Batteries not included

[Man, this pandemic has really made me miss fist bumps]

Lexico defines motivation as “the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.” Developing a sustainable fitness practice for yourself requires motivation of some sort. It can be as simple as “I want to look good naked” or as lofty as “I want to inspire others to live healthier lives.”

There is no right or wrong, because it’s about finding motivation that works for you. But there is better or worse, in terms of what is likely to continue fueling your efforts in the long term. For example, your doctor expressing concern about your health might not connect as deeply to your soul as your six-year-old daughter doing the same.

Motivation is intensely personal, and because of that a lot of coaches stay away from it. They want to teach people how to exercise and leave the psychological out of it.

This is a mistake. Coaches are in the unique position to offer feedback and direction at particularly vulnerable moments in an athlete’s life. Most days a training session could be pretty normal: a warm up, some strength and skill work, light banter, etc. But on other days, training could involve pushing someone to their physical and mental limits right after they had a huge fight with their spouse. 

Or, more specific to fitness, perhaps the client has just had someone remark on their weight and it sent them into a spiral of self-doubt that goes all the way back to being bullied in middle school.

This person has shown up and is paying you for a good workout, but they are hindered by some aspect of their life. They need help, and you are standing right in front of them with an opportunity to really boost them up. Is that really the best time to say “Not my job?”

Kettlebell living legend Pavel Tsatsouline has stated:

“Over the years, people have asked me why don’t I offer motivation tips. The answer is: I have none. We are all adults here: either you have it, or you don’t.”

– Pavel Tsatsouline

I call this the “Batteries Not Included” approach. It implicitly states: “I will teach you the skills you hired me for, but the mindset stuff is up to you.” This isn’t just limited to fitness, either. All kinds of teachers try to avoid anything venturing into the psychological — because it’s messy and difficult.

[I’m being a little tough on Pavel here. I actually think he’s quite motivating, which I’ll explain more about further on as well as in my next post. I just think this particular quote is too narrow in that he probably means to say that empty platitudes are not useful. But that’s what makes this the perfect quote to discuss, because there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to be motivating.]

It’s much easier to focus on clients who are already “there” — athletes who have connected, deeply and personally, with their goals. Such athletes are by far the most capable of continually developing strength and skills, quickly.

A coach’s passion is at least partially tied to the already-present enthusiasm and talent of the athlete. The best teaching often occurs when there are engaged students asking strong questions. So, I do understand those who would prefer to have engaged students who need less “tending to.” But I also believe that having the most engaged students requires a maximally engaged teacher. It goes both ways, and in the best situations this creates a magnificent feedback loop. 

I don’t subscribe to the idea that “either you have it, or you don’t.” There is a whole spectrum in between, and where you’re at changes from moment to moment. But where I differ most is that I believe the coach has the ability — and maybe even the duty — to affect their client for the better. “Motivational tips” includes more behaviors than you might think. Demeanor, eye contact, leadership, a clear interest in the client’s success.

A good coach who is thoughtful, compassionate, and halfway decent with language can change the course of a training session. Maybe even the athlete’s entire outlook on fitness and life. All in the span of a couple of minutes. 

Motivating oneself and others is a skill, and can be cultivated to a greater degree than most people realize. Providing motivational boosts while teaching people to cultivate their own is arguably the most important part of coaching for me. Helping to direct people towards connection to movement and health is, in my opinion, more important than exercising itself — because the former will feed the latter in a more sustainable fashion.

Coaches may not realize it, but in their brain is a line. Let’s call it the IGNITION LINE. A motivated athlete has already ignited and is ready to receive instruction and apply it. But when an athlete dips below that line they require more attention — often an outsized amount of attention compared to others. Athletes who are not relatively easy to ignite often result in many coaches losing interest in really helping them. Sometimes they are even seen (or see themselves) as robbing the other students of time.

Such behavior is natural. Teaching and motivating in a nuanced way is hard. There is a finite amount of time, patience, and energy available to each of us. So I don’t judge anyone for primarily focusing on athletes who are already at or above the coach’s ignition line.

All I’m saying is that in so doing, we are leaving behind the majority of the population. Whenever possible, we coaches should be trying to reach a bigger audience by challenging ourselves to work with people who dwell outside the walls of our comfort zones.

We don’t have to do it all the time — it’s okay to still have boundaries. But it’s a mistake to completely disregard the motivational opportunities available to coaches. And it’s a bigger mistake still to act like being emotionally unavailable is somehow noble or better.

I also don’t think that the already motivated need more help. They already have the best coaches and gyms waiting to cater to them. Less than 25% of the US population is exercising with any regularity.

The remaining 75+% are people who say:

I’m too busy. I’ve got kids and a hard job. The gym is too far. Training is too expensive. I hate cardio. I’m worried that weights will make me bulky. I don’t like to sweat. What are all these people training for, anyway?

In response, the industry says:

If it’s really important to you, you’ll find a way. Don’t be a wuss. Yes, you may hate this thing but you HAVE to do it if you want to be healthy. No pain, no gain!

No! No, no, no. Don’t tell them they’re wrong. Don’t insult them or put them down. Don’t act like you’re better. Don’t tell them or even imply that they are hopeless.

Instead, tell them why this stuff is important. But please, help them. They don’t understand and we are shirking opportunities to explain it patiently and well.

I don’t think it’s enough to have the most efficient programming or balanced training system — being a hard-nosed, tough-talking cliche means you may be reaching only a fraction of the people you otherwise would. It doesn’t matter how “right” your form of training is if everyone finds you to be a bore (or boor).

Motivational talk is about maximizing the effectiveness of training that’s already being done. It’s about delivering your programming and philosophy well.

Granted, it’s not entirely necessary to make for a solid career. There are many successful coaches and fitness personalities out there who eschew motivating language because it’s very difficult to do well while also being hard to measure, financially speaking. But that does not mean it is without value. 

I’ve seen so many trainers gripe about their clients’ compliance with a training program, blaming the athlete for not finding the motivation. And it’s true, at the end of the day we are all the masters of our own universe and “the buck stops here” and we must take responsibility for our own lives, etc.

But if the client could simply summon the energy to work out on their own, they wouldn’t need you in the first place — they’d go buy a book or a DVD on the subject. Coaches: they came to you because you’re a human being with whom they want to interact, and on some level they are expecting you to behave like you give a damn.

If all you’re doing is spouting instructions, then crossing your arms and staring at them, you aren’t showing that you care. You aren’t being human. You are indicating that you, the person, are not important — only your instructions are.

True presence is motivating, and you don’t even have to say a word.

Motivation has a place in coaching because we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people, many of whom have never had the experience of a coach (or maybe even their parents, teachers, or friends) truly believing in and supporting them. You can keep on being an intelligent hard ass with great information and get by just fine as a trainer, or you can put in that extra effort to learn some nuance and talk to people in the way THEY need instead of the way YOU want.

The former is easier, while the latter may reach more people. And of course, there’s an entire spectrum in between. Experiment and find the level of motivation you are willing and able to offer. There is no right or wrong — it’s up to the trainer to decide how much they want to invest in communication skills, how broadly they want their personal philosophy to reach.

Speaking in a way that connects with and motivates your client will amplify your message immeasurably. It’s worth the extra work.


[This is the first in a series of posts about Motivation. Stay tuned for more!]