How to understand client motivation

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Both trainers and coaches deal with motivation in several different ways. This is due to the fact that clients have different motives for seeking a coach or trainer, and this requires that we understand and clarify what our clients motivation for exercise or behavior change is.

For trainers, we know that it is usually not enough for a client to pursue physical changes with no sound rationale behind the effort. In some extreme cases, a doctor or physician has warned the client that if they don’t take action, they may experience even greater consequences to their health and wellness. This is the type of client who is less likely to enjoy working out or following training program designs because they are doing it to correct a condition or circumstance that they have found themselves in. Often due to a sedentary lifestyle or simple apathy, this type of client can be hard to motivate. They may lack an internal motivation for change.  This is just one angle of motivation, however.

Conventional Client Motivations

A trainer might also encounter a new client who has more conventional motivations. They simply want to look, feel or perform better. This type of client may have looked in the mirror and not like what they saw. It could also be that they went to lift their grandkids and experienced pain in their joints, or a lack of strength to complete the movement they desire.  They might miss out on getting close to family members with a hug, or a lift up from the ground.

Then there are those in the aesthetics group. These are clients who are simply trying to make a change to look different. They may want to lose weight, or simply bulk up with muscle. Keep in mind that it is often a mistake to align either of these motives with a specific gender; plenty of male clients want to lose weight and have a little interest in bulking up their muscles. Many female clients will be interested in losing weight but not at the exclusion of strength training exercises to build muscle mass. It is common for trainers to get this motivation flip-flopped. That is a different problem, we call that trainer bias.

integrative coahc and client F M
A personal trainer and client look over progress markers to be sure changes are occurring as expected

But one caveat to understanding motivation from a client occurs when a change is pursued for someone else. This can even include making a change to appease the trainer. But most often it is for a spouse or partner, or even strangers who may have thrown a disapproving glance at our client to make them feel the need to make a change. The guilt and shaming as an anchor of client motivation is unfortunately very realistic. But the bigger problem with this type of motivation is that it is not strong enough to support a client through the hard work that faces them.

“I ought to do it…..”

In the coaching profession, we put people in this state as the “ought to“ group. They feel that they ought to make a change for someone else. Or they ought to do something because they’ve been told it’s the right thing to do. Neither of these are examples of internal motivation, and are exclusively external motivators. In both coaching and training, long lasting significant change only occurs when the motivation is internal.

There are other types of motivation, too. We can look at how people are motivated to perform or participate in group sports or activities, such as pickleball or golf. What motivates one player to outperform the other in these situations? For this answer, we have to then look at different determinants of personality, and the impact of personality factors on both participation and performance outcomes. These personality factors are known to be connected to the type of sport or activity one leans toward. In other words, an introvert might prefer tennis, whereas an extrovert, and I prefer soccer or a more aggressive contact sport, such as football or soccer. It therefore benefits the coach or trainer to understand where our client’s motivations come from. 

Asking powerful questions, using reflections to summarize what is shared from the client and knowing a bit of motivation are markers of a great coach.  If you are able to “fish” for client motivations, you can elevate the service your provide your client and ensure better outcomes with just a little more understanding of what drives your client to seek change in nearly every area of their life.

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