At a time when the need for qualified fitness professionals is at an all-time high, it’s hard to understand why so many instructors and personal trainers struggle to fill classes or find clients. As an industry, we are trained first to analyze the fitness professional’s choice of credentials, protocols, programming or products to determine rate of success or failure. While each of these are undoubtedly important, there’s something far less objective that we should start weighing a bit more heavily: your communication acumen. What you say, and even what you don’t say, could be the very thing that is standing between your success in the fitness biz!
In the ’70s, a quest to uncover the secrets that separate the average from the excellent led Richard Bandler and John Grinder to develop the field of study known as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). NLP, defined as, “a model about the unique world of subjective human behavior and communication, “ is a perfect area to explore when looking to up your game! (Dilts, R. et al. 1980)
NLP may sound like something between rocket science and brain surgery, but it’s actually pretty simple to understand when you look at the individual words. Neuro refers to the nervous system, including our five senses, while linguistic refers to both the verbal and nonverbal symbols by which we code and transmit meaning. And programming is our ability to structure our neurological and linguistic systems to achieve results. NLP helps you unlock the subtle updates you can make that will lead to enhanced communication to achieve what you want or need.
Without diving too deep, here is a quick NLP primer and a few quick coaching hacks that can make a difference for you, the fitness professional:
NLP and the Fitness Professional
One of NLP’s primary presuppositions is summed up in the simple statement: Everyone lives in a unique reality. Your first assignment is to tattoo this saying on your forehead! All kidding aside, it’s an important statement to think about, commit to memory and use as a filter before each and every interaction. Your client brings their unique reality to the table and so do you. How you navigate the great divide between these two worlds determines your success, as well as theirs.
As a fitness pro, you like fitness. That is your reality. Your background, studies, experiences, and history shape your approach to health and wellness. From time to time, we impose our approach on our clients like a one-size-fits-all T-shirt. While this may be well-intentioned, it elicits a different response from each and every person you meet which may lead to success but might also backfire. Remembering that everyone is an individual who brings lots of “stuff” to the table will help you approach each person as a subject instead of an object. And when we approach people as subjects instead of objects, we begin to coach rather than dictate, thus empowering our clients in ways we never dreamed possible. The rest of our NLP Nuggets stem from this presupposition.
NLP Nugget #1: Orientation toward outcomes rather than problems.
When something isn’t working in a class or a training session, instead of perceiving a problem, try to shift to remembering the outcome you desire, then deliver an alternative for its achievement. The client is never the problem; the situation is. And your job as a coach-- whether one-to-one or en masse--is to adjust the situation to resolve the problem for the client (not you!). Establishing clear goals for a class will help.
Each workout you design should have big-picture goals as well as small-picture goals: the overall “outcome” of the workout and the milestones you’ll need to achieve along the way. Think of each session as an assignment in English Composition 101. You’ll need a topic sentence (the overall outcome) that is clearly stated and easily understood, as well as within the control of the client. Then think of four or five supporting statements (intermediary milestones) that all lead to achieving the overall goal. This one change in planning will have a profound impact on a client’s ability to make sense of the workout and make smart choices to feel successful, versus blindly following you on the journey and hoping for the best.
NLP Nugget #2: Ask how rather than why questions.
Another strategy for ensuring success in your classes or training sessions is to always ask, “How can I make this work?” versus “Why isn’t this working?” For example, instead of, “Why is she still not getting this right?” (and immediately jumping to the conclusion that form needs to be corrected through a hands-on adjustment), consider how can you change the cue or the ask to elicit a better response. Is there a way to restate? Could you provide more information to help her make a better choice? Did you give her enough space or time to practice and adjust her performance?
Always trust that everyone is doing their best. Not many people walk into a training session or class dead-set on making your life miserable or getting it all wrong. Of course, there are exceptions! When you approach your clients with how this could be done differently, how you could do better and how it could work for each individual, you will come up with solutions. And being armed with more solutions will help you make more clients feel successful!
NLP Nugget #3: Feedback vs. Failure.
Clients should never get something wrong. NLP assumes that all “responses” are useful in some context, and feedback delivered should be focused on self-realization versus pointing out shortcomings. You may have been taught to ease feedback by creating a “compliment sandwich.” This means providing a positive observation (e.g., “Wow, I like that you’re using a heavier weight today!”), followed by the negative observation (e.g., “Now that you’re using that heavier weight, be sure to avoid swinging the weight to execute the curl.”), and completed with another positive (e.g., “Love the effort!”). With this example, you’re still pointing out what is going wrong (failure) versus using the opportunity for self-realization, and empowering the client to own the behavior and modify.
Try this instead: “On this next rep, turn sideways and see if your torso remains relatively stable while you’re lifting the weight. Ah! What did you see? Did you notice that subtle movement? Can you do it again and keep the upper body quiet?” Do you see the difference? You are no longer pointing out the “failure.” Rather, you are asking them to observe and answer a question, then stating (in the positive) the goal for the next rep aimed at altering the behavior. I know it seems like a bit more work, but it’s worth it.
Now, in a group setting, this approach is a bit more challenging. You can still work general cues like this into the class. But you should also avoid the stock comments and critiques that come along with most class instruction. Instead, try to find one or two areas to focus on for each exercise, drill or section of class (versus a laundry list of things that “could” be going wrong to watch out for). Look for ways to provide feedback versus feelings of failure
NLP Nugget #4: Consider possibilities rather than necessities.
Being locked into a program will equal disaster for many clients. Regardless of how much effort you put into preparing a session or a class, your ability to remain fluid and adjust your approach based on the cues you receive will enhance your coaching. Always have a framework with goals, as we’ve discussed. Consistently read and react. Consider the workout a meandering journey versus a swift march to the finish line.
Certifications, protocols, concepts and philosophies are abundant in the fitness industry. And as you’ve probably witnessed, plenty of contradictions exist and information tends to change over time. If you continue your career with an open mind, you will seek alternative solutions and suggestions, challenge the status quo and remember to never throw the baby out with the bath water when you learn something new. So many trends and fads, magic bullets and opinions on what is right and wrong in our world… Who is the ultimate authority? You are. What is going to work for you and help your clients fall in love with fitness is all you need to consider? Now of course, keep people safe, but consider all the possibilities instead of assuming something is true because your initial training textbook said it is so!
NLP Nugget #5: Adopt an attitude of curiosity & fascination rather than making assumptions.
Finally, along the same lines as above, continue to be curious. Not just about the fitness side of the business, but about each and every person with whom you come into contact. Take on the role of an interviewer versus the teacher; ask questions to dig deep. The more fascinated you become--with what makes people tick, fall in love with fitness, like your class or not, enjoy the workout or not--the more your world will open up. And the bigger your world, the more tools you’ll have in your toolbox. And the more tools, the more lives you can change!
Dilts, R., et al. 1980. Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Volume I: The Study of the Structure of Subjective Experience. Cupertino, CA: Meta Publications.