What do you do if your client comes to his session with a bad attitude after a bad day?

Jun 01, 2007

Tricks of the Trade

Grumpy faces and not-so-shiny dispositions are part of the package when you work with clients for the long haul. When a client comes in with storm clouds hovering over his head and negative talk spilling out, it is up to me to use what I know about him to make the session work for both of us.

I have created a handful of ways to approach the “bad day” attitude challenge with different personalities. One client responds well if I toss the workout plan and we head outdoors for a brisk walk. Other clients get what they need with an additional 10-minute “time-out” of fast-paced cardio or dynamic warm-up exercises to alleviate stress. Another client does best with a simplified workout in which he completes one set of everything—with little chatter from me—and spends longer on the stretch portion. I may also switch some exercises from client-only to partner- based. This strategy takes my sullen charge away from his negative thoughts to focus on what I am doing and helps him get into the swing of the training session.

A last resort, left over from my basketball coaching days when disgruntled players could disrupt a whole practice, is to send the client home. Although I have not had to do this often, it has had its place. My rule is to shut down the workout if it is falling apart after 20–30 minutes because the client cannot or will not focus on the task at hand. I explain why I am ending the session and give the client the opportunity to turn it around if she chooses. It is important to note that when I first begin working with a client, I make it clear that either the client or I can call off the session at any time if something is going wrong. On the odd occasions that I have taken this route, the clients were commonly startled that they were doing so poorly. They consciously shook off the bad reverie to complete the workout. For people who did leave early, their decision to go home ended up being their best bet for that day.

Diana Rochon, CSCS, NCCP
IDEA Elite Personal Fitness Trainer
Director, Dynamic Core Fitness
Whistler, British Columbia

Our stressed-out, fast-paced society creates negative energy that my clients sometimes carry with them into our sessions. My goal is to change the energy from negative to positive. To accomplish this, I am prepared with different techniques that help dissipate negative energy; which ones I use depends upon the clients’ personalities and what the clients wish to accomplish during their sessions with me. My techniques include blowing off steam during warm-up; meditation; centering; “positive-message music”; and “flow movement.” I keep my positive music playlists on my iPod and my flow movement program in a notebook. I consider these “tools of the trade” and pull them out whenever needed.

First, I allow clients to blow off steam while talking about their day during warm-up. I usually remind them that exercise is a great way to relieve stress and ask them what type of music they would enjoy during their workout. If they have no preference, I bring up one of my positive music playlists to subtly change the energy of the session. Then I just listen to them talk. I do not interject my opinion, because I am a trainer and not a therapist. Besides, most people just need to get the “bad stuff” out. To avoid absorbing their negative energy, I remember that I am not the cause of their stress. That way I can allow them just to talk off their negative attitude. Most important, I smile at them. Usually this sets a more positive mood.

If clients are game, I start their sessions with 5 minutes of meditation before warming up. I use yoga music from my iPod and guide them through a meditation exercise that includes bringing attention to the breath. I have them inhale deeply (down to the bottom of their lungs) and slowly exhale. Then I ask them to picture a cloud floating over them and, as they inhale, to take in the positive light filtering through the cloud. As they exhale, I have them “blow” the negativity up into the cloud and mentally watch the cloud float away. I have found this technique quite useful for bringing clients out of a bad mood.

I use centering for people who find meditation too “out there.” When they come in grumbling, I suggest we take a moment to focus on what we are doing here. I tell them that for this hour they do not need to think about anything except performing the exercises I have planned and allowing the movement of their bodies to relieve stress. Centering is all about focusing on the “now”—the moment in which they are living. I ask them to get into this moment and let everything else go. If thoughts about work, chores or problems come up, I ask them just to let these thoughts float through and to concentrate on the power of their muscles as they perform each exercise. Focusing in on the process of exercising helps people walk out of a session feeling more positive than when they came in.

If clients are in a really bad mood, I ask them if it would be okay if we switched today’s program with something new. If that’s not okay, I use the techniques I already mentioned. If it is okay, I do a flow movement program with a stability ball and some light dumbbells. I put on a positive music playlist and guide clients through a choreographed series of exercises that transition smoothly from one to the next, all on the stability ball. I have had a great response to this program. Not only do clients usually become more positive during the session, but often they ask for the program again the next time they have a bad day. The flow series has never failed me yet, especially combined with my positive music. In fact, some clients request it over and over, even when they are not having a bad day!

When clients come in with a bad attitude, it is all about being prepared to change the energy of the session from negative to positive. Using the methods I have described, nine times out of 10, the clients leave feeling happy and are really glad they came. Most important of all, my techniques allow me to remain positive and to “spread” this energy to my clients.

Mary Miriani
ACSM-Certified Health/
Fitness Instructor
Reality Fitness Inc.
Naperville, Illinois

For most of us who are personal trainers, fitness is much more than a livelihood; it’s our life. Often it is our passion that attracts clients to hire us in the hope that some of that seemingly never-ending energy will rub off on them.

Chances are that, once hired, we then make a strategic plan of ever-progressing workouts to keep our clients engaged and stimulated and ultimately to help them reach their fitness goals. Sometimes, however, as trainers we become so focused on our programming and planning that our goals for our clients become too rigid. We may even think to ourselves, “If only our clients could be as focused and dedicated to exercise as we are as trainers.” However, if this were the case, they would not need to hire a trainer! And the fact that our clients are not always dedicated means that, even though we may have a perfect plan in place for them, we must be prepared to be flexible with their programs.

If a client has had a bad day and is responding to his adversity destructively—by not wanting to exercise, for example—you can, in fact, turn this potentially negative situation into a positive one. Focus on what you can do with your client, rather than on what you can’t do.

For example, sit down for a moment and ask him questions like these:

  • What happened that made you feel bad?
  • How did you feel when that happened? Did you feel angry, sad, embarrassed, etc.?
  • What was your impulse to react to the situation?
  • Do you regularly feel this way? If so, how often?
  • How do you act out your frustrations? Do you tend to eat, drink, lie in bed, etc.?
These questions will give your client the opportunity to identify his potentially destructive behaviors. Being aware of destructive behavior is his first step in making changes.

Once he is aware that his responses to adversity are destructive, ask him if he is interested in learning behaviors that are constructive and that will actually help him. If his answer is yes, explain to him, again, how exercise and healthy nutrition are great coping strategies for beating stress and developing better self-esteem. Commend him for making an effort to come and see you, even though he is feeling bad, and tell him that now is the moment to do something about his mood.

For his workout, begin with a quick 20-minute, high-intensity, stress-buster cardio workout. (I like to use kickboxing, as it allows the client to act out the anger and frustration). Finish with a 20-minute cool-down and stretching session focusing on the hamstrings and low back. Start with 5 minutes of dynamic stretching to allow the heart rate to come down. Then do 5 minutes of passive, static stretching; 5 minutes of gentle PNF stretching; and, finally, some deep breathing and relaxation exercises.

Marcel Daane
ACE-Certified Clinical Exercise
Specialist, Specialty
Performance Coach

Many times, clients come into sessions when they are not at their best. In fact, they may arrive angry and frustrated, with all of the day’s issues interfering with the time they have allotted for fitness.

As a master personal trainer and licensed Wellcoach, one of the things I notice first is whether clients are fully present. Are they frantic when they arrive; how do they greet me? What is their body language saying? Bad moods are usually detectable within the first 3 seconds. Sometimes clients will also just tell me they are in a bad mood! Bad moods are contagious; they can set a negative tone and create disinterest and resentment in the person receiving the uninvited behavior.

When a client is in a bad mood, I ask myself various questions. How well do I understand her, and how comfortable is she with me? Do I offer a safe environment, where there is no judgment? From our past history together, how approachable is she to conversation?

If my client is in a “bite-my-head-off” mood, I try to start the session with a little gentle irreverence, attempting to adjust her mood with some biting humor. If the humor causes a shift in attitude, one of three things usually occurs: I inquire what prompted the bad mood; my client tells me; or we continue our workout with light conversation, avoiding the subject altogether.

If the client is in real distress, I ask if she would rather talk than train. I have found that it is difficult to coach and train at the same time. Developing strong coaching skills has helped me to become a better observer, listener and partner for my clients’ achievements. Many times, the real issue is buried deep within a client’s story. Overcoming a “bad day” is a great learning process and shows a person that he can help himself and see situations from other points of view to create new possibilities.

So my advice is to understand your clients and make sure you have created a safe, trusting environment for your relationship with them. Clients show strength and vulnerability in a very intimate setting. Sometimes it is better to listen and show empathy. As trainers, we are always dispensing advice. As both a trainer and a coach, I find that saying very little and just listening provides gentle support and relief.

Jane Yogel
Owner, Diamond Fitness & Wellness
Elkins Park, Pennsylvania

I have two clients who usually arrive irritable and act as though they don’t want to work out. Yet, once they get started, they usually come around, in part because I have found different ways of getting them to focus. One client gets hostile when she’s in a bad mood, so I start her with boxing moves. Throwing punches while she tells me about her latest stresses gets her warmed up and calmed down so she can look forward to the next exercises. With her, it is easy to channel the negative energy into a good workout.

My other “cranky client” is totally opposite. The worse her attitude is, the more she turns inward and doesn’t want to do anything. So, on a bad day, we start with Pilates. This type of exercise allows her to stay inwardly focused, but it gets her breathing, which helps her relax. Concentrating on the specific movements and coordinating them with breathing is a good start for her. When she seems ready to move on, I give her a last Pilates exercise that is difficult but doable, so she feels she has really accomplished something. Then she is more optimistic about the next exercises we do.

My advice to trainers who deal with surly clients is to make sure they know their clients as people, so it is easier to tune in to their needs on a particular day. You can use whatever energy they bring to the workout to their advantage. If they have no energy, talk about something that gets them a little riled up (maybe politics) or something that makes them happy (maybe their vacation plans) and then use that energy as a focal point for the workout.

Rebecca “Boo” Pfeiffer, JD, MPH
Pfeiffer Fitness LLC

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 4, Issue 6

Find the Perfect Job

More jobs, more applicants and more visits than any other fitness industry job board.

© 2007 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.