John Berardi: The Coaching Compliance Solution

by John Berardi, Precision Nutrition

John Berardi, Precision Nutrition

I’d like to talk to you about the tough clients—evaluating coaching compliance. These are the clients who have you gnashing your teeth and thinking, “I’m telling you what to do and it’s good for you. Why won’t you do it?”

But we shouldn’t take this personally because this is a problem in other fields too.

For example, let’s say you’re a physician prescribing lifesaving medicine. Sick people come to you, not just to get fit or feel a little better, but so they don’t die. You give them a pill that takes 20 seconds a day to take. How often do you think they’ll take it?

The data suggests they only take it about half the time.

Are you shocked by this? Does that concern you? It does me.

It also kind of disheartened me. If doctors can’t even get their patients to swallow a pill in the morning, how am I going to get people to do this exercise and put attention on nutrition? I was really depressed.

But there’s hope.

Evaluating Coaching Compliance

Here’s a pattern I see pretty often.

After a while working in the training field, the novelty wears off and we start to actually look at our practices and consider how well we’re doing. If we start with 20 new clients, we might see this trend where one out of every 20 gets a jaw-dropping transformation.

Then maybe we get nine people who get what we’ll call noticeable results. Performance. Body composition. Health. We notice what’s happening, and it’s really positive.

Nine out of 20.

Then we get the five who have poor results. But they feel better, maybe just because they have a trainer. Or they’re just happy they’re not dying at a really quick pace.

Then we have the five who drop out.

I believe every trainer goes through this kind of three-stage process in realizing where they’re at in the pecking order and how good they are.

Stage one of development: That’s the “I’m awesome” stage. You know this is true. If clients aren’t succeeding, why? It’s not because of me. It’s because they’re just not awesome like me.

We say things like—and this is the sobering moment here—“They’re not trying hard enough.” “They don’t want it badly enough.” “They’re not doing what I tell them to do.” Or, when they tell me they are, “they must be lying.”

We think it’s the responsibility of the clients. We throw some stuff at them—the stuff that’s based on our awesomeness—and they’re just going to respond.

And if they don’t, it’s because they suck.

When you get to stage two, you get over yourself. You start to look at the actual data of your clients and start to realize it’s frustrating.

If we’re so awesome, why are so few of  our clients really kicking butt here?

That forces us to ask a number of other important questions, and they’re hard questions. But when you think you’re awesome, you don’t want to face these realities.

You might come to the conclusion that it’s what they’re doing outside the gym. There are some important things happening with the other couple hundred hours per week when they’re not with you. What kinds of things are they doing outside the gym?

What else can impact on this? Sleeping, alcohol and lifestyle stressors are getting more attention these days.

Now let me remind you: When doctors prescribe pills to help patients not die, they may only take it half the time.

We always joke around in fitness that people are looking for a magic pill. Well, I submit that even if we had that magic pill and thought all we’d have to do is give it to our clients, we would be wrong. There’s another piece to this puzzle.

I have a lot of education in this field and know all this really high-end upper limits of physiology stuff, but I discovered it was still just the simple habits that were tripping clients up.

Change Psychology

Then I started spending time learning about a field called “change psychology.” Doing this study literally changed everything about the way I coach…for the better.

Motivational Interviewing is one of the best coaching books I’ve ever read. The notion here is of how you talk to your clients can do either one of two things when trying to promote change.

One will make change more likely. Two will make change less likely.

By pleading with them and trying to convince them to make a change, you can make them less likely to make the change.

Let’s say, we have a client who has a terrible diet. What do we usually do? Tell them to give us a three-day diet record, maybe? Then we might say, “Sit down. We’re going to talk about your nutrition today.”

What usually happens? No matter how we couch it, we look at what they’re eating and we say, “This is bad.” You’re probably much nicer than that, but what you’re basically saying is whatever they’re doing is wrong.

“You’re doing this wrong.”

How often do you like to be told that you’re wrong?

Even if you know you’re wrong, if someone tells you you’re wrong, what happens? What’s the first sort of emotion that bubbles up?

You get defensive. You try and defend your actions, even if you know they’re wrong.

Even if you know you want to change, what happens psychologically? You deepen your resistance to change.

When you start trying to convince other people you have good reasons for doing things you want to change, you become less likely to change.

It’s counterintuitive, but you know you do this, and you know people you talk to do this too. And your clients certainly do it. They’re humans. It’s no different.

The book Motivational Interviewing will teach you how to speak to your clients in a way to make them more likely to change. It’s not accusational, not blaming—it involves them in the change process. This is critical and important, and this is what we teach at Precision Nutrition.

We have to understand change psychology. We need to learn how to help people change, how to help them get through difficult habit change—how to help them stick to a program when their motivation wanes.

At Precision Nutrition, we learned how to get through all these little stumbling blocks associated with going through this process of getting fit. Because of this, when we compare the compliance of our program to the compliance with prescription medication, we’re really proud of the numbers. The exercise and lean eating program have about a 70% compliance. Every exercise session we tell people to do, they do about seven out of every 10. On the nutrition side of the program, they’re doing about 72% of the habits we ask them to do.

You and I, we’re fitness enthusiasts, eager to train. But it’s a mistake to try to apply that same model to our clients. Many of them don’t love this. They don’t want to do more—they want to do less.

The reason most of us spend our lives in the exercise physiology learning stage is because we’re learning for us. If you want to be a professional, you need to also learn for your clients. That’s an area where you need to spend time.

Key Coaching Compliance Lessons

There are some key lessons for us in this change psychology realm. These things should help you immediately.

The first is what I call “Coach to Both Sides of the Brain.” This is an antiquated model of how the brain actually works—it’s not 100% accurate. But you’ve seen it before, and it’ll make a little sense as an analogy. You’ve heard of right brain and left brain thinkers.

Left brain tends to be logical, analytical, relying on reason, questioning instinct, mechanistic scientific, strategies and structured-type of thinking. These are our engineers and scientists and people like that. They’re the left brain people.

Our right brain people are our intuitive, artistic people who rely on emotion and reason, looking for patterns and imagination and beauty. They’re our artists and fiction writers and creative people.

When we talk to our clients, which side do we normally talk to?


We need to start coaching to both sides of the brain. Instead of pleading with clients on a rational level and handing them articles—don’t get me wrong, these can be useful and we definitely need to point the clients in the right direction—but we also need to shape the path and make sure we get this emotional brain on board. We do very little of this in the fitness world, and if we did more of it, change would be a lot easier for our clients.

The second point is probably one of the most important takeaways you’ll ever get from any change psychology book: Give clients only one new habit at a time.

When people start a new fitness program with you, how many new habits do you think you’re giving them? In particular, how about if you’re asking them to improve their sleep, their water drinking, their nutrition, and also to start working out?

How many habits is that? 100?

If you’re asking them to work out with you three times a week, they have to adjust their schedules. That’s a new habit. Then they have to find the way to the gym. That’s a new habit. Then they have to do these new exercises. Those are new habits. They might have to buy some new clothing. That’s a new thing.

And then, nutritionally there are hundreds of small decisions every single day. Don’t eat this. Eat that. Go to the grocery store. Buy this. Stock up the fridge. Look at the kitchen in a different way.

Hundreds of new habits! No wonder it’s so hard to for new people get in shape.

My favorite books to suggest on this topic are Motivational Interviewing, Switch, and The Power of Less.

In The Power of Less, the author offers some statistics and looks at how new habits actually stick. He’s come to the conclusion that if you adopt one new habit, you have about an 85% chance or greater of sticking with it. One new habit.

If you shoot for two new habits, it drops to less than a 35% chance of sticking with it.

If you go to three, it’s less than 10%.

Of course, these data don’t apply for every client. You’re going to get some super hardcore Type A clients. You’ll be able to throw everything at them, and they’ll be able to do it.

Fire Bad Clients?

In fitness, we have this popular notion that we should fire the bad clients. You’ve probably heard this: Just get rid of your problem clients. These are probably all the people who aren’t Type A and won’t do everything you ask, even if your ask is ridiculous.

But the people who, if you throw 10 things and they do them all—they would have gotten in shape without you. Really. They would have figured it out.

We’re in the business of helping the people who can’t do it on their own. The way to do that is to go slow, one habit at a time.

And that single habit needs to be small.

When you ask a client about doing a particular habit and hear, “Well, I don’t know. It’ll be a challenge, but I think I can do it.”

That’s the wrong answer.

The right answer is, “Are you fricking kidding me? Of course, I can do that. Every day? No sweat.”

They have to feel like it’s way easier than their capability. In fact, you want them to feel like you’re an idiot for even asking them to do something so simple.

The habit should be small, and something they can do daily. Habits don’t get formed if they’re a part-time or occasional thing.

Small, Clear Habit Changes

Not just small, though; that habit also has to be clear.

“Work out more” is a terrible single habit.

“Do five minutes of intervals today” is excellent. It’s measurable, and it’s crystal clear. If I ask whether you did your five minutes of intervals today, there’s no ambiguity. You can’t say, “Well, I’m not sure.” You either did it or you didn’t.

Eat more veggies. That’s often a common goal for people, but it’s not a good one. “Eat one cup of veggies with each meal” is measurable. It’s clear; it’s specific. It may be too big for some people, in which case you should reframe it.

“Improve mobility.” You’ve got clients who sit at a desk all day. They’ve got hip problems. It’s true they have to improve their hip mobility. But it’s not a good goal. Getting up from the desk chair every hour today and doing this stretch is a better goal.

Measurable, clear, specific.

The idea is one habit that should be small, should something they can do daily, and it needs to be easy to understand and measure.

Lesson number three: Speak to clients in a way that makes them more likely to change rather than less likely to change. Instead of telling them the change, a step in the right direction is an asking process. We start by asking if they can do certain things or if they want to do certain things. The minute you start telling clients they’re wrong is when they start trying to convince you they’re not wrong, and then they will never change.

We’ve got to make them more likely rather than less likely to accomplish change.

Take 100% responsibility for client results and compliance. Most of us take responsibility for results, but it’s our responsibility to do both. Our programming and our advice has to be good. Absolutely. That’s the program IQ and that’s making the right decisions as a fitness professional, but we also have to take 100% responsibility for compliance.

If clients aren’t complying, that’s our fault, not theirs. It’s hard to think this way about coaching compliance, because you’re going to see a whole new host of problems you have to solve. But when you start to think this way, it becomes a lot more fun to do this job.

At first it’s going to be harder, but later it’s going to be a lot more fun.

You’re going to see every situation as an awesome challenge, and you’re going to see every client as someone who can succeed. Every client has the potential to succeed here.

If there’s a problem, you have to really dig in and address the physiology, or, as in most cases, it’s psychology. It’s the behavior stuff. When you have strategies to help them with that, you can help a lot more people.

This is a choice you can make right now. Hopefully you’re thinking, “You know what? I’ve been looking at this all wrong. If a client isn’t doing what I ask, it’s my fault, and I have to figure out a way to change that.”

Study, Then Practice

First you need to study this, then it’s all practice.

How do you talk to clients? What happens when they come with objections? What are the habit layouts? What should they be? How do we make it simple? How do we talk to both sides of the brain?

It’s a false assumption that change is hard and miserable for everyone but the most hardcore. It’s totally wrong. There are all kinds of aspects of our lives where we go wholeheartedly into change. Get married or have kids, for example. These are big changes. We should be terrified by the prospect. Changes like this should be difficult, but most of us are eager to get started on these changes.

Start thinking about speaking to the right and the left brain, introducing one habit at a time, speak to clients appropriately so they’re more likely rather than less likely to change, and take 100% responsibility in your practice for results and compliance.

If you’d like to learn more about how we teach this at Precision Nutrition, we have a new FREE five-day elite nutrition coaching course. We’d love to send you the first lesson.

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