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Why do I need coaching skills to be a better Personal Trainer?

We chose this profession because we want to help our clients develop and sustain fit lifestyles. One-on-one personal training helps many but often falls short with people who have difficulty sticking with a program. Just like people who go on diets and soon regain the weight they lost, many training clients start out enthusiastically but later regress to sedentary lifestyles.

Behavioral psychologist James Prochaska, Ph.D., has provided a way to help us evaluate how ready our clients are to change so we can adapt our training strategies to each individual’s personal readiness. Other behavioral science principles that trainers apply include helping our clients develop and commit to concrete plans and SMART goals, and then providing the training support and supervision to help them get there one step at a time.

But our power as trainers is still limited when it comes to those “reluctant” clients who have difficulty staying with a program. Now, however, there’s a new approach for health and fitness professionals –  supported by the emerging worlds of life and corporate coaching combined with more traditional counseling skills. While you may consider yourself a great coach, you may be lacking the background and training to provide a systematic coaching process and invaluable coaching skills.

The problem is trainers, just like all other health and fitness experts, including doctors,nurses, dietitians, and physical therapists, are very good at solving client problems and providing the answers for them. We are confident that we can solve any problem and we can’t wait to tell our clients what to do.

However, life coaches, counselors, and therapists have the opposite perspective. They believe that clients have the ability to find their own answers, and that the job of the professional is to help the client explore and discover his or her own answers, rather than offer a prescription. In order to achieve this,the coach must develop a strong personal relationship with the client. When that is achieved, the coach can then help the client to think deeply, reflect, clarify and focus, and make decisions – and ultimately develop the mindset needed to change. We could call this the fit mindset.

Life coaches also believe that an early step in their process is to help people align their most important life values with their goals,and thereby connect with a deeply-desired vision of the person they want to be.

So as trainers, we have a powerful opportunity to learn new coaching skills and add coaching sessions (telephone or face-to- face)using a systematic process to training programs. This transforms the way we work with our clients, and helps them to make changes that they can sustain.

Two important coaching skills for personal trainers:

First, coaching people to find their own answers.

The most important distinction between coaching and training is that coaches focus TOTALLY on the client’s agenda. They silence their own agendas – and ignore the voices in their heads that are dying to tell their clients what to do.

Coaches focus on asking powerful, open-ended questions (i.e., what would it take…) that send the message to their clients “I believe that you know the answer and can solve this problem.” They “listen until they don’t exist,”and give feedback on what they heard their client say (both the facts and the emotions)rather than saying what’s on their own minds.

Coaches skillfully navigate the inquiry and discussion to a place where clients have one or more “ah-ha” moments — finding the truth (or as Reality Therapists call it — getting real), evaluating possible solutions, deciding to take action, and committing to the next step. Their clients then feel empowered, in charge, and energized by their discovery and commitment to move forward. And while the coach didn’t give the client the answers, the coaching approach was critical in helping him/her get there.

Developing the skills to help clients find their own answers requires training, and takes weeks and months of practice, and years to polish. Of course, personal trainers are still the experts, but as coaches, we should wear our expert hats and give advice no more than 50 percent of the time, and devote the other 50 percent to helping clients discover and develop their own answers.

Second, helping clients commit to a personal vision. An early step in a systematic coaching process is to help people connect with a personal vision that they feel inspired to reach.Life coaches and Reality Therapists believe that profound change happens when people connect to a vision of the person they really want to be. A vision sounds something like “I want to be a great role model for my children” or “I want to have the energy and vitality to enjoy life to the fullest.” Visions like these lift people’s focus beyond the more banal “I want to lose 20 pounds” or “I want to exercise three days a week.”

Even if the vision feels out of reach, clients can typically identify some behaviors that they are confident they can perform – things that the person they want to be would do. This takes their focus away from the tough job of resolving any issues that might sabotage a healthy lifestyle, and shifts their focus to the easier task of taking the first behavioral steps. After that it doesn’t take long for a client to feel and think more like the person in their vision, and develop the confidence needed to support change.

Reproduced from ACSM’s Certified News, Volume 14, Number 2 (April-June 2004)

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