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Help for Discouraged Clients

What makes life worth living? Among the answers are work, love and service. A playful attitude brought to bear on any of these adds to enjoyment and ultimately our judgment that life is being lived well. Health and fitness also make life worth living, as ends in their own right as well as means to other important activities. Again, if our pursuit of health and fitness can be spiced up with some fun, all the better.

While few would disagree with these assertions, matters become complicated when we try to make them concrete. People want to live a worthwhile life. They want to be healthy and fit. But if the way to achieve these goals is unclear, they not only remain elusive, but they become sources of discontent.

For some clients who join a gym or hire a personal trainer, everything goes as planned, and their stories have happy endings. But other clients start discouraged or become discouraged. They may cancel their workouts or go through them half-heartedly, offering up more excuses than repetitions. They may fail to exercise on their own, and their gym memberships may lapse. Discouragement is a vicious downward spiral, resulting in depression and plummeting self-esteem, not to mention ever-decreasing conditioning. The discouraged client becomes a former client, and everyone loses, including you.

The Role of Positive Psychology

Health and fitness professionals are well trained in exercise technique. They may be less well trained in how to work with discouraged clients, and professionals themselves may become discouraged and choose to focus only on clients who are perky and optimistic. The rich only get richer, right?

Not anymore. During the last decade, a new perspective has emerged called positive psychology. Specifically concerned with what makes life worth living, this scientific field has led to practical advice that actually works. Positive psychology arose in response to the past 60 years of science and practice in psychology with its almost exclusive focus on what goes wrong in life—and how to remedy it. Without denying the very real problems that people experience, positive psychologists believe that what makes life worth living deserves its own field of study. Positive psychology does not replace problem-focused psychology but rather complements and extends it.

In this article I sketch ways in which positive psychology can apply in the fitness setting by speaking to the deliberate cultivation of health and fitness as opposed to the mere reduction of problems (e.g., weight loss). I consider in particular five ideas that positive psychology offers for working with discouraged clients.

1. Understand That Pessimism Is Not a Choice

I have spent the last 30 years studying pessimism and optimism. It is abundantly clear that pessimism has terrible consequences—for our feelings, our relationships, our success at school and work, and even our physical health. Optimism, by contrast, has wonderful consequences, the result of an active involvement with the world that pays dividends.

But no matter how frustrated you become with discouraged clients, resist the temptation to blame them for being the way they are. None of them has freely chosen to be discouraged. Rather, their pessimistic stance results from their past. Perhaps they have always been overweight. Perhaps gym classes or locker rooms in elementary school were sources of embarrassment. Perhaps previous attempts to become fit were judged failures.

Keep Talking to Your Discouraged Clients. When you begin working with clients, you speak to them about their health and fitness histories. You ask about goals and past failures in achieving those goals. But too often, these discussions are cursory. I suggest a deeper conversation, not only when training begins but throughout the time you work with a client. As a personal trainer, you cannot be a psychotherapist, but you do need to understand a client’s hopes and fears and in particular why he or she might be discouraged. This information will help you to plan workouts in ways that chip away at the sources of your client’s pessimism.

For example, is the client afraid of looking foolish? Every new gym member to whom I have spoken fears being catapulted off a treadmill, to the snickers of everyone in the vicinity. Many new members—especially men—do not want to lift puny weights in a room filled with seasoned exercisers grunting and grimacing. More generally, no one wants to fail yet again at becoming fit. Not trying provides an excuse that makes sense psychologically if in no other way. A good way to combat fears is to tackle them head-on by asking clients what they fear and then discussing with them how realistic their fears actually are.

Moreover, if you can walk (or trudge) a mile in the shoes of your discouraged clients, your own discouragement will decrease. You will be better able to sustain your own motivation and enthusiasm, both of which can be contagious.

Accentuate the Positive. As positive psychology proposes, it’s not all about problems. Ask your clients what they do well and what makes them happy. You will discover that all clients, whatever their fitness challenges, have strengths and assets in other domains that you can leverage—like a supportive spouse, active children or a deep religious faith. Along these lines, ask your clients about past fitness and health successes. If nothing else, at least these clients hired you, which means they’re not thoroughly discouraged and further—we can only hope—that they have discerning judgment!

2. Make Workouts Fun: Well, Duh . . .

Years ago, I spoke to an expert about middle schools, asking her about the difference between academic courses and extracurricular activities in terms of involving students. Her answer was stunningly simple. “Extracurriculars are voluntary,” she said, “And they need to be fun to succeed.”

Appreciate that for most of your clients, especially the discouraged ones, what they do at a fitness facility is the equivalent of an extracurricular activity in middle school. The gym must be fun in ways that work and home need not be. You are probably healthy and fit, and no doubt you already find the gym a fun place. But take an objective look at a typical gym and a typical workout, and it’s easy to see how neither may seem like fun to a new member. Gyms abound with grim people doing grim things: few smiles, little eye contact and a dearth of laughter. A gym can look like an unsynchronized Maori haka dance—intimidating and unpleasant to the uninitiated. Even the term workout itself sounds grim. Apparently, it originally referred to how a boxer trained—working his muscles relentlessly until he had nothing left (Simpson & Weiner 1989). But boxing is a job, and it is not supposed to be fun. Today’s workouts, if we must call them that, should have a different psychological feel.

How can you make a workout fun for a client? Besides having a playful attitude yourself—a contagious thing—there are some other ideas, suggested by positive psychology.

Create Workouts With Good Peaks and Ends. Consider how people decide that an experience was positive—that is, enjoyable or fun. They think back over it and recall its high points and how it ended. Their memories are surprisingly unaffected by the rest of the experience. This finding is captured by what is called, for obvious reasons, peak-end theory (Kahneman 1999). As a trainer, you should build in good peaks and good ends if you want your clients to decide that their workouts were worthwhile. The other parts can be quite ordinary.

A workout peak is not a joke that you tell. It is an accomplishment that the client feels good about—and upon which you heap praise. To make sure that peaks occur, choose appropriate exercises (see the next section, on flow). A good end is a concluding exercise that is a success for your client, again upon which you heap praise.

3. Devise an Engaging Workout

All of us are familiar with the psychological experience of flow, even if we do not know it by that name. Flow is a state of total engagement, of being in the zone and one with the activity (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). Time passes quickly. Self-consciousness vanishes. Flow is exhilarating, and it leaves us wanting more. If workouts produce flow, the motivation problem is solved.

You need not leave flow to chance, because positive psychologists have mapped out the conditions for its occurrence. Flow occurs when the skills one brings to bear on a task meet its demands. If the demands are too great, a person becomes overwhelmed and anxious—discouraged. If the demands are too little, a person becomes bored—again, discouraged, although in a different way (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

Match Up Skills and Demands. The experience of flow does not depend on one’s overall skill or expertise. It simply depends on the match of skills and demands, and therefore anyone can experience flow. Of course, as skills develop, demands must change as well. As a professional, you need to tailor each workout in a way that makes flow likely. Know a client’s skills, and choose exercises accordingly. Change the exercises as the client becomes more skillful. Good trainers already structure workouts in these ways, but having an explicit strategy based on actual research can help fine-tune your approach.

4. Frame Progress in a Positive Way

Part of your ongoing conversations with a client should be about goals and how to mark the client’s progress toward them. Research shows that goals are motivating, but not all goals are created equal (Locke & Latham 1990). The goals that actually lead to change are difficult and specific. What are derisively called DYB (“do your best”) goals are not useful.

That said, a difficult and specific goal like losing 45 pounds is daunting, and if you and your client fail to elaborate on such a goal, you will see little progress. Break a daunting goal into manageable parts, like losing 1–2 pounds per week or month, and note or celebrate the accomplishment of each smaller goal.

Diversify Goals and Praise Successes. Weight loss is a typical goal, but it should not be the only one. Work with your client to set other goals as well, increasing the likelihood that something will always be going well (see the sidebar “What’s in a Goal?”).

A simple comment like “You couldn’t do that when you started!” can make all the difference in the world for a client prone to discouragement. Praise of course needs to be specific and sincere. Someone who is pessimistic may not be skilled at too many things, but detecting insincerity is among them! Appropriate praise that implies to the client that further improvement is possible and indeed within his or her control will undercut the pessimistic beliefs that produce discouragement.

5. Remember That Other People Matter

I often say that the major findings of positive psychology can be summarized in three words: “Other people matter.” This is true with respect to our happiness, our accomplishments and—obviously—our good relationships with other people.

Matter to Your Clients and Make Sure They Matter to You. You cannot control other people at your gym, but you can control yourself, and you can matter to your clients. There is a trainer at my own gym who is fit and vigorous. I think he has lots of muscles, but I don’t actually know because he wears the baggiest clothes imaginable when working with his clients. He makes sure he trains no one in the vicinity of the fittest or most attractive members of the gym or in front of an unflattering mirror. And he takes the time to introduce his clients to others at the gym—employees and clients alike—and to establish common ground between his clients and these other folks. “Oh, you’re both from Chicago,” he might say. “Talk about Da Bears.”

Make a point of helping your clients establish good, or at least friendly, relationships with others in your fitness facility. Whenever possible, team clients up with workout buddies (see the sidebar “Workout Partners Make a Winning Combo”). These connections will make the gym a more welcoming, social place, even for discouraged clients. And that may make all the difference.

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