In this column, we explore how to coach a client, Alice, who is working out but not sticking to the workout program that you gave her. She is rushing through her gym program and seems to be neglecting all the things she does not like. Those things happened to be the most important parts of her program! Let’s consider what is driving Alice.
Self-motivation — Alice’s power source
Our first and primal drive as human beings is autonomy. We want to march to our own drummers, to be “the boss of me.” This drive is so strong that it triggers a deeply wired and very fast response to being told what to do— to resist or rebel—without a whole lot of analysis. Our knee-jerk rebellion is so powerful that it can lead us to do things that are not in our best interest.
If you have teenage kids, you can appreciate how telling kids what to do for 13 years turns them into rebellious teenagers who are sick and tired of living a life with too little autonomy at home and school. We never lose our natural and spontaneous aversion to being told what to do, especially in response to a “know- it-all” expert who doesn’t fully empathize and appreciate what it’s like to walk in our shoes and what is important to us. Sometimes we are compliant with what an expert asks us to do in order to please the expert, avoid conflict, and stay out of trouble. But sometimes we are defiant; we quietly or loudly resist the authoritative expert and their control over our destiny.
Alice likely doesn’t agree with you on what’s important in her workout and may not yet be interested or curious enough to deepen her understanding of how different exercises impact her physical strength and fitness. She simply may be rebelling against your insistence on what she should do and expressing her need for autonomy by doing what she wants to do.
A coaching inquiry might include asking Alice open-ended questions, with a smile and not even a smidgeon of impatience, such as:
1. What do you hope will be the benefit of physical strength and vitality for you?
2. How will engaging in your workout make your life better?
3. Would you like to brainstorm with me on how the various exercises in your work- out will contribute to the benefit of exercise in making your life better?
4. What is working for you with the current workout and what is not?
5. How can I better support you to realize the benefit of physical fitness?
Your goal is to help Alice dig out and fire up her self-motivation, the kind that is future-oriented—why the exercises really matter to her and how they will make her life better later today, tomorrow, and in the future. You will help Alice discover and tap into her own future-oriented power source or drive to engage in the exercises she doesn’t like or seem to want to do.
We inadvertently create resistance to our advice when we convey a know-it-all attitude through what we say, how we say it, our body language, and unsaid words. This can send a message which seems judgmental and autonomy-depleting to Alice, causing her to pull away and not open up with you. Really start to listen intently to Alice without thinking about what you are going to say next, or any other distraction. This will help Alice get the message that you really care about what it’s like to walk in her shoes, what matters to her most, and that you’re completely focused on her well-being, not on her compliance to your prescribed workout.
The more genuine interest you show about what makes Alice’s life worth living and lights up her eyes, the more she will tell you about what matters most to her. Then a collaborative conversation on how her workout can make it possible for Alice to have a better life and will lead to a new workout design that Alice helped create, leading to her full engagement in a workout that she owns. Now she can march through her workout to her own drummer, a drummer that wants a bigger life, one made possible by a body which is fit, strong, and brimming with energy.
Originally published in ACSM Certified News Coaching Column