In a Facebook group intended for personal trainers and often infiltrated by business coaches, someone posted this question along with a meme:
“Are you going to give your clients a break on Thanksgiving, or are you going to hold them accountable for diet and training? Post below!”
The answers varied a great deal.
Some of the more facepalm-worthy answers were:
“Thighs before pies.”
“They need to put the work in if they are serious about their goals. I’m holding them accountable.”
But the responses aren’t the only thing cringey here. I think the question itself is concerning.
Why? It implies the trainer is the one responsible for the decisions about diet and training as though the trainer needs to grant permission for the client not to exercise or diet.
I value qualities like trust, teamwork, and personal responsibility, and I attempt to reinforce those qualities when I coach. To me, granting permission for a day off of training or a day off of calorie counting seems to contradict these values. It doesn’t promote personal autonomy.
Personal autonomy is a person’s sense of self-determination, of being able to make choices regarding the direction of their own actions, including the freedom to pursue those choices. With personal autonomy, an individual is able to engage in effective self-regulation, successfully monitoring needs and values, responding adaptively to the environment, and initiating, organizing, and directing actions toward the achievement of needs. 
Autonomy is something I value in my coaching practice and it’s something I think most coaches should be incorporating to varying degrees among their clientele. In my experience, people with a strong sense of autonomy often take ownership of their actions and have a greater degree of acceptance of their circumstances and, in my opinion, this puts them in a better position to take action.
Here are some reasons that I value personal autonomy in my coaching practice:
1) The PROCESS of encouraging autonomy sends an important series of messages. It says, “I trust you.” It says, “I value your choices.” It says, “You can do this.” Saying these things DIRECTLY can also help, but building autonomy demonstrates these messages.
2) The PROCESS of encouraging autonomy can increase client buy-in and confidence in your methodology because they are a pivotal part of the decision making process.
3) People who demonstrate autonomy are, by definition, taking a great deal of personal responsibility. Hopefully we can accept the importance that personal responsibility has in the ability to make progress. As such, encouraging autonomy can build or reinforce the importance of personal responsibility without directly saying “you need to take personal responsibility.”
4) Eventually you are not going to be working with the same clients. They will hopefully have gained some tools and some knowledge having worked with you, and at some point they will probably continue to train and manage their diet on their own. Encouraging autonomy will build this self management, making them less trainer-dependent. You should want this, regardless of what that business coach told you.
5) The process of building autonomy in a coach-client relationship can also benefit the coach. It requires some humility and is not easy. You have to surrender the idea of dictating every aspect of training and diet. You have to often put your ego aside and make sure that it’s about the client and not about you. This is something I’ve absolutely failed at, at times. You have to genuinely approach your relationships as a team. You are providing your knowledge and your past experiences to steer things in the right direction, but they are driving.
Right now, you might be thinking:
Hold up. I’m the EXPERT and they pay ME to have SOLUTIONS.
Does this apply to EVERYONE?!
I’ll acknowledge that the approach I’m outlining here isn’t something for every coach to use on every client. There are going to be certain clients that literally just want or need to be told what to do. There are probably some examples of elite level competitive athletes who do what you say when you say it, but I think they are the exception, not the rule.
It’s also important to note that clients have goals they have shared, and they are paying for help in reaching those goals. If their behaviors are consistently at odds with their goals or preventing them from reaching those goals then this probably needs to be addressed, and so the goal of fostering autonomy is NOT synonymous with “do whatever you want with no regard towards your goals”.
Ok smarty pants, HOW do I promote autonomy?
Here’s an example of what the dialogue might look like when encouraging autonomy. I’ve provided a brief explanation of my commentary as well. Keep in mind that the following closely describes a real conversation, with minor paraphrasing:
“How are you feeling, Sheila?”
“I’m struggling. Last week I only got to the gym once, this week I didn’t go at all”
“That sounds rough! What do you think is causing it?” (I’m acknowledging her feelings about her situation, I’m acknowledging that I’m listening to her, and then I’m directing the conversation towards potential causes. This supports the goal of autonomy.)
I’m not entirely sure. I definitely feel more tired and I end up sleeping instead.
“Do you think your sleep quality has gotten worse, or have you noticed any changes to your bedtime, or any other things that could be affecting your sleep?”
You know what, now that you mention it YES. I started a new series on Netflix with my partner. It’s addicting and we end up watching 2 or even 3 episodes.
“I get it for sure. My wife and I watch ‘Atypical’ on Netflix. Our son is on the spectrum and so we really identify with this show and it’s hard to stop at one episode.” (I’m relating my experiences to her so she feels heard and understood.)
I’ll definitely add that to my list! Although I probably shouldn’t *laughter*
“Haha, definitely add it to your list. So it sounds like you found a great new show that you love, but sometimes you don’t get enough sleep and then you miss a few training sessions?” (Reflective listening, and I’m ending in a question to continue directing the conversation.)
That’s exactly what’s happening and I’m kind of embarrassed that I didn’t think of this.
“For what it’s worth, I think it can help to take inventory of these things out loud. It’s really easy to not think about them if you aren’t prompted to. What would you like to do with this information?”
Honestly there’s no reason we need to watch 3 episodes. It’s clearly affecting both of us. I’m going to have a talk with my partner about this, and see if we can strictly limit this to 1 episode per night. This will save me 30 to 60 minutes of sleep per evening and get me closer to my previous sleep levels when things were going well.
“Great idea. Can you contact me this weekend and let me know how things have gone between now and then?” (Confirmation that she’s on the right track and subtle reminder that it was her idea/plan.)
Note – If she would have said, “This Netflix time is important to me and I’m not willing to give this up,” then we would explore other options. Perhaps she would conclude that she’s better off training after work, and this would be perfectly valid. The fact that she’s proposing the solution will usually mean it’s a solution she has high buy-in on.
If you’d like to encourage personal responsibility, improve client buy-in on some behavior changes, and help build confidence in your clients, then promoting autonomy may be a tool you should consider using.
Do you agree? Do you disagree? Do you just want to stare at my beard?
You can do all of those things here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1757960127817969/