I’ve been thinking a lot about change lately because when you boil my job down to its essence that’s really what I’m supposed to help people do. They come to me because they want to feel better–physically and emotionally–and usually what they think they’re going to get by hiring a coach is a prescription. Eat this. Lift that. Don’t eat this. Don’t do that.
Instead I ask questions like:
“Why are you here?”
“What has your best experience with fitness been?”
“What do you value?”
I never get around to prescribing a diet of any sort. And rather than yelling or cajoling the way a celebrity trainer on The Biggest Loser might, I constantly remind them of their already demonstrated capacity for greatness.
Am I just a big softy? No, not really. It’s just that I’ve learned a thing or two about change. Believe it or not, we know a lot about human behavior, what allows people to change, and how to develop sustainability. The name for my coaching approach is motivational interviewing, and the technique grew out of psychologists’ work with addiction. The most important aspects of motivational interviewing in the context of fitness are empathy from me and a client-centered approach that assumes varying levels of readiness to change.
How does this play out in practice? Someone who’s resistant to change might hate going to the gym. So in talking to that person about their goals, I might develop with them a weekly goal to put together their gym clothes the evening before a work day. And…
And that’s it. That’s the goal. Simply put your gym clothes in a place where you can see them. Prepare gym shoes, clothes, and bag as if you’re going to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Demonstrate to yourself that you can do this, experience victory, and create a habit around fitness.
Next week’s goals might be putting those clothes on.
And the week after that the goal might be getting to the gym.
If you’re counting at home, that took about three weeks to get the person who hates the gym to get into the gym. Slow? Yes. Deliberative? Sure. Effective?
By demonstrating empathy with this person and recognizing their readiness to change, I didn’t front load their fitness with things that they cannot do. I met this person where she was and built success into her program.
I do versions of this deliberative process with clients every week. For some people we work together to develop a goal around reading about fitness. For others we make a goal about grocery shopping. The goals vary from person to person–which is why prescriptions in fitness aren’t often the best way to coach change. The cool thing about this process is that you can do the very same thing for yourself!
Think about a change you’ve been wanting to make. Maybe you’re eating too much fast food. But if you say to yourself, “stop eating fast food,” you’ve set yourself up for failure.
Instead, think about why you eat fast food when you do, and develop an incremental strategy for eliminating it from your diet. Hint: Usually one of the first steps toward eliminating fast food from one’s diet is learning how to shop at the grocery store. With that in mind, maybe your goal for the week might be to think about your schedule for the week and to make a grocery list. That’s step one. Step two for next week might be to make a grocery list and actually go to the grocery store. Step three might be list, grocery shopping, and trying ONE new recipe. The key is you can’t judge yourself (“why can’t I just stop eating fast food?”) and you have to acknowledge your own reticence to change. Change is hard, remember? So acknowledge that.
Not everyone can afford to hire a coach, but everyone can learn to practice more empathy and to troubleshoot their least healthy behaviors. There’s no need to wait until New Year’s resolution season.