One of the key ways in which personal trainers influence their clients is through their use of language. In some instances this can be something as straightforward as the occasional ‘well done’, but in others it’s a more nuanced skill.
In recent years, especially with the increase in reliance on the internet, there have been progressively polar swings in opinion when it comes to exercise and nutrition. As a result we hear more and more that a particular approach is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The truth, however, is much less specific and is in fact conditional on circumstances and perspective.
A great example of this is when going through food diaries with clients. Far too often it can be tempting to label their choices as good or bad, but this comes with certain drawbacks. Firstly, it implies that those choices are absolutes, when in fact there are occasions when even doughnuts or pizza can be beneficial. Secondly, it levies criticism against the client for making a bad choice.
The truth of the matter is that everyone, regardless of their goals, situation or experience, makes the best decision they can in any given circumstance. It’s often only in hindsight that they reflect on potentially better options. The reason that this is so difficult a concept to grasp is that the immediacy of ‘now’ often trumps the needs of ‘later’.
Consider the client struggling to lose weight. They eat well during the week, maybe even tracking their calories and possibly even their macronutrients. All week their behaviour helps to move them towards their goals. Maybe they even continue with their behaviours as they pass a typical weekend. All progresses as it should until they meet up with friends for a ‘quick drink after work’. At which point they consume more calories from alcohol and fast food than they’ve created a deficit to balance, and all their hard work is undone. How do you discuss this with them? Do you question their commitment, their motivation or even their honesty? Do you patiently explain the ‘cost’ of their decision and its impact on their progress?
Fortunately, but also frustratingly, there is no one correct answer. There are, however, perspectives and considerations that may help ensure the client moves forwards as positively and optimistically as possible.
- ‘ntage of the time were the client’s actions helpful? In the example above, the answer is possibly well over 80% of the time. The issue is the weighting of the ‘wobble’ itself in caloric terms, rather than their overall compliance with their goals. Rather than focus exclusively on the one occasion they overindulge, focus instead on the fact that they’re super focused and taking positive action for the vast majority of the time. Make sure the language used reflects their successes, and avoid using the words ‘but’, ‘sort of’, ‘kind of’ or ‘almost’. Instead make definite statements that praise the actions that are genuinely helpful.
- Smooth seas don’t breed good sailors. For clients to experience genuine long-term success, they need to experience periodic struggles or challenges. It’s often said that only the challenges we face offer us the opportunity for real and meaningful change. Because of this, it’s important for coaches to focus on what can be learnt from the occasion. Maybe the client has social needs that aren’t being met and as a result, loses perspective when immersed in a social environment. Maybe their choices when socialising could be better directed or better mitigated by tweaking or changing their behaviours. Regardless of the specifics, it’s important for coaches to focus on the actions that were helpful and what can be done to help improve the client’s progress. Recognise that each challenge the client encounters provides them with an opportunity to learn and grow.
- Is there a positive way of saying that? Depending on the statistics you read, the average child grows up hearing up to three times more negative instructions than positive. As a result our language can develop a negative bias, with more of a focus on what ‘not’ to do than the positive actions we can implement. An example of this might be in how we cue an exercise. Rather than ‘don’t bend your arms’, try ‘keep your arms straight’. Instead of ‘you shouldn’t consume as many refined carbohydrates’, consider ‘you’re going to be increasing your consumption of nutrient-dense foods’. The difference may seem like one of semantics, but the psychological ramifications are significant. When pointing out what not to do, the implication is that the client has already done something wrong and by association failed. When focusing on positive actions, there is no judgement of past activity and instead only an opportunity for the client to improve.
In spite of all of the above, it is important to recognise that some clients will live with an external locus of control; that is, life determines their direction. The goal of the good coach is to move the client, through the use of appropriate language, to an internal locus of control, where they recognise that their actions (which are completely within their control) determine the direction in which their lives move. While these clients can only be challenging, persistence in reframing their perspective can lead to much greater levels of satisfaction when they do change.
Regardless of the coach or the client, we have complete control of the lenses through which we see the world. Choosing your words carefully helps make sure that the client sees the world through the best lens possible and that you communicate in the most helpful manner you can.