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Put On Your Game Face

Advice from the frontline can help you stay in top form so you can always give clients your best.

It’s the championship game and the competition is stiff. The coach has given his speech. It’s time to get on the field. Put on your game face!

Game face is a well-known expression in the sports arena, but it’s also applicable in the fitness profession. Consider this familiar scenario: It’s 8:00 pm. You’ve been working since 6:00 in the morning. This is your last client of the day. Are you ready to give your all?

As a fitness professional, you have to adapt your schedule to meet your clients’ needs. Busy executives, traveling sales representatives, doctors and lawyers want to train either in the early-morning hours before work or right after work—which may mean 8:00 or 9:00 pm. How do you offer all your clients the same quality training, whatever the hour? How do you keep yourself in top condition so that you are able to deliver consistent, high-quality service throughout the days, weeks, months and years of your career?

Perspectives on Helping

You are in a helping profession. Although you are not a social worker, psychologist or guidance counselor, neither are you simply a technician with advanced training in exercise science, biomechanics, program design and assessment methodology. You work with people. You deal in relationships. You strive to promote health and well-being through the medium of physical training, exercise and sports—and with a keen sensitivity to individual needs and differences. Even when you wear your technical hat and probe for answers that fit into some “frequency-intensity-duration” framework, clients respond to you on a personal level. They want you to know them beyond the structured boundaries of their training sessions. They want to know you care. Over time your relationships with clients yield knowledge that permits you to adapt your programming to better suit their lifestyles. You learn the words that counter their resistance and inspire action. You become skillful in giving exactly the kind of sessions that make clients feel good about themselves. But in your business, as in all the helping professions, it’s easy to get so involved that you feel the weight of your clients’ needs and problems pressing down on you. Because you want so much to help, drawing the line is sometimes difficult.

As you move through your day, your energy ebbs and flows. Yet you want to be as consistent as possible in how you present yourself to clients. You want to manifest the same enthusiasm for your last client as for your first. Projecting through time, you also want to be able to provide high-level support and guidance for clients throughout the years and even decades of your career, though you probably realize that burnout is a frequent occurrence in the helping professions (Figley 2002; Huggard 2003).

The Importance
of Self-Care

Giving the same care to yourself that you give to others comes from applying consciously created strategies. What strategies will help you be all you want to be for yourself, your clients and the most significant people in your personal world?

The renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson and others who have studied the passages of life note that people who realize their potential throughout their years live consciously and nurture their visions and dreams through strategic self-management and self-care (Erikson 1993; Levinson 1978; Sheehy 1996; Valliant 1977).

Lessons from seasoned professionals form simple game plans for providing self-care and preventing burnout while you confront the interpersonal challenges of people in need.

Successful Strategies From the Frontline

Though we could cite “recipes” for self-care from the extensive literature on personal development and psychology, we believe that the voices of your peers will probably say it all—and in a way that has more validity for you.

How do other fitness professionals manage to bring consistent passion and careful attention to clients’ needs while managing the myriad demands of their own lives? To find out, we consulted with your professional colleagues. Some of them work 80-plus hours a week in the fitness industry; others teach classes every night while holding down full-time jobs; and most juggle multiple roles,
including those of parent, child of an
aging parent (or two), business owner, consultant, writer and traveling emissary. Having walked the path that you may now be on, they offer the following strategies.

Draw Energy From Your Work. Deb Smith, a certified personal trainer whose F.A.T.E. Studio in Gilroy, California, has 40 employees, trains about 20 clients a week, while handling all her other responsibilities. She reports that she gets energy from her clients’ successes. “When clients begin to see and feel positive results from all their hard work, I get ‘jazzed.’ I am a very small piece of their evolution, but it is a rewarding piece,” she explains.

Diane Buchta from Del Mar, California, talked about the joy of giving as a wellspring of energy. A personal trainer for over 23 years, Buchta says, “I have had my own personal ups and downs and have dealt with the issue of trying to be upbeat when I really feel quite the opposite.” One day when life was feeling particularly weighty, a client gave Buchta a gift that continues to inspire her work. The woman, who had been suffering from severe depression, acknowledged that Buchta’s infectious enthusiasm and twice-weekly training had helped her come out of depression. At that moment, Buchta says, she realized, “Exercise and how I relate to my clients can change them—mind, body and spirit.” This awareness that training benefits the whole person continues to bring deep meaning to Buchta’s work.

Maintain Health of Body, Mind and Spirit. Lawrence Mazzola, an owner/partner at Demi-Lawrence Body Works, in West Hills, California, puts in 80-hour weeks and has personal contact with up to 200 clients. His self-care strategy includes eating well (seven to nine small meals a day) and adhering to his own training needs. Demi Mazzola, his partner and wife, similarly advocates the importance of eating well and getting sufficient rest. Moreover, they both use a meditative program, Spirit Slide, which they developed to regain focus and direction throughout the day. The Mazzolas rely strongly on affirmations and guided imagery to reinforce the purpose of their efforts and an awareness of their inner guidance.

Mary Essert, an aquatic specialist for more than half a century, offers personal training in her hometown of Conway, Arkansas, while also traveling worldwide to give seminars, workshops and consultations. She takes the same “medicine” she prescribes to clients—allotting ample time to her own training needs. Essert also devotes time to spiritual practices through her church, in weekly “dream circles” and in meditations. She advises, “Be passionate about your work or don’t do it. Be open to new ideas, new skills and new people. Learn to listen.”

As a mother of five and a personal trainer, Martha Hutchinson depends on some simple practices to ensure a high capacity to help. Besides eating well and training, she also makes time for “positive readings and reflection,” and she makes a point of surrounding herself with positive people.

Lisa Brisse, the co-owner of State of the Heart Fitness in Santa Monica, California, who was trained as an exercise physiologist, emphasizes “wholeness on all levels—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.” In addition to making time for her wellness needs, she keeps a daily journal, explaining, “It is the most therapeutic thing I could ever do. It is my outlet for letting all of my thoughts and feelings out in a safe place.” Brisse sees her work as a kind of spiritual service. She says, “I believe that when we do what our heart calls us to do—to use the gifts and talents we were given—we not only find peace, happiness and joy within ourselves, but we naturally exude [these qualities] to those around us.” When working with difficult clients, rather than moving into reactivity, Brisse slows herself down through deep breathing and reminds herself, “[It’s] their stuff. . . . Let them be with it. . . . I don’t have to ‘change or fix’ them. I’m just here to help them reach their health and fitness goals in the best and most positive way I can.”

Brian Shiers, a Los Angeles–based personal training director who also trains about 35 of his own clients a week, recommends mindfulness meditation. His philosophy includes compassion as a core principle. He cites the Dalai Lama in a daily self-reminder “to be grateful for those people who step on my toes because they help me see my own biases more clearly.” As a result, he is able to see the humanity behind the façade of irritation that he occasionally encounters at work.

Rob Rugg, who trains clients about 36 hours per week on top of supervising staff, adds a long list of practical strategies, including having good footwear, keeping a journal and staying hydrated.

Stay in the Present. Matthew Perkins, a trainer in northern New Jersey, has some straightforward ideas about keeping centered and remaining resilient. He stays focused in the moment, giving his all to his present client, rather than anticipating how many more he has scheduled that day. Further, he recommends not taking things personally, and ensuring you make time for yourself. “Personal time always needs to be a priority to stay sane,” he advises.

Shirley Archer, author of The Pilates Deck and a fitness professional for over 20 years, echoes Perkins’s advice. If you stay focused and put your problems aside while working with clients, she counsels, you’ll end the session in a far better mood than if you carry your worries throughout the session. She also recommends humor, and notes that it is okay if you don’t love “every person every minute of every workday.”

Set Boundaries. Helene Byrne, a certified personal trainer and author of Exercise After Pregnancy, says, “I have clear boundaries. I do not get emotionally involved or take a client’s problems as my own. I take responsibility for myself and then step outside of the situation as if I were wearing a psychological raincoat.”

Essert, who trains clients with arthritis and cancer, admits that when it comes to setting boundaries, she is still a work in progress. “Detachment is a skill I need to cultivate,” she confesses.

Rugg recommends, “Don’t be a therapist. Don’t be a servant.Get everything in writing. Insist on good attendance.” Rugg’s recommendations fall squarely into the category of maintaining clear professional boundaries, an area of critical importance for fitness professionals.

Do Something Upbeat. Jane Traceski from East Hampton, Connecticut, teaches 5 nights a week while holding down a full-time—and very stressful—daytime job. Playing upbeat Broadway music and acting the part of a star performer before her classes pull her out of a bad mood. There’s a tried-and-true psychological principle captured in Traceski’s approach. Put simply, it’s “Fake it till you make it!”

Evelyn Joseph, who has her own fitness training business, agrees with this approach. She listens to feel-good music while driving or training and whenever else she can. She also believes in “just going with the flow of life, not battling and trying to control everything.” As she notes, “Everything will fall into place as needed.” Faith that things will work out as they should helps put her mind at ease.

Choose Your Clients and Your Hours. Janine Grant, a personal trainer, yoga instructor and nutritionist, is selective about her clients. She says quite bluntly, “I avoid difficult clients. I refuse their business if they show signs of being troublesome.” She recognizes the financial impact of this approach, but nonetheless believes that “the energy involved in training people with bad attitudes is not worth [the money].”

Being selective about your working hours is also important. Hutchinson schedules her own workouts each week before she makes up her work schedule. And Rugg suggests scheduling clients in a way that permits you to take breaks between sessions. As he explains, “A break will enable you to ‘wipe off’ any negative emotional energy from clients.”

Distilling the Essence

Clearly, many of your peers are keenly aware of the conscious effort required to stay on top of their game. The methods they use make good sense. From the basics of sufficient rest and good nutrition to the mindful practices of meditation, centering and spiritual discipline, their strategies reflect those practiced by the most highly functioning professionals.

It’s game time. How readily can you put on your game face if you haven’t devoted yourself as diligently to your mental preparation as to your physical game? How energized will you be if you have neglected your personal needs? The answers are obvious.

Keep in mind that an effective game face differs in no large degree from your core character. Evidence from the helping professions informs us that the best helpers slip seamlessly between their roles (Cormier & Nurius 2003). When the way you represent yourself at work is significantly different from how you are in the rest of your life, the strain of pretense becomes overwhelming over time. Moreover, clients see through it. When you are working with clients, you may be more focused and thereby more energized, but in no way does this represent a mask.

The message from your peers is simple. Look around you and you will readily find the elders, mentors or role models in your profession who have not just survived but prospered. Ask them what you need to do to ensure that you will be your very best for as long as possible. They will guide you through their training adventures, sharing tales of what they have done well and lessons they have learned from missteps along the way.


Cormier, S., et al. 2003. Interviewing and Change Strategies for Helpers: Fundamental Skills and Cognitive Behavioral Interventions (5th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Covey, S.R. 1990. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Erikson, E. 1993. Childhood and Society (revised ed.). New York: W.W. Norton.
Figley, C.R. (Ed.). 2002. Treating Compassion Fatigue. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Gavin, J., & Gavin, N. 1995. Psychology for Health Fitness Professionals. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Huggard, P. 2003. Compassion fatigue: How much can I give? Medical Education, 37 (2), 163-4.
Levinson, D.J. 1978. The Seasons of a Man’s Life. New York: Knopf.
Maslow, A.H. 1970. Motivation and Personality (revised ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
Sheehy, G. 1996. New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time. New York: Ballantine.
Valliant, G.E. 1978. Adaptation to Life. Boston: Little, Brown.


Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Jim Gavin, PhD

Jim Gavin, PhD, is a professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University and has been involved in the practice of counseling and health promotion over the past 35 years.

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