In a previous post I argued that motivation matters, and the coach should participate in the motivational process for their clients. That can and should include motivational language, but I want to clarify a bit.
While positive language is an important component of a successful mind, it should not be the exclusive or necessarily even primary way that you motivate yourself or others. There has to be something bigger than inspirational phrases driving a person. If you are going to be vocally encouraging, it should be sincere.
Those words must be spoken from atop a foundation of preparation. That means before you even worry about trying to “be motivational,” you must be in the process of preparation.
The more prepared you are, the more confidence you display and the more you and the athlete will learn along the way. This is because you’re participating and paying attention to the process.
I believe that a lack of motivation is most (but not exclusively) fed by the unnerving nature of uncertainty. We get lost in the weeds of existential crises. We don’t know where to begin, or the most efficient path. Sometimes we don’t even know what the problem is. We feel discouraged because things don’t make sense. Or maybe we just have too many options and don’t know where to start.
Getting caught up in uncertainty is how motivation drowns, sometimes too slowly to notice.
If we want to be more motivated, we have to fill in those gaps in our understanding. We have to prepare. You don’t need another motivational t-shirt: you need a plan.
So while language does play a part, behind those words must be action and results. Data.
Let’s talk about how to plan. I’ve seen many suggested processes for this through the years, but here’s the approach that’s worked for me.
Step 1: Name it
Before making any forward progress, you first have to notice a thing that needs improvement in the first place. So pay attention. Ask yourself questions. What’s something that vexes you? Where in your daily life do you experience pain, discomfort, inconvenience, fear?
It doesn’t have to be something from the gym — any challenge will do. I often use the example of air travel. How well do you handle: standing in lines, sitting for long periods, hauling a suitcase around, or putting stuff in the overhead compartment?
Think of this as the brainstorming stage. We just want to help get you to shine a light on problem areas.
Step 2: Assess
You’ve found an area that needs improvement. For an example here, let’s focus on that luggage-in-the-overhead-compartment problem. You don’t know why, but this is really hard for you every time you have to do it. Maybe it even hurts.
We’ll need to assess your shoulder mobility, stability, and strength.
In terms of how to assess, this is where I really start to recommend working directly with a trainer or at least in class-based fitness where there’s someone you can ask questions. Most gyms and trainers have some form of assessment related to their form of training. (Those who don’t, should. Even if it’s not especially formal.)
There are great assessments available out there — browse around! There’s the Agatsu Assessment Course, FMS, and many more. It’s possible to go it alone on this, but you’ll save yourself a ton of time and energy if you engage with a professional to at least give you a clear starting place. Having a professional eye on your movement will help you understand things you previously did not.
Step 3: Establish Goals
Once you’ve assessed and know where you’re starting, figure out where you’re going. Get really clear with it. I’m a strong believer in SMART goals. This stands for:
There’s a lot to say about the idea of SMART goal setting, but I’ll keep it as brief as possible and perhaps discuss more in the future.
Let’s say you want to lose weight. The way to phrase this in a SMART way would be something like:
“I want to lose 10 pounds in the next six months.”
A goal like that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and with a clear time component.
Essentially, phrase your goal as clearly as possible. Like you were trying to explain it to a mischievous genie who might grant the wish. The clearer you are, the easier it will be to reach. Vague goals and methods beget vague results.
I think it was the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown that taught me that the word PRIORITY originally didn’t have a plural version, for the simple reason that if you have multiple priorities you really don’t have a priority at all.
What is THE priority? What are you focused on FIRST?
If everything is a priority, nothing is. So, what do you actually want? Distill it to its essence. Write it down. There’s your goal.
Step 4: Devise and Share the Plan
Once again, getting a professional’s help is a pretty good idea. But if you’re putting a plan together yourself, you should at least find someone with whom to knock around ideas.
When I’m designing a plan, I put the goal at the top of the page. Directly addressing the goal is the first order of any training day. After that I address secondary goals, then general physical preparedness. I also try to check in with past goals with some regularity to assure they are still doing well.
If you’re a coach, share information about the plan along the way. You don’t have to give them an exact printout of their training, but at very least it’s good to tell them why they are doing the things they’re doing on a given day. Let them in on your thought process.
Step 5: Define Boundaries
I used to think of this as part of the plan-writing stage, but really it’s something else entirely. Being aware of boundaries means you address problems before they arise.
Let me give you an example. Multiple clients have asked me, “What is the best thing I could do to improve my health?” In almost all the cases where I’ve been asked that, my answer has been, “Get more and better sleep.”
Often their response is, “Well, that ain’t going to happen.”
Similarly, I have clients who can only do one training session per week. Which means progress is much slower than they or I might prefer. For the busiest folks, 1x/week means that the entire training session is devoted to maintenance. In other words: sometimes minimal and slow progress.
I think a lot of folks don’t like to talk about boundaries and weaknesses because they think it creates an expectation of failure. On the contrary — it’s just good planning. Being realistic about obstacles as well as your own limitations means you can address them before they happen, and rebound quickly when they do. If nothing else, examining boundaries helps manage one’s own expectations — which in itself can create a happier and healthier life.
Knowing boundaries and limits also helps you sharpen the plan as a whole.
You don’t need to build out a gigantic flowchart with every possibility as part of your training plan. But it’s a good idea to observe and note what are likely to be the biggest obstacles to you reaching your goal(s). Is it sleep? Diet? Getting to the gym?
Bad hamstring mobility? Weak push-up strength?
Write it down! Acknowledge and learn your boundaries.
Step 6: Engage
Start walking the path. Find holes? Update the plan as needed. But let’s say you know the plan is good, the athlete has been progressing well, and yet something just isn’t working on a particular day. The client is discouraged.
Now we’re at what most people think of as the moment for motivational talk. I’m here to tell you that we’ve already been engaging in motivation up to this point, by displaying strong leadership, clear communication, and good planning.
When you look at it this way, you can see that many coaches are already engaging in motivating behavior — simply by planning well. Even some of those coaches who turn their noses up at the idea of motivational speech don’t realize that they are already communicating in a motivational way, because they are planners.
Armed with the confidence that comes from a job well done up to this point, keep communicating. Keep displaying that leadership. Keep returning to and revising the plan. This builds motivation to such a great degree already.
So why not go that extra step and actually put some icing on it? Remind the athlete how far they’ve come and why it’s valuable to keep going. There, now you’re motivating effectively.
Step 6: Course correct
You can revisit any step in the process at any point, even restarting from step 1 if necessary. If an athlete is reaching a plateau, talk to them and experiment with adjusting the plan. Do they need different exercises? More or less volume? Clarified or revised goals?
Maybe. Or maybe they could also just use a kind word, an opportunity to laugh, help with visualization, or a word of advice from an experienced professional.
I don’t think it makes you “tough” to pass on those opportunities. You can certainly choose to, but it could be the moment that makes all the difference in an athlete’s trajectory.
Notice that nowhere in this process does it suggest “Spout off bullshit motivational phrases at random.” Proper motivation has substance and comes from the heart. While passion can arise spontaneously at times, it burns longer and hotter when it’s fed by good planning and enough desire to get the feet moving.
The idea is to help the athlete reach their goals as quickly and completely as possible. This can be done without motivating language, sure. Indeed, there will be athletes who don’t need or want spoken motivation. For others, though, a kind or supportive word can be the key difference between success or failure.
Sometimes an athlete is following instructions and is basically headed in the right direction, but some aspect is lagging. Maybe they’re more tired than expected, their life has been dealing them extra stress, or progress is just not as quick as anticipated — these are critical moments.
Are you going to just stand there and say, “Yeah but the program is technically perfect?”
A little bit of humanity and vulnerability on the coach’s part is a great and sometimes only way to course-correct on an otherwise great fitness trajectory.
Motivation is not about empty platitudes, lying, or cheerleading. Motivation is about speaking in a way that encourages a person towards their goals rather than slowing their progress — that’s all.
But remember: preparation forms the foundation of motivational behavior. To feel maximally driven, a person must believe in what they are doing.
There are many trainers who take themselves too seriously and scoff at the idea of motivational tips, but I want to offer possibly the best motivational tip of all: PREPARE.