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Obstacles to Motivation: Addressing the Fear Factor

Understanding your clients' fears and knowing the best ways to motivate clients are the keys to exercise adherence.

Are you aware that, for your clients, one of the biggest obstacles to motivation may be fear? That’s right. In fact, identifying the best ways to help your clients address their fears can very well be one of your biggest challenges as a fitness professional. To keep your clients motivated, it is important to understand the behavioral factors affecting motivation, to know the best ways to reward your clients and to identify—and help them overcome—the fears they face.

Approach and Avoidance Motivational Models

To determine the best ways to motivate your clients, you first need to know how they approach exercise (and for what reasons) and what type of behavior they display. One of the most important determinants of behavior is the type of reinforcement that is available for a behavior. Individuals act in ways that lead them to accomplish their goals. (Goal accomplishment is typically defined as either receiving a desired reward or avoiding an aversive punishment.) Using this framework, it is possible to distinguish two types of motivational orientations: approach orientation and avoidance orientation.

Approach-oriented individuals exercise to increase the probability of receiving a reward, such as praise or improved fitness. Avoidance-oriented individuals exercise to avoid punishment, such as criticism or embarrassment.

Both approach and avoidance orientations can influence exercise behavior. An approach orientation can promote physical activity as a tool for obtaining health benefits. An avoidance orientation can lead a client to actively stay away from certain exercise activities that leave her feeling unskilled or inadequate—for example, group fitness classes that are too advanced for her current level; competitive sports; or particular activities (such as swimming) in which others may evaluate her physique.

Interestingly, an avoidance orientation may also promote physical activity as a means of avoiding future health problems, such as decreased mobility or functional ability. For example, an individual recovering from heart surgery may be motivated to comply with an exercise prescription out of fear that his heart problem might recur. Avoidance-oriented individuals are also shamed or “guilted” into exercising because they fear the health consequences of not exercising (as opposed to wanting the benefits of exercising).

Both approach and avoidance orientations can effectively initiate and direct behavior. However, approach-oriented motivation is typically associated with greater behavioral persistence and is therefore more likely to result in exercise adherence. By contrast, avoidance-oriented motivation is associated with higher levels of distress, such as fear and anxiety, and so is less likely to result in exercise adherence. Thus, exercisers will benefit more from instructors who create environments that promote approach orientations rather than avoidance orientations.

To understand this better, let’s look further at the rewards (to be approached) and the punishments (to be avoided) associated with exercise.

Praise: Still the Best Reward

As previously mentioned, approach-oriented individuals exercise because they seek rewards, particularly external rewards. The conventional wisdom over the past 40 years or so has been that external rewards diminish intrinsic motivation. In practice, this means that fitness instructors who offer verbal praise or other types of tangible recognition will reduce their clients’ future intrinsic motivation. Fortunately, a recent review of the literature demonstrated that this conventional wisdom is wrong (Deci, Koestner & Ryan 1999).

In reality, only some types of external rewards reduce future intrinsic motivation. Specifically, expected tangible rewards (e.g., a free T-shirt for exercising) have been shown to have a consistent deleterious effect on future intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner & Ryan 1999). This effect is stronger when intrinsic motivation is measured as behavioral persistence (choosing to exercise when there is no outside pressure or there are other activities to engage in instead), but still significant when intrinsic motivation is measured as enjoyment (reported while engaging in an activity). Unexpected tangible rewards do not have a consistent effect on future intrinsic motivation (although it is worth noting that not nearly as much research has been done on these reward structures as on expected tangible rewards).

Contrary to conventional wisdom, verbal praise (a common external reward in exercise settings) is consistently associated with enhanced intrinsic motivation (evidenced by self-reported interest in and persistence at an activity). Therefore, fitness instructors are encouraged to use verbal praise as appropriate (e.g., to compliment a client’s form or praise a participant’s effort to attend a group fitness class) and eliminate expected tangible rewards from their exercise settings as much as possible.

Fitness professionals should also encourage clients to take similar steps to enhance their intrinsic motivation. For example, you might encourage them to brag a little about their effort or improved technique during a workout. On the other hand, you should strongly discourage them from setting up reward contingencies, for instance by telling themselves, “If I go to the gym three times this week, I will buy myself a new outfit.” These types of reward structures decrease intrinsic motivation for exercise because the rewards take on controlling properties. That is, people begin to exercise only for the rewards rather than for the enjoyment the activity produces. As a result, clients will more than likely cease their exercise when the expected tangible rewards are not present.

Punishment in the
Form of Failure

One of the most salient punishments for avoidance-oriented individuals in evaluative settings is failure (and its consequences). Failure is a significant obstacle to persistence because people tend not to put themselves in situations that don’t offer at least a moderate opportunity for success.

Failure to Meet Objectives. Assessing whether objective achievement standards have been met is important when evaluating failure; however, avoiding failure involves more than simply achieving set objectives. For instance, children can feel they have failed in a physical activity when they do not satisfy their own motives for being involved in it—namely, motives related to having fun, increasing their fitness, developing competence or socializing with friends (Weiss & Petlichkoff 1989). Therefore, achievement needs to be defined very broadly in physical activity settings.

Failure Among Elite Athletes. Elite athletes feel they fail, not only when they fall short of achieving objective performance criteria, but also when they don’t execute an activity the way they want to (regardless of the outcome); when they upset important others; and when they generate negative feelings in themselves (e.g., when they lose confidence) (Conroy, Poczwardowski & Henschen 2001). In short, athletes perceive themselves as failing for many reasons that extend beyond objective performance. This principle applies to average exercisers as well.

Failure to Achieve an Ideal Body Image. Although performance achievement is rarely as important to average exercisers as it is to elite athletes, important goals are still at stake for the exercisers. For example, an important goal thrust on all of us involves our appearance. For men, an ideal body image often involves low body fat and muscularity, particularly in upper-body regions (Thompson et al. 1999). For women, an ideal body image often involves low body fat and a physically fit appearance (Thompson et al. 1999). These images are constantly portrayed in the media. However, one thing these popular images have in common is that few real people achieve them in their ideal form without a great deal of exercise and dieting (or cosmetic surgery). Fitness professionals can help clients modify their perception of an ideal body image and assist them in achieving a realistic goal.

The “Halo” Effect

The associations attached to physical appearance and a fit body go beyond self-perception. Kathleen Martin, PhD, and her colleagues at McMaster University demonstrated the value of being viewed by others as an exerciser (Martin, Sinden & Fleming 2000). College students were presented with brief written descriptions of an imaginary person and asked to rate that individual on a number of physical and personality characteristics.

Researchers told participants that the imaginary person was 20 years old, had not decided on a major, was taking a specified set of courses, had a specific hairstyle and enjoyed particular pastimes. One group of participants was given the additional information that the imaginary person exercised regularly. A second group of participants was informed that the imaginary individual was physically inactive.

As expected, the imaginary subject described as being an exerciser was rated higher on the physical appearance variables than the sedentary individual. The exerciser was perceived as being more sexually attractive, healthier, fitter, stronger and more muscular. Thus, the participants’ impressions of the subject’s physical characteristics were enhanced by the knowledge that the imaginary individual was an exerciser.

In addition, and this surprised the researchers, the imaginary individual described as an exerciser was rated more positively on personality characteristics that were unrelated to exercise. For example, the exerciser was perceived as being braver, smarter, neater, friendlier, happier and more sociable and as having more friends. So it seems, from this study, that exercisers actually appear to benefit from a “halo” effect. That is, the benefits of exercising spill over and create a positive impression that is global, not related only to physique. With that halo effect in mind, even exercisers whose bodies do not match societal ideals should be excited about the self-presentation benefits of exercise.

By the same token, individuals who neither exercise nor match societal ideals for being fit, healthy and active are in a double-jeopardy situation. Not only do their bodies not match the ideal type, but they also fail to draw the non-physique-related impression benefits that come from being an exerciser.

Unfortunately, educating your clients about these benefits will probably have only a small effect on their exercise behavior, because the reasons why some clients do not participate in exercise despite knowing its benefits are usually complex. Therefore, fitness professionals should not follow the notion that appealing to image-related concerns alone will increase exercise behavior in their clients. That said, the costs of failing to create an appropriate impression can be high and, in turn, may provoke anxiety, which can very well keep a person from exercising. This anxiety is what we often call fear of failure.

Five Fears of Failure

Fear of failure stems from a belief that failure is associated with aversive consequences. At least five fears of failure can arise in individuals who perform in socially evaluative settings. These fears are based on beliefs that failure causes a person to:

  • experience shame and embarrassment
  • devalue his or her self-estimate
  • have an uncertain future
  • have important others lose interest
  • upset important others

(Conroy, Willow & Metzler, In press)

The most relevant fear for exercisers may be the classic fear involving the belief that failure causes shame and embarrassment. With this fear, there is a self-presentational cost to failing, beyond the absence of a reward. That cost comes in the form of a negative affect associated with not meeting an ideal self-image or perceiving that others know you have not matched that image.

The fear of devaluing one’s self-estimate is largely based around competence. Failure can be threatening to clients because it provides them with feedback that they are not as competent as they believed they were, and they are forced to revise their self-estimate. If an individual’s identity is wrapped up in his competence as an exerciser or athlete, failure in the physical domain can be especially threatening.

The fear of having an uncertain future appears to be relatively rare in the population at large. Typically, people who fear having an uncertain future when they fail are those whose livelihood or future opportunities depend on their performance. For example, high-school athletes who are under pressure to perform well if they want to receive a college scholarship might experience this fear.

The last two fears involve important others either losing interest or becoming upset as a result of one’s failure. Important others can include parents, teammates, a spouse, a coach or trainer, or anybody else clients view as significant. For children, pleasing parents and peers is important.

While the interpersonal fears are salient for children who depend on adults in many ways, these fears also affect adults. For example, aging causes our bodies to change in sometimes unpredictable ways. Clients who are struggling to maintain a healthy appearance may fear that their spouse will lose interest in them sexually.

People who fear failure exhibit a common pattern of self-talk, regardless of which particular fear of failure is present. Specifically, people with a high degree of fear are (a) less self-affirming, self-loving and self-protecting, and (b) more self-blaming, self-attacking and self-neglecting than individuals with less fear. Basically, those who fear failure become more critical and less encouraging of themselves. As a result, not only do they feel bad because they have learned to associate failure with aversive consequences, such as shame and embarrassment, but they also beat themselves up psychologically for failing.

Helping Your Clients
Overcome Fear of Failure

Even though a fear-of-failure personality may be established before a person ever steps into a fitness facility, fitness professionals can take the following steps to minimize the influence of fear of failure in their clients:

Minimize the Possibility That Clients Will Feel That Failure Is Possible, Likely or Imminent. To reduce perceptions of failure, offer lots of verbal praise to reinforce progress or good technique. This strategy is especially important when clients are trying new activities or working on new muscle groups, because clients may lack confidence at those times.

When Appropriate, Offer Feedback and Constructive Criticism. For instance, when a client is performing a lift incorrectly, try to find some aspect of the client’s performance to praise (even if it is just the effort) so that some success is achieved.

Eliminate Competition Among Your Clients. Seeing who can lose the most weight is only setting someone up for failure. It is important to reduce the likelihood that clients will feel they have failed.

When Setting Goals, Focus on What Clients Can Control, Rather Than What Is Beyond Their Control. For example, discourage attempts at spot reduction, because it is not possible to control where the pounds come off as a result of exercise. Instead, emphasize goals that focus on effort and skill improvement. Also, remind your clients that trying to achieve the ideal body image presented in the media is not realistic, and review with them what is realistic for their body type.

Finally, it is important to note that although fear of failure has been portrayed as an undesirable motivational state, at times it can actually enhance motivation. For example, some clients may become so anxious about the possibility of failing that they work harder and prepare earlier to achieve their goals.

Create a Motivating
Exercise Environment

As a fitness professional, you can influence the anxiety levels your clients experience during workouts. Martin and Lutes (2001) found that you can reduce anxiety by taking the relatively easy step of designing a motivating exercise environment. In a study involving 90 college-aged exercisers, these researchers manipulated leadership behaviors and the group environment to determine their effects on exercisers’ social anxiety.

In one part of the study, a number of exercisers were randomly assigned to classes taught by socially engaging, energized and supportive fitness instructors (enriched leadership). These instructors offered lots of positive comments, addressed participants by their names, gave constructive feedback, ignored mistakes, and rewarded effort and ability immediately. Other exercisers were randomly assigned to classes taught by disengaged, critical and impersonal instructors (bland leadership). As expected, exercisers who worked out in the enriched leadership environment exhibited less social anxiety by the end of class than the exercisers who worked out in the bland leadership environment.

In another part of the study, participants were randomly assigned to work out with class members who received very specific instructions from the research team about the type of environment they should create. Study participants did not realize that other members of their group were assisting the researchers by creating a specific social environment. The first group was very socially supportive and characterized by lots of interaction and encouragement between exercisers (enriched environment). The second group was much less socially supportive and interactive; class members serving as accomplices in the study would not talk to the study participants or communicate with the instructor, even when the instructor asked a question of the group (bland environment). Quite surprisingly (and contrary to the findings in the first part of the study), exercisers in the enriched environment actually showed higher levels of postclass social anxiety than did exercisers in the bland environment. These findings reveal that the way the social parameters of an exercise environment are designed can influence social anxiety—and thus affect motivation.

As a fitness instructor, it is important for you to go out of your way to demonstrate an enriched leadership style. Talk with your clients and offer positive feedback. This style of leadership is less anxiety-provoking than an impersonal, bland leadership style. In contrast, you should minimize interactions among exercisers in a class setting. Interactions among class members raise the social ante for exercisers (Martin & Lutes 2001). Class participants often become more concerned about others’ impressions of them if they are being friendly and interacting a lot. This heightened sensitivity to the social aspects of the exercise environment can promote social anxiety in the exercise setting.

Be a Master of Motivation

In summary, it is important that you create an environment that motivates your clients, rather than one that fosters anxiety. To provide motivation, you should actively engage your clients by talking with them, learning about them and helping them feel appreciated and valued—and especially by rewarding them in the form of praise. In class settings, you should be the social focus of the room so that exercisers are not comparing themselves to others. Ideally, exercisers should feel they are interacting personally with you and be relatively unaware that they are in a group. Taking these steps to minimize anxiety will ultimately maximize motivation. And mastering motivation is the key to health benefits for your clients, a rewarding career for you and financial benefits for the fitness industry.

Tips on Minimizing Fear of Failure in Your Clients

To help clients overcome their fear of failure and become more motivated, fitness professionals should do the following:

  • Encourage reasonable risk-taking behavior (regardless of the outcome).
  • Evaluate competence based on previous performances.
  • Seek out and reinforce successes, instead of waiting for failures to punish.
  • Make failure safe by talking about it.
  • Reflect on why failure may be threatening. (What bad things might happen because of failure?)
  • Provide a safe exercise environment with enriched leadership.
  • Reduce harmful self-talk as much as possible.
  • Seek advice from a consultant certified by the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (www.aaasponline.org).


Conroy, D.E., Motl, R.W., & Hall, E.G. 2001. Progress toward construct validation of the Self-Presentation in Exercise Questionnaire (SPEQ). Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 22, 21-38.
Conroy, D.E., Poczwardowski, A., & Henschen, K.P. 2001. Evaluative criteria and consequences associated with failure and success in elite athletes and performing artists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13, 300-22.
Conroy, D.E., Willow, J.P., & Metzler, J.N. In press. Multidimensional measurement of fear of failure: The Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory (PFAI). Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 14, 431-52.
Deci, E.L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R.M. 1999. A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-68.
Martin, K.A., & Lutes, L.D. 2001. Group and leadership effects on social anxiety experienced during an exercise class. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31, 1000-16.
Martin, K.A., Sinden, A.R., & Fleming, J.C. 2000. Inactivity may be hazardous to your image: The effects of exercise participation on impression formation. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 22, 283-91.
Sheldon, K.M., et al. 2000. What is satisfying about satisfying events? Testing 10 candidate psychological needs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 325-39.
Thompson, J.K., et al. 1999. Exacting Beauty: Theory, Assessment and Treatment of Body Image Disturbance. American Psychological Association.
Weiss, M.R., & Petlichkoff, L.M. 1989. Children’s motivation for participation in and withdrawal from sport: Identifying the missing links. Pediatric Exercise Science, 1, 195-211.


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