We’ve all had them. We dread seeing them. They are the clients who absorb your enthusiasm and lead you to question your abilities. They keep you up late at night, in frustration, and wake you with anguish in the pit of your stomach. They are your problem clients. Each week the struggle simply to survive the session increases and you wonder whether it’s time to throw in the towel. Have heart; all is not lost. In many cases, there is a superstar client lying dormant underneath that rough exterior.

The Behavior Blueprint

Most disempowering habitual behaviors come from patterns that were learned, modeled or conditioned early in life, says Tom Terwilliger, Mastermind executive coach, goal achievement expert and author of 7 Rules of Achievement. “In most cases the behavior is based on an old neuro pathway or synapse created during the imprinting and modeling years of childhood.”

Terwilliger suggests that, much like a person’s genetic blueprint, these learned neural programs run automatically, and they can be responsible for a client’s self-sabotage. “Those programs are so deeply conditioned and embedded in our clients’ subconscious minds that they often run without there being any conscious awareness that it’s ever happening.” However, unlike genetic makeup, destructive and limiting thought patterns can be detrained and made constructive. While it is far beyond a personal trainer’s scope of practice to “diagnose” client behavior, it is within range to set boundaries and implement lifestyle change techniques to promote success. “All we need to do is learn to recognize patterns when they show up, and understand how to deal with them,” adds Terwilliger.

Here are two types of problem clients, with suggestions on how to work with them.

The Hypochondriac

You’ve worked with Dave for several months. He’s made minimal progress and always seems nervous during his sessions. He regularly arrives complaining of an ache or pain he believes resulted from the previous session. You’ve completed a thorough structural assessment and cannot draw a link between the exercises performed and Dave’s discomfort. Dave resists many of the exercises you give him, and you are not sure what to do next.

The Assessment
According to Jim Gavin, PhD, professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University in Montreal, Dave has a fear-based, anxiety-driven personality structure. “This person is particularly fearful around issues concerning the body and is hypersensitive to any physical symptoms that might occur toward the beginning of an exercise program.” Jonathon Ross, 2010 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, suggests that Dave may be using the symptoms—muscle soreness, for example—as an excuse for avoiding exercise. His pain and discomfort may be very real, but Dave’s hypochondriacal, fear-based nature may lead him to think the worst. Beware that this client is likely to search the Web for causes of discomfort and for the pros and cons of exercise, adds Gavin.

The Solution
“Personal trainers need to address the hypochondriac client’s fear and anxiety through a combination of gentle exercise—designed to avoid physical symptoms—and reassurance,” says Gavin. A thorough explanation of typical exercise-induced discomforts may alleviate some of the concerns. Directing Dave to resources that support your information may also be beneficial.

Terwilliger suggests creating more of a partnership with the client by asking him to participate in exercise selection. “At first he may be reluctant to take on the responsibility for himself and may suggest that it’s your job to make those decisions,” he says. “Hang tough, set aside your ego and tell him you need and trust his input. If he accepts the challenge, he will begin to be empowered to make choices for himself.” Owning his workout may not only help Dave take responsibility but also ease some of the anxiety he feels toward exercise. Terwilliger advises approaching a client like Dave with caution, supervising him carefully and keeping detailed documentation of all movements performed. “[A hypochondriac] may even manifest an injury, blame you and seek legal action.”

The Negative Nancy

Nancy’s forecast is gloom and doom, with little chance of sunshine. You can almost feel the temperature change as she enters the gym. She responds to your positive attitude with resistance, heavy sighs and eyes rolling. Throughout the session, Nancy frequently complains about her dislike of your exercise selections and performs them with minimal enthusiasm. You find your eyes frequently drifting toward the clock and are bereft of all energy and vigor when she leaves.

The Assessment
Negativity is one of the most contagious emotional states on the planet, and anytime you work with a Negative Nancy, you run the risk of being infected and infecting others,” warns Terwilliger. “She’s not just negative about workouts; she’s likely negative about life,” adds Trina Gray, owner of the Bay Athletic Club in Alpena, Michigan.

The Solution
“You must avoid anchoring yourself and the session to a time-consuming pity party,” says Terwilliger. His approach is to place Nancy on an elliptical trainer or a treadmill for the first few minutes of each workout and to allow her to vent the day’s frustrations. “I’ll give her 3-5 minutes to unload and then start ramping up the intensity,” he says. If Nancy continues to spout negativity, Terwilliger will “immediately turn up the volume and send her into a full-on sprint.” This technique, he says, is designed to break the negative talk pattern. “If nothing else, it will send a very palpable message that you are more interested in her health and fitness than you are in the constant complaining.”

Ian McGriff, head personal trainer for Results Fitness Training at Tipton Lakes Athletic Club, takes a different approach. “What I try to do is change the way she talks to me first. I don’t expect an overall change in attitude, but I request that she not use any negative words during the session.” McGriff believes it is important to recognize the client’s feelings, and so he welcomes contact via e-mail or text messaging. “If all else fails, I suggest clients join a group training program,” he adds. “This way they’re forced to have positive energy or risk standing out in the crowd.”

For tips on working with other problem clients–the Stress Case, the Know-It-All, The Fibber, the Ghost (who is chronically late if she shows up at all) and the Static Cling–refer to the complete article, “Meeting the Challenge of Problem Clients,” in the online IDEA Library or in July-August 2010 IDEA Fitness Journal.