan for Failure
We are not perfect, we are not robots and even the best athletes or fitness models have bad days. So that leaves us with two options. Firstly, we could delude ourselves into thinking this time we will be perfect forever and a day. Or secondly we can acknowledge we are going to encounter failure at some point and that it would be prudent to put strategies in place to deal with it. Failing or having some form of setback cannot be avoided but it can be controlled. We can look to minimise the detrimental effects of these setbacks if we plan accordingly.
- If-then Planning – If X happens, then I will do Y. “If I miss my gym session I will go for an evening walk”, “If I run out of vegetables I will go to the shop on the way home”, “If it gets to 2pm and I haven’t had any fruit I will go and buy some from the canteen”. If-then planning provides contingency plans when life gets busy. Look at your client’s top priorities to achieving their goals and provide if-then strategies for each one,
- Have a Fall Back Plan To Maintain Momentum – Fall-backs are another form of contingency planning. They allow your client to still feel they are making forward progress even when things are going slightly wrong. This can prevent the old fashioned “Ah, fuck it “ all or nothing type of attitude. Fall-backs should be the absolute minimum that your client KNOWS they can do when it comes to their goals. For example if a client has the goal of eating fruit or veg with each meal then their fall back plan would be to eat fruit or veg at just one meal. Providing an upper and lower limit to their goals removes the fixation on perfectionism that can often hinder people’s progress.
- Analyse Why You Failed In The Past- One of the most powerful ways to prevent failure in the future is look at why your client failed in the past. You can do this with a simple recall task, ask you client to reflect on it for a few days or ask them to note time anytime they feel like bingeing or missed a workout. Did they stay up late the night before and missed a workout due to tiredness? Did they skip prepping meals on Wednesday only to eat junk all day Thursday? Do they regularly crave a muffin a 3pm each day due to boredom at work? This process allows us to identify patterns and triggers of bad habits. Once identified we can look to alter these patterns and remove triggers. This process transforms failure into a leaning experience and reinforces the growth mindset we previously mentioned.
Create an Environment That Fosters Willpower
As many of us who have had that extra slice of cheesecake can attest to willpower is a limited resource that we “spend” throughout the day. When willpower is low we are far more likely to give into our impulses instead of delaying gratification as we work towards our long-term goals. Thanks to the work of Kelly McGonigal and James Clear for many of the additions to this section.
- Meditation –Meditation or even just slow methodical breathing of 4-6 breaths per minute can help to lower stress. This helps to activate the prefrontal cortex, increasing heart rate variability and helping to refocus from a state of stress to one of self-control. Start at just one or two minutes per day, potentially progressing up to 20. This is direct quote from McGonigal’s book the Willpower Instinct “One study found that a daily twenty-minute practice of slowed breathing increased heart rate variability and reduced cravings and depression among adults recovering from substance abuse and post traumatic stress disorder”. Meditation or slow breathing can provide huge bang for your buck.
- Green Exercise. As I mentioned in previous articles green exercise is any physical activity that gets you outside. Just five minutes can reduce stress; improve mood and boost self-control. You are essentially topping up your client’s willpower reserve. Work with your client to look for ways to incorporate small amounts of green exercise into their day.
- Train Willpower By Practising Self Control. The mind is like a muscle; it can be trained to improve. Studies have shown that committing to any small, consistent act of self-control from cutting back on sweets to keeping track of your spending can increase overall willpower. It is not the act itself that is thought to be important, but the habit of noticing what you are about to do, and doing the more difficult or challenging thing instead. Therefore when your client is trying to make a big change simply look to make a small change first to practice self-control and strengthen willpower without overwhelming them.
- Minimise Decision Fatigue – Throughout the day we make an innumerable about of decisions from what to wear in the morning to the coffee you should drink on break etc. Decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions we make after a long session of decision-making. The mind is like a muscle and can get fatigued. Decision fatigue has been shown to be very powerful and diverse in its outcomes. For example, judges in courtrooms have been shown to make less than favourable decisions later in the day than earlier in the day. It also leaves people more prone to impulse buying and impaired self-regulation. How many clients have we had that do really well until the evening when they binge eat or crack open a bottle of wine? This in part is due to decision fatigue. As a result we want to provide our clients with some level of routine a.k.a. habits. Due to habits’ autonomous nature they induce little decision fatigue leaving your client with lots of willpower for when it’s need. Create routine for your clients and help them cut down on decisions. A great example of this would be to put all of the less than favourable diet food they have into one cupboard in the their kitchen. Therefore when they go to the kitchen to get something conducive to their goals, they are not confronted with a host of decisions to make as to whether they should resist certain foods when they see the cupboard full of junk. This incidentally is why I don’t like IIFYM for beginners – there are just way too many decisions to make, inducing decision fatigue and leaving them vulnerable to making poor choices.
- The Power of The Morning (Understanding Ego Depletion) – Ego depletion refers to the idea that willpower draws upon a limited pool of mental resources. When the energy for mental activity is low, self-control is typically impaired, which would be considered a state of ego depletion. We want to place new habits or mentally challenging task at the start of the day before the ego has been depleted. This also has the added bonus of starting what my fellow trainer Chris Richards calls the “success cascade” where starting off the day well will lead to further good choices throughout the remainder of the day. Anecdotally I personally believe this could be one of mechanism behind the success of intermittent fasting for certain individuals. It’s not the physiology of fasting but the matching of the difficult act (fasting) to a time when the individual has high amounts of self-control and thus they can eat in a more normal fashion when the ego is depleted later in the day. You really can’t separate physiology from psychology.
- Design for Laziness – Evolving in an energy scarce environment means us humans can be inherently lazy. We want to conserve energy and most tasks are viewed with a cost to benefit comparison. Whilst we normally consider this to be detrimental trait, we can actually use it to our advantage. A great example would be if I wanted to stop eating less chocolate. If the chocolate is in my kitchen then it is very easy for me to get up and grab a bar. The cost of walking five meters is low and it has the benefit of nice tasting chocolate. Now if I remove that chocolate from my house entirely if I really, really want a bar of chocolate I have to leave the house, drive to the shop and buy chocolate. The cost is far greater and more often than not it will deter me from having the chocolate bar. I have designed for laziness. Look at your client’s environment and look to design for laziness by giving those habits or behaviours you are trying to avoid a “high cost”.
Firstly let me say if you made it this far well done to you! 5000 words is certainly a longer post than I would have liked, but I felt it important to get the information down.
Secondly let me say this is far from a definitive list, I am sure there are hundreds more strategies and methods to implement and not all of these will work for yourself or clients. To quote Bruce Lee;
“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
My goal with this article was not to provide a list of “willpower strategies”. The psychology of behaviour change is a complex mosaic that will not be fixed with a few “life hacks”. I simply want to make people more aware that as coaches many of our clients need us to not only be good mechanics but also good driving instructors if they are to have a chance at sustainability.
As I learn more I hope to add to my understanding and expand the list. PLEASE by all means if you have strategies you have implemented with success please place them in the comment section. Discussion and sharing of ideas can only help to move our understanding forward, allowing us to help more people.
Most people know what to do; they just don’t know how to stick to it.
Maybe long-term behavioural change just isn’t sexy enough for some people; it certainly wouldn’t sell many magazines. However the sad truth is that as it stands with an increasingly overweight population, we in the “health and fitness” industry are failing.
How many times do we have to send someone on this hard and fast approach to weight loss before we reconsider our approaches? In my opinion we must look beyond simply attempting to give better nutritional advice or training plans and actually focus on helping people stick to the plans!
The world needs better coaches, not just better trainers.