3 Lessons from My Biggest Failure as a Personal Trainer
During my senior year at the State University of New York at Cortland, I took a class geared specifically towards personal training, a class I currently teach. One of the requirements for the class was to train a client that was provided for 15 sessions. And that’s when I picked up a client who has since become my personal training baggage.
This client had little desire to work hard or change anything about her life, even though she was easily 80 pounds above a healthy weight. After the 15 sessions were up she offered to pay me to continue to train with her. Sure, I thought, why not? I’m a broke college kid, I could use the money.
After that year I graduated and went out to California for the summer to intern with one of the strength and conditioning coaches at The University of California at Riverside. After summer I returned to New York where I was offered a job as an adjunct professor at Cortland teaching the very class I’d met that client in.
We started to train again. That year passed quickly and despite my best efforts my client saw no changes.
In August I formally moved to Cortland and asked for her to meet with me so we could sit down and have a talk. We went over her goals once again, they remained the same. She wanted to lose thirty pounds.
“What would you be doing differently today if you were thirty pounds lighter?” I asked her.
She told me that she would probably be eating less junk food at night. After that we agreed that she could only have junk food twice a week.
The next week she confessed to me that she ate ice cream almost every night of the week. I took a few deep breaths, remembered what I’d learned about habit changes from Precision Nutrition, and offered up an easier solution.
“Okay if that’s too hard I’m going to give you an easier habit, I want you to take fish oil every morning, can you do that?”
She took it for the first day,m but on the second day when asking about the fish oil I received a text that said:
I was frustrated and angry. I was mad at myself that I couldn’t help this person live a healthier lifestyle. If I can’t get her to do this one little habit what does that say about me? I must suck at my job.
I was also frustrated with her that she couldn’t follow the easiest directions even when I gave her daily reminders.
This client was “my baggage” — she was on my mind constantly. I was always thinking, how can I bring her to that “ah ha” moment, the moment when she actually wants to change.
I started questioning whether diet coaching was my strong suit so I sent her the link to Precision Nutrition’s Lean Eating program so she could sign up. About two weeks later I learned that she’d signed up — for a completely different diet program from a site I had never heard of! To make things worse she blamed me for sending the wrong link.
Again, I was angry and frustrated, and to make matters worse, in the following weeks I caught her eating candy corn on one day, a muffin on another, and McDonalds on yet another.
I was done.
So What Did I Learn
As stressful as this experience was, it did teach me three very valuable things.
1. There are just some battles you can’t win. I wanted nothing more than for this client to live a healthy and productive lifestyle. I don’t think I’ve ever put so much effort into helping a person, so much that it would keep me up at night, that it would make me question everything about myself and how I do my job.
As trainers get more established — which I wasn’t when I started with this person — the people that come to you will be the people who want results.
Unfortunately, in the beginning you have to take on all clients, which can often be “no-win” clients like this one. Remember, all you can do is show them the best path towards change. In the end, they have to make it happen.
2. Ask your weight loss clients these three questions in the first session. I stole this from the book Motivational Interviewing. With each initial consult I ask my new client three questions:
– Are you ready to change?
– Are you willing to change?
– Are you confident you can change?
If I don’t get an emphatic yes with each question then I know that the road ahead is going to be a struggle, so I hold off on change talk for a while. These people are already making a change by making exercise a part of their life and that’s a good start. Once a person is ready, willing, and confident they can change, then you can provide the strategy to help them change.
3. It’s okay to drop a client. I don’t want to break up with any of my clients — I want everyone I help to succeed. However, if you have ten clients to manage and one client demands 50% of your effort and they aren’t listening to your advice, then you’re doing a disservice to your other nine clients.
If you let a bad client bum you out and lower your energy level it could transfer over to your next client, someone who might otherwise be psyched about exercise and change. That could result in the second client losing their own motivation or not sticking around as a long-term client.
Professionals learn from their successes but it’s the failures we make that teach the greatest lessons.