There’s a problematic F-word that the fitness industry rarely cares to discuss: failure. We’ve all experienced failure to one degree or another—and so have our clients—but you’d hardly know it in this industry where being positive and motivating is our specialty. We push success, and we push it hard, leaving little room for clients to feel accepted and supported during periods of low success or even spectacular failure. Some people who fall off the workout wagon might simply feel safer fading away from fitness rather than answering to a trainer with a staunch #noexcuses attitude.

Across all industries, it’s common for tales of epic fails to be woven into success stories. In fact, you could argue that the lessons learned from temporary setbacks are necessary for long-term success. Failure paves the way for greater self-awareness and more skillful practices. Acknowledging the possibility of failure—in our own careers and with clients’ progress—helps initiate a comforting support system that appears to be missing, or is at least underdeveloped, in the fitness industry. Addressing the issue head-on can only make us stronger.

Why We Should Support Clients Through Failure

The fitness industry as a whole lacks an adequate approach for guiding clients through anything more than small stumbles, such as missing a few workouts or overindulging in junk food one night. There are relatively easy fixes for these. However, when a client stops exercising altogether or does it only sporadically or halfheartedly with minimal results, then what? An understandably common reaction among trainers and clients is disappointment and possibly shame. It’s difficult to acknowledge the F-word. Failure is painful, and sometimes it’s paralyzing.

We tend to perpetuate a “false, upward-only trajectory” in the fitness industry, says Ingrid Knight-Cohee, MSc, director of group fitness for Steve Nash Fitness Clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia. Fitness pros are enthusiastic about welcoming newcomers with open arms—“You can do it!”—but not as adept at managing rough patches, such as client dropouts. Of course, people are ultimately responsible for their own actions, and trainers can only do so much to keep clients engaged. Nevertheless, the industry does make it seem as if once you start fitness, it’s all winning from there. This pretense is damaging.

How to Help

Knowing that people can fail, we could do more to prep clients for potential failure—give them a heads-up that it’s one glitch in the fitness journey, not the stop point. When we address the possibility of a significant setback with new and existing clients, we can help them leverage failure to eventually excel. “Setbacks are not dreaded events in the future that prove our ineptitude. They are critical to our evolving success,” says Robert Cappuccio, director of coaching for the Institute of Motion (IoM) and co-founder of PTA Global in Los Angeles.

“A good strategy for handling setbacks is to anticipate them, identify what they mean and prepare for them in advance rather than emotionally reacting to them when they unexpectedly occur,” says Cappuccio. Such a process isn’t about doling out “free passes” to skip through the program; it’s about empowering the client to proceed past low points.

“Personal trainers lay out a plan and encourage long-term commitment with the expectation of training a client on a certain cadence. Any interruption to that cadence is an opportunity to check in with goals and commitment,” says Knight-Cohee. “Ideally, the relationship has started with identifying barriers to progress in advance so the inevitable hiccups in the process can be proactively addressed and minimized. If a trainer is not attentive to this and doesn’t follow up, the client may well be lost and forgotten.”

“It’s crazy, the paradox in our industry,” says Travis Barnes, CEO of Journey 333 and founder of FitBiz Mastery, based in Horseheads, New York. “We say one thing on the front end but usually deliver the opposite on the back end. When clients walk through the door of any gym, they are making a statement. The statement is, ‘I want extrinsic motivation because I can’t do this on my own.’ When we enroll these clients into our programs, we are saying, ‘We’ve got you! We are the solution to your fitness goals.’ We ask people to move more and eat better. It’s a simple recipe, so why doesn’t it work every time?”

Barnes believes the answer lies in better support systems for managing clients with different personalities, mindsets and circumstances. For example, he recommends keeping an MIA report on clients who have dropped out, so you can reach out with understanding and a recommendation to make a plan for getting them back in the game. “When a client stops showing up, they become embarrassed and feel like they failed,” says Barnes. “Remember, we promised extrinsic motivation, so it is our job to remind them that failure is part of the process.”

Taking the Coach Approach

Talking to clients about why they’ve (temporarily) failed digresses from diet and exercise and morphs into a discussion about human psychology, and not all trainers feel equipped to go there. “We are emotion-driven creatures, and if we do not understand people, their drivers or their strengths, we’ll never truly get clients to the place they want to go,” says Angelo Sisco, owner of O’Hare CrossFit® in Chicago.

Having that understanding is the difference between counting reps and coaching. “As an industry we are really good at giving directions that are to be immediately executed, observed and modified,” says Cappuccio. “Where we need work is in the domain of coaching.” He encourages trainers to adopt the role of guide in each client’s fitness journey, emphasizing listening skills and suspending assumptions.

“What I am increasingly observing, regretfully, is the fitness community’s temptation to identify a solution before fully assessing and therefore understanding the problem,” he adds. Fortunately, fitness pros don’t need a psych degree to help clients who veer off course. We just need to get real about adherence problems. Commonplace #noexcuses rhetoric isn’t going to cut it.

There’s No Excuse for #NoExcuses

Clients have always made excuses to us to rationalize inactivity, which might be why the hashtag #noexcuses gained so much traction on social media. The message makes good enough sense: When a trainer types #noexcuses into a post, the transmitted communication is, “If you desire fitness results, you have to work out even when you don’t want to or think you can’t.” It’s a helpful mantra for anyone who’d rather just go home on a workout day but nonetheless adheres to a program.

However, most people struggle to even try exercise because they fear failing. Considering the numerous and varied reasons why people fail at exercise, perhaps #noexcuses is too superficial and intolerant. We must dig deeper. “Saying things like ‘no excuses’ doesn’t necessarily increase the client’s capacity to address the obstacles that have been getting in the way,” says Cappuccio. “Most of the time, it’s not an excuse that’s the issue; it’s a conflict.” For example, a client might grapple with two deeply held values that come into conflict with one another, e.g., family versus exercise. “The highest value often wins,” says Cappuccio. Instead of pushing a #noexcuses mentality, he suggests helping the client get clear on what he or she values most (hint: it’s probably not going to the gym). From there, you can identify ways that health and fitness support the highest value.

Guiding clients past stumbling blocks means accepting the reality that lies beyond a hashtagged Instagram post. “You give me a life with no excuses and I will give you an exhausted, overworked, stressed-out and highly anxious client,” says Petra Kolber, a speaker and the author of The Perfection Detox (Da Capo Lifelong Books 2018), based in New York. “The #noexcuses [concept] leaves no room for real life to step in, and so when things are not going perfectly, we think we have failed. Success is not a straight line, and neither is life.”

Excuses or #noexcuses, fail or succeed—these are subjective constructs. One person’s failure is another’s success, or at least another’s mediocrity. Imagine a client giving you an unimpressive effort for an entire session. The client didn’t perform well, but maybe she made it to the session amid a messy family crisis or stressful work crunch. Are you looking at a failure or a success? Excuses or no excuses? Your measure of success or failure might not be hers, and vice versa.

“Before we can help our clients work through their failures, it is necessary both to define what failure means to our clients and, maybe more importantly, to spend time unpeeling our personal definition of failure,” says Kolber. “It is our job to bring a kinder, more forgiving atmosphere to the fitness arena.” Kolber calls for a shift in focus from how things look on the outside to how they feel on the inside. Anything less than perfect is not a letdown.

“As an industry,” adds Knight-Cohee, “if we hope to better reach the general public, we need to better balance our messaging intended to motivate and inspire with messaging intended to empathize and understand.”

The Gift of Failure

A fitness professional’s main objective is to help clients succeed. Through this process, clients may well experience the discomfort of failure. Why not embrace it? Seek out any successful client or fitness pro and you’ll find stories about failure. “If we or our clients never fail, it only means that we are playing it safe and not stretching ourselves,” says Kolber.

“The stigma of failure being a ‘bad’ thing in our industry and, in fact, our culture needs to be reframed as a positive and necessary part of any journey,” says Sisco. “It is the greatest gift.”

When we acknowledge, support and even expect periods of low success with clients and ourselves, we make it safer for everyone to feel empowered and motivated to keep trying and do it better next time. “You have to fail to succeed,” says Barnes. “Failure is our greatest teacher, if we are coachable.” The freedom to fail can open the door to the pleasure of success.

Why Clients Fail

Clients have different psychologies for why they may fail. In helping clients come to terms with setbacks and ultimately learn from them, it’s useful to separate the person from a behavior or occurrence. “It’s the meaning we attach to an event that determines how we will respond,” says Robert Cappuccio, Los Angeles-based director of coaching for the Institute of Motion (IoM). “If a setback means that we are ÔÇÿlazy’ or ÔÇÿalways fail,’ then a single isolated event can expand into an identity and perpetuate itself into an ingrained behavior pattern.” To avoid this, Cappuccio suggests posing the following questions to clients when perceived failure occurs to identify obstacles and strategies: ÔÇó What has happened most often in the past that stopped you from getting the results you wanted? ÔÇó How did you handle that? ÔÇó What is going to be different this time?ÔÇó If something happens that causes you to become sidetracked or not keep your commitments, what does it mean?ÔÇó What can you learn about yourself and your strategy that will make you even better-prepared for success? ÔÇó What can you do immediately to get back on track? For further reading, please see these articles at ideafit.com:Yochum, A. 2017. Shaping minds, shaping bodies. IDEA Fitness Journal, 14 (11).Vaughn, G. 2016. Use these three systems to foster impeccable client adherence. IDEA Trainer Success, 13 (5).Peterson, C. 2011. Help for discouraged clients. IDEA Fitness Journal, 8 (5).

Fitness Pros Talk Career Setbacks

Ever felt the sting of failure in your health or career? Most of us have. If we don’t acknowledge our own failures, why should clients feel safe to open up about theirs? To that point, authentically sharing vulnerabilities can help our industry mature. The less guarded we are about admitting adversity, the more we can recognize hindrances in our clients and support them in getting back on track when needed. Plus, knowing you’re not alone among colleagues builds solidarity.

Fitness pros who have faced career-related failure share their stories below. Not only have they bounced back from their respective setbacks, but they’ve catapulted themselves toward even brighter job prospects—thanks to insights gained along the way.

Amanda Vogel, MA, fitness writer and social media consultant, Vancouver, British Columbia

Last year, I received a referral from a past client to work with a women’s health company outside the fitness industry. I was enthusiastic about this high-paying opportunity to collaborate with the brand, its celebrity clients and a staff member who had previously worked for a famous TV personality.

In the rush to get up to speed with the assignment, I didn’t offer or insist on a proper contract, thinking I was working with a reputable company so it wouldn’t really matter (a rookie business mistake, to be sure). I had been so excited about this gig that I began to ignore red flags, such as late payments, nonresponsive bosses and my own doubts about the brand’s marketing messages.

After sending the company a reminder about two late invoices, I was informed out of the blue that they would be “taking a break” from my services (even though I’d been told previously that they were happy with my work). I was angry with myself for ignoring the red flags— I had been so caught up in my ideal vision of this job and the associated people that I’d lost sight of what the job and people were actually revealing themselves to be. A lawyer advised me that without a proper contract I likely wouldn’t receive all the money owed to me. Eventually, I made the decision to stop wrestling with what went wrong and take a hard look at what I could learn instead. I vowed to trust my instincts more, examine whether my personal philosophy aligns well with a prospective brand’s, and always insist on a detailed contract.

In the year since this happened, I have turned my focus back to the fitness industry (which felt like a homecoming), securing a long-term contract managing social media for a fantastic client with integrity and a worthwhile message. I’ve also renewed my business priorities so I have more freedom to select projects that make a positive difference in people’s lives.

Ditch Perfectionism For Creativity

Petra Kolber, speaker and the author of The Perfection Detox (Da Capo Lifelong Books 2018), theperfectiondetox.com, New York

My biggest failure was thinking that I needed to know everything to be worthy of being called a fitness expert. As a conference presenter, I had based my idea of success around delivering a perfect presentation. This faulty thinking prevented me from being completely present with my audience. I was always a few seconds ahead, worrying about delivering the content without a mistake. I had falsely connected what I did to who I was.

My wake-up call came when I was presenting a convention session many years ago. Without planning on it, I sidetracked off script and began talking about my anxiety around the need to appear perfect. Immediately, I felt a shift in the room. I knew I had touched a nerve and so decided to speak to what the room needed instead of delivering my perfectly planned presentation. After the talk, so many people wanted to connect with me about their own struggles. I became determined to move my messaging toward the “reality” of life. Now, instead of caring about getting a 5-star evaluation, I care about creating a 5-star experience for my audience. I am better able to allow space for spontaneity and creativity in the moment—something that the pursuit of perfectionism never allowed me to do.

Be Persistent: In Your Face, Adversity!

Travis Barnes, author of Journey Fitness and 52 Amazing Journeys, CEO of Journey 333, Horseheads, New York

I started in the fitness industry in 1996, working at a Las Vegas gym where a lot of prominent bodybuilders worked out. One of them introduced me to drugs. As a result of my drug use, I was fired from my first fitness job. I eventually wound up incarcerated for almost a decade due to the drugs. I continued my fitness path while incarcerated, training people for pouches of tuna and stamps to write home. I taught adult continuing education on how to become a certified trainer.

When I was released in 2010, I found a job in a gym where I worked my way up from trainer to manager to COO. Working hard, I was able to buy a home for my family. But shortly after buying this home, it was flooded to the second floor. We had no insurance and had to live in a FEMA trailer while we spent our nights and weekends fixing up the home. Shortly after that, I was once again fired from my job. The owner had decided he wanted to be the face of his company. Both my wife and I had been working at this company at the time, so she quit as soon as she heard I was being fired. We had both signed noncompete agreements; legally, we could not train clients in the only area where we had a reputation as trainers.

After almost 6 months of unemployment, combined with working as mobile trainers, we got an opportunity to start a business. We took a chance, getting a high-interest loan for the equipment we needed and securing newspaper advertising on credit. In 2013, we opened Journey Fitness, which we grew to five locations in the next 4 years. This year, we began franchising. So many people in our industry believe that they don’t have enough education, connections or resources to be successful. I am living proof that all you need is the belief that it is possible and the will to do it.

A Major Setback Can Spark An Amazing Comeback!

Efrain A. Larenas, owner-CPT, E Class Personal Fitness Training, Maple Lawn Community Center, Fulton, Maryland

In 2005, I left a stable physical education career to pursue my dream and passion of owning a personal training business. My wife and I signed a lease to train out of a physical therapy clinic. Unfortunately, the plan fell through, and we lost a lot of money.

The following year, a private studio contacted me about running my business through their studio. It was a great opportunity! Around the same time, I signed a contract with a private school to teach fitness classes three times a week. Life was great! However, the weekend I was supposed to start at the studio, I was in a car accident that ruptured my patella tendon and PCL. It devastated me. [Between the] surgery, 4 months of no work and 7 months of grueling physical therapy, [this was] the most emotional, challenging and depressing time of my life. But I never gave up. I ended up teaching my classes sitting down while my wife demonstrated the exercises on my behalf.

With lots of support from my workplace, wife, friends and family, I eventually got my stride back, driven by my “never give up attitude” and faith in God. Ten years later, I still teach fitness classes at the private school, and I have a thriving business at what I consider the best community center in Maryland. I recently hired my second contractor to help train clients because there are only so many people I can help personally. On average, I train about 200 people a week in sessions and classes. I believe everything happens for a reason, and this major setback was setting me up for an amazing comeback!

Sharing Success After Stress

Sheri Saperstein, owner, Fire Up Fitness, Stoneham, Massachusetts

I had started overtraining during a stressful divorce, leading me to have chronic physical pain, such as aching joints, every day for more than a year. I barely ate enough calories to cover the amount of exercise I was doing, survived on a lot of caffeine and sugar, and would not allow myself to rest. Essentially, I didn’t know how to unravel my mind from anxiety and upset except through intense exercise. I was moody, exhausted, irritable and depressed. My body was breaking down.

I took a leave of absence from my job, seeing a dozen doctors and undergoing various medical treatments. I now believe that my symptoms were caused by extreme stress and overtraining. To help myself heal, I began to research functional training, alternative medicine, mind-body fitness, meditation, myofascial therapy and much more. A new world of fitness, health and wellness opened up to me! I slowed down and allowed my body to rest and relax. Incorporating holistic training and self-care into my routine led me to my current career helping other women understand and practice principles of wellness. After opening my studio, Fire Up Fitness Boston, I’ve been able to share my knowledge, experiences and positivity with hundreds of women. My message to them (and myself) is that fitness should be fun, energizing and empowering.

Use Your Epic Fails As Fuel

Dominic Vicari, CPT, Motivate Personal Fitness Academy, Jackson, California

I had been working for a local training facility for 3 years before I proposed to the owner that we expand to a second location. She agreed, and I positioned myself to manage the new location and eventually buy her out as a franchise. I was 23 at the time. We moved forward together with the venture. I saw my future in this company, thinking my career dreams were coming to fruition. Then the person I considered my business partner told me she didn’t think I was ready for this role. She had decided to move forward without me. After that, I completely lost my drive, motivation and passion for my work. I doubted myself and my abilities.

However, missing out on this partnership forced me to rethink my vision for my future. I realized the mission I was passionate about really didn’t align with the business I had been working for. Once I realized that, everything started to fall into place, and I was re-energized. In 2014, I opened my own private training facility. Over the past 3 years, the business has seen steady growth. Turns out my past “fail” pushed me to take the plunge with my own studio. In that sense, it was the greatest “fail” I could have experienced because I am truly living my life with passion now.

Take Ownership Of Your Failure

Angelo Sisco, owner of O’Hare CrossFit®, Chicago

When I first opened my gym, CrossFit was in its infancy. You didn’t need to be good at every aspect of the business back then. People flocked to the phenomenon that was CrossFit and signed up instantly. As time progressed, we didn’t evolve in the areas we needed to. Instead of realizing we were not evolving with the industry, I began to feel sorry for myself. I blamed and resented my staff for the lack of results, but it was my fault.

I finally turned the situation around by taking full ownership of what was happening. We began to focus on all areas of business, customer service, facility management and maintenance, marketing, retention, and coach development. I became obsessed with leveling myself up first. My personal growth equaled growth for everyone around me, allowing us to build a thriving business and a team that has taken us to the next level with creativity and input. Today the team is excited to contribute to the success of the business.

Turn Losses Into Gains

Ola Alghazzouli, ACE-certified personal trainer, functional fitness specialist and owner of BeFit4Akhirah, Northern Virginia

I started my personal training business about 2 years ago. When a client came to me with honest feedback about why she didn’t want to continue training with me, I was upset and considered this a setback at first. However, it eventually turned into a positive thing for my business. I learned a lot about how I want to communicate with my clients, how to track their progress and how to assess them. There was also a part of me that felt relieved she’d left, because I wasn’t totally happy working with her—I just didn’t feel that trainer-client connection. This experience gave me the opportunity to reflect on what type of clients I want to work with. I realized the best approach for attracting and keeping the right clients is to be myself. I see every loss as a gain in another area of my life, whether it’s [getting] a great new client or [taking] a step in my own personal growth.

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She writes for IDEA, Health, Prevention, and Self, and has co-authored books on postnatal fitness and yoga. With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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