The Trainer-Client Relationship
Q: Hey TG- I’ll keep this short and sweet.
So I’ve got a couple clients that have asked the awkward question “will I ever be able to do a pullup?” I really don’t like telling people what they can’t do. They come to me for solutions, ya know? Anyways, how do you approach the question and a)maintain their respect and b)let them know it’s not likely they’ll be able to anytime soon for valid reasons (or if at all) without damaging their psyche.
Thanks brotha! Donovan.
A: That’s an excellent question, and something I elected to answer here on the website (rather than email) as it’s something I feel a lot of personal trainers and coaches struggle with:
The Client/Athlete-Coach Relationship
I’ve always said that being a great fitness professional comes down to 50% great coaching and 50% not being an a-hole.
Lets break it down like this.
1. It’s implied that having book smarts – understanding anatomy, program design, assessment, nutrition, biomechanics, physiology, etc – is the foundation for any level of success as a fitness professional.
The other layer that many tend to gloss over, though, is the practical application of said book smarts.
Yelling isn’t coaching
In short: despite popular belief, you can’t just read about “stuff” and expect to be an expert or an authority on any given topic.
You actually have to have the ability to learn and absorb what you read, and then possess the ability to apply it into real-life situations.
This is why internet warriors are a dime a dozen. [Note: I’m not referring to you, Donovan].
Many can brag about all the books they’ve read, DVDs they’ve watched, and how many gold stars are next to their name – or, if we’re referring to the upper echelon of nerdom, weapons their Avatar has collected over the years – because they’ve accumulated 20,000 posts in some random fitness forum.1
Yet, most would fail miserably when plopped onto a gym floor and asked to coach someone through their first squat or deadlift session.
2. The other part is not being an a-hole. I think Mike Boyle was the first to crack the whip on this component of coaching – and he’s 100% spot on.
You can be the second coming of Mel Siff and sleep with a copy of SuperTraining underneath your pillow (which is weird), but if you speak down to people, make them feel stupid or inferior, and just act like a jerk all the time…no one is going to want to train with you.
Much less pay you money to do so.
Well, there’s that and some people just have no feel or are socially awkward. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, I’ve been known to choreograph at least 17 lightsaber battles per day at work; and yes, there was that one time I showed up with no pants on. But it was just once. Okay, twice.2 No biggie.
Being quirky or silly or different from time to time is one thing. That’s part of what makes different people different, and sometimes charming.
Quoting Wes Anderson movies = quirky, charming, and totally not socially awkward.
Quoting Wes Anderson movies (to a room of your invisible friends) = we need to talk.
I’ve been around some trainers and coaches who, when a 15-year old athlete does something wrong on his or her’s squat, will go off on some biomechanical diatribe on knee-valgus, Q-angle, external rotation torque, etc, and then look at the athlete afterwards as if to say “DUH, didn’t you know that?”
That’s one approach – which isn’t wrong per se. Or you could just say something like “push your knees out.”
That’s what I’m referring to when I say “having a lack of feel.”
And that’s what happens, often, when (some) trainers and coaches rely on their book smarts.
So this is a perfect scenario where both sides of the coin collide. You need to be a coach, but also a good “people person” as well.
So Here’s My Actual Answer to the Question
They hired you to be their coach, not their best friend.
This is NOT to insinuate you have to play the evil, diabolical, I have no feelings, and I-take-myself-way-too-seriously strength coach card. That’s just silly.
As you and I both know, we often develop meaningful, long-lasting relationships with many of our clients, some of which end up becoming close friends.
However, I’m not sure that “sugar-coating” things is the best approach here. Saying something along the lines of “there, there, we’ll get there soon,” won’t really accomplish anything in the long run.
It’s what I like to call this Expectation Management.
A perfect example?
I’d like to drive a tank to work everyday, but that’s probably not going to happen.
Will your clients be able to perform a pull-up today, next week, a month from now? Probably not. And I think it behooves you to tell them that. Be honest. Take the time to explain to them why. If it’s because of a handful of postural issues, tell them. If it’s due to a past injury, tell them. If it’s because they’re just too weak and they’re just not quite at that level (yet!), tell them.
But as their coach you can re-assure them that, while you can’t promise anything, you’re going to work to the best of your ability to help them achieve their goal. And that if they follow your lead, listen to what you have to say, recognize that it’s going to require work, and stay consistent along the way, they’ll be proud of themselves no matter what the result is.
[And, most likely, they will succeed].
This way some of (if not the majority of) the onus is on them. Hopefully they’ll adopt a degree of accountability on their end and take ownership of their own actions.
1. You’re the man (or girl). They hired YOU.
2. Don’t be an a-hole.
3. Tanks are awesome.
4. Be honest.