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Tips for Motivating Discouraged Clients

For some clients who join a gym or hire a personal trainer, everything goes as planned, and their stories have happy endings. But other clients start discouraged or become discouraged. They may cancel their workouts or go through them half-heartedly, offering up more excuses than repetitions. They may fail to exercise on their own, and may let their gym memberships lapse. Discouragement is a vicious downward spiral, resulting in depression and plummeting self-esteem, not to mention ever-decreasing conditioning. The discouraged client becomes a former client, and everyone loses, including you. So what can you do?

The Role of Positive Psychology

Health and fitness professionals are well trained in exercise technique, but they may be less well trained in how to work with discouraged clients. During the last decade, a new perspective has emerged called positive psychology. Specifically concerned with what makes life worth living, this scientific field has led to practical advice that actually works. Here are some different ideas from positive psychology that may help you if you are working with discouraged clients.

Keep Talking to Your Discouraged Clients

When you begin working with clients, you speak to them about their health and fitness histories. You ask about goals and past failures in achieving those goals. But too often, these discussions are cursory. I suggest a deeper conversation, not only when training begins but throughout the time you work with a client. As a personal trainer, you cannot be a psychotherapist, but you do need to understand a client’s hopes and fears and in particular why he or she might be discouraged. This information will help you to plan workouts in ways that chip away at the sources of your client’s pessimism.

For example, is the client afraid of looking foolish? Every new gym member to whom I have spoken fears being catapulted off a treadmill, to the snickers of everyone in the vicinity. Many new members—especially men—do not want to lift puny weights in a room filled with seasoned exercisers grunting and grimacing. More generally, no one wants to fail yet again at becoming fit. Not trying provides an excuse that makes sense psychologically if in no other way. A good way to combat fears is to tackle them head-on by asking clients what they fear and then discussing with them how realistic their fears actually are.

Accentuate the Positive

As positive psychology proposes, it’s not all about problems. Ask your clients what they do well and what makes them happy. You will discover that all clients, whatever their fitness challenges, have strengths and assets in other domains that you can leverage—like a supportive spouse, active children or a deep religious faith. Along these lines, ask your clients about past fitness and health successes.

Make Workouts Fun

How can you make a workout fun for a client? Besides having a playful attitude yourself—a contagious thing—here is another idea, suggested by positive psychology.

Create Workouts With Good Peaks and Ends. Consider how people decide that an experience was positive—that is, enjoyable or fun. They think back over it and recall its high points and how it ended. Their memories are surprisingly unaffected by the rest of the experience. As a trainer, you should build in good peaks and good ends if you want your clients to decide that their workouts were worthwhile. The other parts can be quite ordinary.

A workout peak is an accomplishment that the client feels good about—and upon which you heap praise. To make sure that peaks occur, choose appropriate exercises (see www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/help-for-discouraged-clients for tips on how to create flow). A good end is a concluding exercise that your client does successfully and that—once again—you celebrate with generous praise.

For more information, please see “Help for Discouraged Clients” in the online IDEA Library or in the May 2011 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

Christopher Peterson, PhD

Christopher Peterson, PhD, is professor of psychology and director of the Michigan Positive Psychology Center at the University of Michigan. He is among the world’s most highly cited research psychologists and an award-winning teacher. His 2006 book, A Primer in Positive Psychology, is the basis for a continuing education course on positive psychology that he helped develop for DSW Fitness (www.dswfitness.com).

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