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Communication Skills of the Successful Personal Trainer

In the gym, communication and motivation are as important as programming and exercises. If you cannot connect with your clients, gain their trust and optimize their motivational orientation, then you will have difficulty supporting their long-term success. And if your clients don’t see success, neither will you.

It’s important to have structured, evidence-based strategies for optimizing interpersonal communication and supporting client motivation. This article will address simple strategies for improving communication and guiding your clients toward sustainable motivation.

Understanding Self-Determination Theory

To understand communication, you must first look at human motivation. While there are many theories about motivation, self-determination theory is one of the prevailing explanations for how human motivation operates (Deci & Ryan 2000). SDT seeks to explain the psychological and environmental factors that differentiate intrinsic forms of motivation from extrinsic forms.

Specifically, people who are intrinsically motivated will do something for the joy and personal fulfillment they get from the process. Conversely, those who are extrinsically motivated are driven by external factors, which may include reward or punishment. While humans tend to operate on a continuum between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation, SDT proposes that people who are more self-determined will tend to operate with higher levels of intrinsic motivation. Moreover, those who are more self-determined, and therefore more intrinsically motivated, typically give more effort, are more persistent, have higher levels of concentration, and perform better during physical tasks (Mageau & Vallerand 2003). These are all qualities that you want your clients to express, especially in relation to their goals and desired behaviors.

Becoming Intrinsically Motivated

SDT proposes that the perception of autonomy, competence (self-efficacy) and social relatedness, relative to a given task/process, will dictate where people fall on the continuum from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation.

  • Autonomy can be defined as the opportunity to govern oneself; it also means freedom from unwanted external control. Generally, autonomy is self-directed. In simple terms, autonomy is about having some level of choice and influence within the process where intrinsic motivation is desired. It does not mean that people need complete control; rather, it’s about purposeful control that individuals earn as they become more competent around a given task/process.
  • Competence is the ability, or the belief in one’s ability, to successfully perform a given task. People with a high level of competence are confident about the status of their ability, and they do not lose their confidence even when they’re faced with adversity or failure. People with a high level of competence could have a bad day in practice or in the gym, and be able to easily get back on track in a subsequent session.
  • Social relatedness is the connections that people have with other people, their shared empathy and their ability to understand other people’s points of view. To truly be intrinsically motivated, people need to receive some level of support and re-enforcement from their friends, family and coaches. Social relatedness confirms to people that their choices (i.e., their autonomy) have been successful, which further helps confirm to them that the sense of competence they feel is justified.

People who have all three of these psychological needs fulfilled will move toward higher states of intrinsic motivation. Conversely, those who do not perceive the fulfillment of these psychological needs are less likely to be intrinsically motivated.

As a coach, you are in a position to either cultivate or hinder your clients’ sense of autonomy, competence and social relatedness. This is critical, as many clients quickly lose direction and motivation when it comes to their movement and nutrition behaviors—especially once the realities of the hard work set in. For this reason, coaches who are armed with strategies to enhance people’s sense of self-determination are more likely to see their clients achieve and sustain results. Before discussing specific strategies, let’s look at the general coaching behaviors that support or thwart your clients’ psychological needs.

Controlling vs. Autonomy-Based Coaching

A coach can operate in either a controlling manner or an autonomy-supportive one. Coaches who use controlling behaviors will pressure their clients to “think, feel, or behave in a particular way, thereby ignoring the person’s needs and feelings.” Conversely, coaches who use autonomy-supportive behaviors will “take the other’s perspective, acknowledge the other’s feelings, and provide the other with pertinent information and opportunities for choice, while minimizing the use of pressure and demands” (Mageau & Vallerand 2003).

Research has shown that autonomy-supportive coaching behaviors not only support intrinsic motivation, but also promote improved motor learning and skill retention (Lewthwaite & Wulf 2012). Lewthwaite and Wulf note that “humans are more than neutral processors of information, and evidence suggests that learning is optimized by practice conditions that account for motivational factors.” Therefore, coaches who are autonomy-supportive help improve the quality of their clients’ motivation and create a more efficient path for motor learning. This view starts to blur the lines between human motivation and motor learning, and it provides evidence that people with higher levels of intrinsic motivation could learn skills faster.

Knowing How to Enhance Client Autonomy, Competence and Social Relatedness

Coaches can use specific strategies to improve autonomy, competence and social relatedness within the context of the training/gym environment. These strategies align the way you communicate with the motivational orientation you are cultivating (i.e., intrinsic vs. extrinsic). The key is to slowly integrate these strategies into training sessions. Do not feel that you must apply all of them in order to start moving your clients to an intrinsically motivated state. Also, there are many more strategies than those listed below that can help support all three psychological needs.


  1. Provide controlled choice as often as possible. These choices can involve an implement (e.g., dumbbell versus kettlebell), a protocol (e.g., two metabolic circuit options), feedback frequency (e.g., “Let me know when you would like feedback”), demonstration (e.g., “Let me know if you would like another demonstration of the movement”) and progression/regression. Without disrupting your session, find strategic opportunities to involve the client. This approach allows you to maintain your role as the teacher/guide while empowering the client, which is critical for their sustainability and their ownership of the process.
  2. Provide a rationale for programming elements and any training limitations/regressions. It is critical that you communicate how the training process directly influences clients’ goals. By explaining to clients how a process is specifically designed in terms of their goals, you confirm their autonomy in choosing to work with you. Moreover, if you “motivate through education,” you will empower them to own the process. If you ask clients to simply do as they’re told, but you never give them the opportunity to understand the rationale behind the training, they will feel less involved.
  3. Acknowledge clients’ feelings and perspectives relative to the training process. It is important to ask a question before providing an answer. Therefore, after a set of exercises is completed, ask clients how it felt and what they feel they should focus on during subsequent sets. If they don’t have an answer, let them know what you saw; then provide feedback and give them an opportunity to comment. Here is an example of a conversation that uses this technique:

    Coach: John, how did that last set of RDLs feel?
    John: Really good!
    Coach: That’s great. You are hinging much better than last week. What do you feel you should focus on in your next set?
    John: I am not really sure. They are feeling much better, and I think I should keep doing what I am doing.
    Coach: Perfect! Let’s keep our focus on staying long and hit our next set.

    The overall strategy is to bring clients’ attention to the process of instruction, performance and feedback. Too often, the coach is the only person commenting and providing feedback. The goal is to involve your clients strategically, especially as they acquire more knowledge.

  4. Communicate like a business partner rather than a boss. Use inclusive language as often as possible, and avoid language that can be misconstrued as giving orders. This is especially important when you’re providing feedback and setting goals. Guide your clients toward self-identifying what needs to be done, as opposed to you always telling them (Rollnick, Miller & Butler 2008).


  1. Let purposeful struggle engage the clients while preserving their sense of competence. You want to achieve a level of progression that provides the right amount of challenge. If the training program or skill is too easy, clients will become bored; if it’s too hard, their sense of competence will be degraded. Therefore, skills/progressions that allow success 50%–80% of the time can be considered the “sweet spot” (Coyle 2012). Think of this both in terms of single exercise selection and also within the context of the program’s overall difficulty.
  2. Reinforce the good more often than you correct the bad. When providing feedback about a movement, direct your clients to the elements they have improved on or appear to be improving on. Help them focus on these areas, and encourage them to continue to target aspects in which they are starting to have success. This builds competence, and it narrows the clients’ view to the elements that they can build on.
  3. Provide feedback on the process rather than the person. It’s easy to give feedback with statements like “Good job,” “Nice work” and “Perfect.” However, this is not nearly as effective as commenting on what the clients actually did well. Give substantive reinforcement, such as “Great job getting under the bar during the clean,” “Nice job finishing that last set of conditioning. I know that was a hard one today” and “You had perfect start execution during your 10-yard sprints today.”

Social Relatedness

  1. Encourage small-group training. In the training environment, SGT is the most powerful way to cultivate social relatedness. SGT allows clients to be challenged in the context of a group, which creates a common bond. It also allows the success of each client to be distributed to everyone in the group. If people are having a bad day, their fellow trainees can pick them up. This also provides healthy accountability, as clients know that others in the group depend on them.
  2. Promote client interaction. Applying this strategy could be as simple as having clients learn to spot one another, partner during a circuit or hold the bungee/harness during a movement skill session. Such actions create natural opportunities for clients to bond with each other and give one another useful feedback. This also promotes observational learning, where clients can learn from what their fellow trainees do well and what needs improvement.
  3. Give clients a voice. It is natural for the coach to open and close each session with a message. This is important, but it is equally important to let such statements come from your clients. Give clients an opportunity to open or close a session with their own words of encouragement. This strategy should not be forced; it’s simply an opportunity you extend to the group. For example, you might say, “Great session today. I thought everyone executed perfectly during our circuits, and there was fantastic effort during our cardio session. Who’s got the breakdown today?” This then gives any of your clients the opportunity to say a few words—or to choose a call-out phrase, like “Team on three: 1, 2, 3, team!” This simple gesture improves relatedness, leadership and ownership.

Empowerment Equals Success

SDT gives coaches a framework for understanding client motivation. It also provides fundamental ways to guide communication strategies through the development of autonomy, competence and social relatedness. Optimizing the motivational climate requires a balance of contribution by the coach and by the client. An autonomy-supportive environment will enrich your clients’ experience, and it will help them feel self-determined as they develop competence and relatedness. Further, environments that drive social relatedness act as a protective agent over clients’ competence and also affirm their autonomy. Finally, self-determination is not about coaches motivating clients. Rather, it’s about creating an environment that allows your clients to motivate themselves.

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