Coaching and Personal Training:

Synonyms or Polar Opposites

by Phil Kaplan

Q: Phil, I read your article about the 3-bases assessment and hoped you could share some insight into how you know how to motivate and coach your clients. I have a B.S. in Exercise Science, I have N.A.S.M. and N.S.C.A. certification, and I have a pretty strong reputation. I just get frustrated when clients drop out, strike out, or find excuses for a lack of adherence. I want to accept "respons-ability" as you suggest, but . . . I sometimes feel I can only provide the map, I can't get people to follow the road. I want to believe I can get better at delivering results, but I need a bit of direction from the master.

A: I remember being asked at a Club Industry conference several years ago in Chicago to cover for a speaker who failed to show up. I don't remember the precise title of the session, but it was built around the word "Coaching." The program summary spelled out the curriculum as if a wonderful new profit opportunity was going to be revealed. The message seemed to be, "you, as a personal trainer, are missing out, if you fail to find credential as a Wellness Coach."


I'll admit, 16 hours before the session, when I was first asked to replace the missing speaker, I had no idea what the term "Wellness Coaching" meant. I mean, the term appeared to be self explanatory . . . but the vague and alluring session description led me to believe there's some element of this specialty that required a new type of knowledge.

I made some phone calls. I searched on the web. I found my way to people who offer Coaching certifications as well as to people who advertised themselves as Wellness Coaches. I interviewed them, trying to distinguish what the difference was between an effective Personal Fitness Trainer and an effective "coach."

Here are a few of the answers I received:

  • Trainers prescribe exercise, coaches assist people in making better decisions
  • Coaches incorporate psychology and deal as much with the head as with the body
  • Coaches listen and use the client's words and expressions of goals and frustrations to initiate action

I sat in my hotel room scratching my head, still trying to identify the difference. Then it hit me. There isn't a need for a new credential as much as there's a need to identify where even well-educated personal trainers may be falling short.

  • I, and the trainers I employ, not only prescribe exercise, but we begin by identifying motivational triggers, goals, and desires. We examine outlook and history and we assess how solid the link is between the desired change and the perceived plan of action. We then assist the client in making better decisions.
  • I, and the trainers I employ, not only prescribe exercise, but we identify false beliefs, we teach, assess, and ask the clients to playback ideas and concepts to ensure comprehension. We are in our clients heads. We must be in our clients heads. After all, we guarantee results and we understand that mindset may be the predominant determinant of adherence.
  • I, and the trainers I employ, recognize that we cannot effectively prescribe exercise unless we smoke out the client's challenges, and provide strategies to overcome obstacles.

What hit me wasn't a sudden understanding of the distinction between personal training and coaching, but rather the commonality between effective trainers who recognize the need for a holistic overview and the new breed of individuals who are adding a Coaching certification to their list of credentials.

In the hours before the session I continued to search the web and pulled up statistical promises that held various types of "coaching" up as the next wave. The articles I perused had nothing to do with the image that came to my mind when I thought of a coach. No clipboard. No whistle. No screaming on the sidelines. Business coaches, life coaches, and wellness coaches were supposed to emerge as great saviors helping mankind address the stresses and struggles inherent in the 21st century.

My intention is not to in any way downplay the virtues of any coaching credentials, but I do hope to stimulate thought and conversation that helps escalate the power and the perception of those who commit to earning their livings by bettering the lives of others. Whether or not you opt to study "coaching," if you fail to integrate psychology, motivation, goal setting, and ongoing direction into your exercise-based business, results will be severely limited. I don't intend, in a single article, to provide you with a foundation of knowledge that will allow you to expand the scope of your perceived client responsibility, but I do want to inspire you to enhance your knowledge incorporating the mental, nutritional, emotional, and physical elements that unbreakably connect with exercise programming.

As trainers we think of the assessment as a physical measurement of present ability and body composition. We assess strength, flexibility, coordination and balance, and percentage of bodyfat. For most trainers it stops there. The assessment is used as a tool to confirm results. The hope is that a 90-day follow up will reveal body composition improvements and enhanced performance ability.

I begin the assessment with an uncovering of emotion and an exploration of perspective. In fact, I'm usually 30 minutes into the consultory conversation before I find the radial artery and begin the physical component of the measuring process.

I'll share a few of the elements I assess and a handful of the methodologies I've learned to use to gain complete perspective and ensure the client moves toward desired results.

A New Way To Approach the "Goals" Question

Before I get into any discussion of exercise, I want to understand the new client's goals and want to make certain expectations are mutually accurate. I begin with the following question:

"If you get everything you want from our trainer : client relationship, what specifically will be different in your life?"

That's a very powerful question. It opens up a dialogue. It allows me to identify a perspective that I'll either need to embrace or modify. It typically evokes a specific response identifying primary goals and aspirations. The next step is to pinpont perceptions of time frame and to assess whether anticipated achievements are realistic.

"Describe for me the specific changes that will take place over the first six months."

After they respond, I prompt another response with two words.

"One year?"

With the beginnings of "goals" now on the figurative table, I begin to explore precisely what will motivate or demotivate the client.

Which Buttons Should I Push?

I plan on releasing a book toward the end of 2007 sharing the complete strategy I've developed over the past 20 years for eliciting motivational types, but for now suffice it to say I want to learn whether they are more driven by moving toward a specific outcome or away from a specific pain. Questions and continued dialogue help me understand what verbal, auditory, and kinesthetic triggers will serve as allies in facilitating adherence and follow-through.

Next I use a simple form with a 1-5 rating system that the client will use to evaluate perspective on each of the following concepts:

    • Level of Exercise
    • Level of Activity
    • Athletic Ability
    • Importance of Fitness
    • Exercise Enthusiasm

Just as you'd establish a baseline for your physical tests, this establishes a perspective baseline. The answers are objective and in a follow-up, assuming I live up to my responsibilities, they will always be higher.

I immediately proceed to the next questions:

What do you believe is the primary obstacle that might make "stick-to-it-iveness" challenging?

What do you believe might most hinder your results?

By recognizing early on what the challenges will be, I can immediately begin directing self-talk to help the client persevere beyond what might have previously felt like crippling obstacles.

Keep in mind, we still haven't touched skinfold calipers. We sit face to face, eye-to-eye, bringing out the thoughts that have the potential to limit or facilitate "results."

I have two more questions I want answers to before I count pulse beats or strap on a blood pressure cuff.

What is your most pressing fitness goal?

You might think this is repetitive, but it many cases it reveals a previously unclarified priority. As an example, when I ask how life will be different six months from now, I might hear about energy changes, fitting in clothes better, and developing the confidence to pursue new undertakings. when I ask for the most pressing goal, that same individual might grab a handful of bodypart and say something to the effect of, "I want to get rid of this." Clearly they don't want to get rid of a bodypart, but the answer reveals that if I can help evidence progress in the perceived "trouble spot," I've got a hooked client.

The final pre-physical assessment question is:

What specific changes would you like to see in the mirror?

I realize, at first glance, this may also appear repetitive, but in many cases it provides vital information.

We all communicate and learn using visual, auditory, and kinestethic interaction, but each person is unique in how they subconsciously prioritize these stimuli. In other words, some people are more visually oriented, but others are more driven by "feelings." Visual people will typically answer the earlier questions by including some aesthetic changes, but auditory and kinesthetic folks might omit how they want to "look." We are so conditioned to use visual stimuli, such as before and after photos, to market ourselves that we may tend to assume everyone has a primary goal based on the camera lens. That is an example of short-sighted thinking. I make certain to integrate all three elements into my client interaction, but I also attempt to identify the mode in which the client is most comfortable communicating in.

Kinesthetic and auditory people may not share aesthetic goals, until prompted. Thus, "what specific changes would you like to see in the mirror" tends to at times be a vital question for determining how the before and after photo will ideally look.

I've taken a long and winding road toward providing the insight you seek, but I hope my response offers some value in helping you refine your presentation and connect with client motivation at a higher level. The assessment is not the key, but it's the first step. After the preliminary dialogue, a program can be designed along with an establishment of milestones that serve as stepping stones toward the long range goals.

That brings us full circle. We listen, we assist in decision making, we inspire, we direct, and we motivate. That's how we go beyond providing the map. That's how we get people to follow the road.

I now realize that translates to two simple words, "we coach."

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