How fitness professionals can learn to acknowledge and embrace failure to lead themselves and clients toward success.
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.