// Coach or trainer - what's in a word?

by Fiona Cosgrove

As personal trainers we are well qualified to help our clients achieve their physical goals. We have all the answers at our fingertips to prescribe the appropriate training routine for any given desired result. Whether programming resistance training for strength, tone or increased basal metabolic rate or cardiovascular training for higher performance and weight loss, we know how best to make our clients move. But are these physical training skills really delivering results? And if not, why not?

If your clients aren’t seeing the results they’d like, one reason may be the lack of a ‘coaching’ framework within the physical training program you have designed. In this context, coaching refers to a way of interacting and speaking with your clients that encourages their success. Many trainers are using ‘coaching skills’ without really knowing that they are doing so, whereas others are claiming to be ‘coaches’ without understanding what is involved in that role. Whether you want to be a fitness coach or a wellness coach (see box below for the distinction), you’ll need to become familiar with a method of communication which is somewhat different from simply wearing an expert ‘physical trainer’ hat.

Fitness Coach or Wellness Coach?

Fitness coaching is a field in which fully trained fitness professionals apply evidence-based techniques from sport and exercise psychology and coaching psychology to assist their clients to achieve positive fitness and lifestyle outcomes through attitude and behaviour change. Source: Andrew Dawson, Dawson Education and Deakin University

Fitness coaches work with their clients while they exercise in a personal training setting, but run the sessions in a different manner, concentrating on helping clients make choices, set appropriate goals and confront their sometimes self-limiting thoughts and beliefs.

Wellness coaching is a field in which accredited health and fitness professionals apply evidence-based techniques from coaching psychology and positive psychology to assist their clients to master wellness and optimal health through cognitive and behaviour change. Wellness coaching focuses on mental and physical behaviours relating to nutrition, exercise, weight control, and stress management and expert advice is delivered only in the field in which the coach has a technical background. Whereas fitness coaching is performed during the course of training a client, wellness coaching is conducted by phone or face to face and is separate and distinct from a training session. Source: Fiona Cosgrove, Wellness Coaching Australia

Wellness coaches tend to be trained in fitness or nutrition and work with clients creating positive lifestyle habits that will enhance their health and wellness. They focus on creating a vision for the future, identifying obstacles and helping clients come up with strategies to overcome them.

Changing from just a training framework to a coaching framework involves adopting a wellness approach. A lot has been said about wellness, but what does this term really mean? The best definition that I have found is ‘optimal physical and mental health’. And, I think you would agree, that is the result we would like our clients to achieve. In order to do this, however, we need to add a new level of knowledge to our personal training minds and also learn a new skill set to deliver that knowledge.

The art of conversation

Coaching is all about a conversation, with the coach asking the questions and the client providing the answers.

Now, this is a very different approach to that usually adopted by most trainers. Until now, many of us have been happily providing the answers, as that is what people pay us to do. But the reality is that people do not take responsibility unless they have a say in what they do. Consider the following: by saying we are the expert we are really saying ‘we are in control, not you’. People are best persuaded by ideas that they have come up with rather than those that have been fed to them.

A great coach will ask the right questions

So what does this all mean for the average personal trainer?

To understand our clients and to truly help them we need to know several things:
  • What do they want and why do they want it?
  • What have they tried in the past – what worked and what didn’t?
  • If they got what they wanted, what else could change?
  • What’s stopping them?

This last point is where the art of questioning comes in. We often forget that the reason why our clients have not reached their goals is that there are obstacles preventing them from getting there. These obstacles are often referred to as ‘excuses’. Thinking that your client is just ‘full of excuses’ is a great way of ignoring who your client is and what their life is like. And this is where we go wrong. We rush in, hand out the perfect plan to lose weight/get fitter/increase muscle tone and back it up with an eating plan that is faultless and a guarantee of success if only our clients would follow it. And surprise, surprise, they don’t. Our frustration increases, our confidence levels go down and guess what we do? Blame the client, thereby effectively handing over the responsibility at this late stage of the process. Sounds a bit harsh, I know, but I think you would agree that this happens far too often.

Give the responsibility to the client before they start, not when they fail

Coaching is based on a few dominant principles:
1. A coach is a facilitator and support person. The responsibility rests with the client.
2. The client generally knows what to do, but not how to do it – that’s where we come in.
3. The client needs to have ownership of their plan and the only way to get this is to engage them in the process.

A great coach will have excellent communication skills, advanced empathy and understand that the preparation phase of changing a lifestyle is the most important part of the program. The ‘just do it’ mentality might be fine when you are buying a pair of running shoes or aiming to lose a kilo before the beach holiday in two weeks time, but not so useful when you’re building a plan for lasting lifestyle habits.

Many trainers are embracing the concept of wellness and fitness coaching as they understand that this is the only way to give independence and an excellent chance of success to the people they work with. But it takes courage and a new skill set to make this shift. When we learn these skills and implement them, we become coaches and part of the move to change lives for good.


Fiona Cosgrove

Fiona has worked in the fitness industry for over 20 years as a lecturer, trainer, corporate presenter and club owner. She is the managing director of Wellness Coaching Australia, a business that provides coaching services to the corporate world and that runs coach training programs within the fitness industry. For more information, e-mail fiona@wellnesscoachingaustralia.com.au or visit www.wellnesscoachingaustralia.com.au

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