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7 Game-Changing Coaching Principles, FAQ: Answers To Your Most Frequently Asked Health and Fitness Coaching Questions

By John Berardi, PhD

Elite Level Coaching

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I recently published an article series (part 1, part 2, part 3) covering the seven most important coaching principles that can help you view, work with, and speak to clients differently… in a way that increases their commitment to, and likelihood of, change. Today I’m back to answer the most common questions that came up since then.

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Q: You outlined several coaching principles and they all sound important. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with what to do next. What do you recommend?

JB: Nearly everything mentioned in these articles isn’t so much a thing to learn as it is a skill to acquire, just like most other aspects of personal development.

(As you know by now, it’s practice that leads skill development and skill development that leads to reaching new goals.)

I highly recommend participating in coaching workshops that emphasize the use of motivational interviewing, a research-proven coaching and counseling methodology that’s heavily influenced the coaching beliefs at Precision Nutrition.

These workshops give you the opportunity to role-play coaching interactions in low-stakes environments with colleagues instead of actual clients. You’ll want and need this kind of safety and security as you take baby steps toward a new way of coaching.

To find an upcoming workshop in your area, check out the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers at: https://motivationalinterviewing.org/

Of course, if you’re feeling confident, you could always forgo the workshops and try to create your own curriculum using the practices, skills, goals model outlined in this chapter. If you go this route, be sure to get lots of practice with committed colleagues and friends. Because, without practice, your skills will take longer to develop, if they develop at all.

Q: I find accountability to be a big part of why people hire coaches, but I think they also get frustrated when things don’t go their way. How do I balance holding clients accountable without sounding like I’m nagging or bothering them? 

JB: We recently did a survey of over 10,000 people. More than 80 percent ranked accountability as a “very important” part of health and fitness. However, only 20 percent said they had a way of keeping themselves accountable. So, you’re right, accountability is a big opportunity for you, and for clients and patients. However, most professionals don’t seem to be optimizing the accountability process.

Accountability works best if it happens at regular, expected, agreed-upon times.

Whether one-on-one, in small groups, through email, text, or app, accountability should have a known cadence. This means you don’t message clients randomly with “How’s your new practice going?”

Instead, you build in expected check-ins, negotiated in advance, so there’s agreement about what time and format is best for both of you. When it’s expected, it’s trusted. Further, you won’t be coming off as harsh or nagging when you’re following up in an agreed-upon way or, better yet, they’re reaching out to you at the expected time.

When following up, consider mixing open-ended questions (like “How have things been going this last week?”) with specific questions (like “What’s been going well with your new eating plan?” and “How about challenges, have any come up?”)

Q: People are always giving me this vague goal of wanting to lose weight, which is great. But now that I know I’m supposed to ask more questions, where do I take it?  

JB: A great exercise here is something called the “Five Whys.”  Here’s how it works.

When a client tells you about an “outcome goal” of theirs, you ask why.

Coach: “So, you say you want to lose fat. I’m just wondering why?”

Client: “Well, I’d really like to fit into a smaller size jeans.”

Then, whatever answer they come up with, you ask why again.

Coach: “That makes sense to me. Why that?”

Client: “When I’m wearing smaller jeans, I think I’ll look better.”

Then you ask why again, in a slightly different way.

Coach: “I can see why that would be motivating. Why is looking good important to you?”

Client: “When I look good, I tend to feel good about myself.”

And again.

Coach: “Why is feeling good a priority right now?”

Client: “Because when I feel good about myself, I’m more assertive and confident.”

And again.

Coach: “Why do you want to be more assertive and confident?”

Client: “Because when I’m more assertive and confident, I’m in control and better able to get what I want out of life.”

Notice how the process uncovers some valuable information. Your client, perhaps for the first time, will articulate their real reasons for wanting to change. Plus, with this uncovered, you can formulate ideas that’ll help them solve their deeper challenges and reach their most meaningful goals.

I recommend the Five Whys for coaches too.

Question #1
Consider why you’re reading this article, on this website, right now. What do you hope to get out of it? 

Question #2
Why is that important to you?

Question #3
And why that?

Question #4
What are you hoping that’ll help you with?

Question #5
And why’s that important to you?

See where you end up. Your answers might surprise you.

Q: What do you do when clients resist nearly everything you suggest?

JB: My son is a wickedly smart and sweet little boy. But, like any other young child, he can also be difficult. Especially when it comes to putting on his coat and boots before going outside in the winter.

When he first started resisting, I did what most parents do: I told him what to do. “Put on your coat and boots,” I’d say. “It’s cold outside.” Occasionally he listened, but most of the time he didn’t, and it would be a ten-minute struggle to get out the door.

I felt like a big bully. And, the more I pushed, the more he resisted. That’s when I tried something different: I gave him choices.

Instead of: “Put on your coat and boots, or you’re gonna be an unhappy little dude.” I changed to: “Which of these two awesome coats do you want to wear? Red or blue?”

The first time I asked him what he wanted to wear and gave him options, something amazing happened: he became excited. He got to choose. And so he chose his favorite winter coat and a pair of mismatched boots and was happy.

The coaching lesson here: Give clients a choice. For bonus points, brainstorm choices together so that clients are choosing from options they co-created.

Q: Okay, let’s talk results. How do you track them?

JB: I like to think of client results as part of a larger process called Outcome-Based Decision Making (OBDM). You assess. You get data. You figure out what the data mean. You choose what to do next based on that. You don’t just choose next actions randomly, but based on the results of the evidence you’ve just gathered, and the outcome of the previous decisions.

Why this process? Well, the world is full of ideas that don’t work. They sound great on paper, or in our minds, but don’t hold true in the real world. Yet we often cling to these despite evidence to the contrary.

Our brains just work that way. It’s easy for us to get attached to our pet theories, or to insist that our way must be right. So we have to be vigilant and self-aware. We need a process.

Any type of logical reasoning that uses evidence to determine the course of future action can count as OBDM, as long as it uses these steps:

  1. In collaboration with your client, identify the thing, idea, behavior, system, to be tested (e.g. a diet plan, a stress management plan, an exercise plan).
  2. Decide how you’ll know whether that thing, idea, behavior, system, etc. “works” or not.
  3. Test it.
  4. Look at what happened.
  5. Choose your next steps based on the outcome of Step 4.

 Q: Got any tips for clients who seem impatient or frustrated by plateaus?

JB: There’s a concept I love called “the moving horizon.” The idea is that if you ran your fastest to “catch” the horizon you never would because, obviously, it’s always moving away from you.

People know this, of course. But they still try to “catch the horizon” when working toward goals. As soon as they get close to reaching them, they set new, more ambitious ones. And, since the goal keeps moving away, they end up feeling frustrated even though they’ve made tremendous progress.

This is why we need to build in a process of looking back, a way to remind ourselves how far we’ve come (and celebrate that) instead of constantly feeling equally far away from an ever-moving goal.

As a coach you can help with this by taking time (every month or every other month) to systematically show your clients how far they’ve come, that progress has been made. Any progress is fair game: body changes, consistency improvements, more nights going to bed early, whatever.

Here are some questions to help them feel proud of how far they’ve come.

Question 1.
What have you put the most effort into during the last few weeks?
If you’ve been showing up, even just a little, it means you’ve been working on something. So jot that down and remind yourself of where your focus and energy has been.

Question 2.
What are you most proud of from the last few weeks?
Here we’re looking for daily wins. Like having a good breakfast on your busiest morning. Or making a smart eating decision in a tricky situation. You’ve done something to be proud of. Now’s the time to call it out.

Question 3.
How will you high-five yourself for the great work (in a healthy way)?
Think about how you’ll celebrate your progress, even if it’s just a small reward that supports your goals.

Question 4.
What more would you have liked to accomplish?
Everyone thinks this kinda stuff: coulda, woulda, shoulda. Let’s get it down on paper, and then let it go. Write down what you wanted to get done . . . but didn’t.

And here are some questions to help them feel excited about the next steps.

Question 1.
Looking ahead to the next few weeks, what are you most looking forward to?
In other words, what are you excited about? Looking forward to? Ready to tackle?

Question 2.
Knowing what you’re about to work on, what advantages do you think you have that’ll make progress more likely?
Tune in to your own unique abilities. What “superpowers” do you have that can help you in your efforts?

Question 3:
Knowing what’s coming up in the next few weeks, what things are likely to stand in your way?
Consider the things that might prevent your progress.

Question 4.
How can you prepare, right now, to make sure those things don’t get in your way?
Having listed things that might stand in your way, think about how you’ll prevent them from sabotaging you. How can you avoid obstacles before they happen?

Always looking at how far you have to go is demotivating and depressing. Seeing how far you’ve come is uplifting and provides fuel for the next phase of the journey.

Q: I have a handful of clients that are just plain lazy. They simply don’t want to put in the work no matter what I try and how easy I make it for them. Now what?

JB: Clients are rarely lazy; they’re often just stuck in ambivalence or competing commitments. They’re trapped between “I want to do this” and “I don’t want to do this,” “I have to change” and “I’m scared of change.”

If ambivalence were the same as laziness, I’d be considered lazy and so would you, because we’ve both been ambivalent about some decision, or some change, in our lives.

For example, I stay up later at night and love sleeping in each morning. It’s a pattern I’ve had for most of my life. Sadly, our four young children don’t share this preference. Early each morning, they rush through my bedroom door and hop up on the bed to wake me up and enjoy some cuddles.

For a long time I complained about the early morning disruption (and loss of sleep) to my wife, Amanda. Eventually she installed a lock on the bedroom door. Now I could keep the children out and get another hour or two of sleep. Problem solved.

But, wouldn’t you know it, I never once locked the door.

Was it laziness? Of course not. What, then, prevented me from locking the door? Competing priorities.

On the one hand, getting enough sleep is important to me. On the other, special time with our children felt more important. And that became clear when the two were put head to head.

The lesson here: Stop confusing laziness and ambivalence. They’re not the same thing. Most often when a coach describes their client as lazy it’s simply because the coach hasn’t figured out what the client’s competing priorities are or tapped into why they feel ambivalent.

My previous coaching articles (part 1, part 2, part 3) covered several strategies on help clients move past ambivalence and toward a state of readiness, willingness, and ability to change. Once you start practicing them you’ll be better able to help coach clients through the ambivalence and find new ways to resolve the competing interests.

In my case, I ended up resolving my sleep issue by restructuring my day. Previously I’d been working out at night, after the children went to bed, and that was the main reason I stayed up late. After finally accepting that I wasn’t going to get my much-needed extra hour of sleep in the morning, I restructured my day to work out earlier so I could be in bed an hour sooner.

If you’d like to learn more about ambivalence, and how to coach clients through it, I’d encourage you to learn more about Motivational Interviewing, starting with the book of the same name. Motivational Interviewing techniques have been validated both in research and clinical settings and many of my coaching ideas have been adapted from them.

Q: Sometimes my clients have elaborate, and incorrect, theories on what works for them and what they should do next. How do I deal with that? 

JB: You make it concrete and real by asking this powerful question: “How’s that working?” As long as you ask it with genuine interest (not sarcasm or cynicism) it’s enough to remind people of the real goal here… to find something that actually works for them.

Client: I use this quadratic equation to determine my exercise frequency / load.
Coach: How’s that working?
Client: Not so good. I keep forgetting to bring my calculator to the gym and end up spending my workout time trying to solve for x with a pencil and paper.

Client: I only eat foods that are brown and white.
Coach: How’s that working?
Client: Now that you mention it, I haven’t had a bowel movement in weeks.
Client: I’ve been turning off my TV and going to bed an hour earlier.

Coach: How’s that working?
Client: Man, I feel so much better and don’t want to kill people any more!

Despite the tongue-in-cheek examples, notice how the question is neutral and gently provokes self-evaluation. This is usually the key to inspiring action. And it’s vastly superior to telling people they’re wrong, blaming them for making bad choices, or judging their actions.

Q: So you took a shot at the cheerleader types of coaches. I pride myself on being motivating and positive, and people tell me they like it. So you’re saying I shouldn’t? 

JB: I’m not saying you shouldn’t be positive; what I’m saying is that either extreme—Brillo-pad abrasive or Cinnabon-sweet—are detrimental to the coaching process. Forced positive conversations can be patronizing, they can hide real hurdles, and they prevent honesty.

Real humans feel real emotions. Happiness and positivity. Ambivalence and pain. Elite coaches practice being okay sitting with someone else’s pain, perceived negativity, or sadness. Even more, they can read the spectrum of emotions and adjust conversations accordingly.

The truth is: Sometimes things suck. And people shouldn’t always have to look on the bright side. Coaches can learn to be present with that and respect it, not try to fix it or make it go away.

In these situations, don’t pat clients on the back and point to some cheesy motivational poster. For most clients, these are actively de-motivating.

Instead, learn to recognize that emotions have a purpose. In fact, painful emotions may be moving clients closer to change. In these situations, “That sounds tough” and “I’m here for you” work better than “it’s not so bad!” or “it all works out in the end!”

Q: You want me to be silent sometimes? As a coach, I’m supposed to have answers.

JB: Here’s one of my favorite nuggets about human psychology. Our natural reaction to someone telling us what we should do is rebellion. That’s the case for teenagers, for citizens with overbearing governments, and for clients too. The heavier the hand, the more they resist.

Earlier we discussed the idea that when you argue for change, your clients will argue against it. And that’s true, even if someone hires you to help them change.

If someone hands you their food journal, it looks horrible, and you tell them all the places they went wrong, even if they know this already they have to protect their ego. So they respond by telling you that it’s not so bad. That they had a super busy week, or the kids were sick, or they had to work late.

Just like that, you’ve forced them to argue against change.

That’s why asking questions and listening works so well. It’s also why silence is golden. It offers people a second to catch up to their own thoughts:

“The week was horrible…[your silence]…but I guess I’m ready to get back to my six servings of veggies starting today.”

This is actually a technique professional interviewers use. When they pause after an answer, it tells the interviewee that they might not be finished, so they end up thinking and talking more.

Q: I’m very frustrated by people coming in and saying they want to try something they’ve seen on TV. Any advice? 

JB: I get it. Your first reaction is to slam your head down and yell, “We’ve been together six months and you watch a three-minute segment about hula-hooping and want to change everything?”

Here’s what you need to realize: This could turn into an awesome conversation if you consider what’s good about it. Namely, your client was out in the world, maybe for the first time, seeking health information and fitness inspiration. Don’t cut that off at the knees. Praise it, with caveats.

“That’s awesome you’re taking charge of your health. One day, you won’t be working with me, and I want you to be able to seek out new information, experiment, and learn.

Now, I don’t necessarily agree with the advice, and I’d rather we try X instead. But, if you have your heart set on trying it, I’ll support you.

Let’s just agree that I’ll keep close tabs on you. And, if it turns out to be dangerous or counter-productive, we can change course.”

Notice how this puts you and your client on the same team vs. creating something adversarial. Later, once the client knows you respect their autonomy and that you’re on their team, you can share strategies to help them better evaluate future information.

Q: My clients  swear they’re “doing everything right” but I have my doubts. What can I do to challenge them without seeming adversarial?

JB: You can use the two most powerful words in coaching: Show me.

Client: “I’m eating my veggies.”
Coach: “Great! Show me.” (Review client’s photo food journal.)

Client: “I know what a protein portion is.”
Coach: “Great! Show me.” (Review client’s command of portion sizes.)

Client: “I already know how to do a proper X.”
Coach: “Show me.” (Review exercise form.)

Client: “I’m struggling with Y.”
Coach: “Show me what that looks like.” (Go through scenario or clarify what Y means with client.)

Notice how this approach directs the client to observation, awareness, and self-evaluation before you judge or decide what to do next. Also, “show me” ensures that you know exactly what a client means by something vs. guessing or assuming.

Want To Learn More? Go Deeper?

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