// The transformational trainer: Creating clients for life

by Jon Denoris & Gary Stebbing

In the world of personal training there is no shortage of technical information – a quick scan of any fitness convention program demonstrates that by far the most popular topics for personal trainers are ‘how to’ sessions focusing on technical skills such as abdominal training and low back rehabilitation. Whenever the ‘art' of personal training is discussed it invariably gets the response; ‘Yeah yeah, I know all that, the importance of relationship building, trust, listening and so on. It’s the technical skills I need to develop not the soft stuff.’

Our experience observing and talking to trainers, and years of working with clients, suggests quite the opposite. One thing is absolutely clear, the most successful trainers, regardless of your criteria for measuring success, are those that are masters in the ‘art’ of working one-on-one with clients.

Sound technical skills are obviously vital to the development of any discerning fitness professional, but there still lies a whole area of trainer development, indeed a new skill set that we believe has yet to be adequately addressed within personal training. We call this the ‘clients for life’ mindset, and understanding and applying the principles of this thinking can catapult your business and training to new levels.

Hang out with more weirdos!

Our approach draws not only on our own experiences, but upon experiences and theories from the worlds of business, high-performance coaching, counselling and behavioural change. We need to look outside the world of fitness to discover new examples of best practice, benchmarks and creativity. In the words of management guru Tom Peters, we need to ‘hang out with more weirdos!’, the point being that in order to think differently you need to change your point of reference, you need to evolve.

Relationship building

The essence of what we do as personal trainers is relationship building, or what the business world calls ‘customer relationship marketing.’ Research suggests that the most essential quality for any practitioner to possess while working within ‘an effective helping role’ is that of strong interpersonal skills (Najavits & Weiss 1994, cited Hunt and Hillsdon).

This can be traced back to the work of Carl Rogers who in the 1950s defined these skills as:

  • Unconditional acceptance: accepting your clients with no strings attached, regardless of their thoughts, behaviour and feelings. Placing all biases and prejudices aside. Not to be confused with approval or liking.
  • Genuineness or congruence: being real and able to relate in a sincere and non-defensive way.
  • Being empathic: understanding the world through your client’s eyes, through careful listening and accurate reflection.

The key to effectiveness

Sheth and Sobel cite empathy as the key to personal effectiveness, defining it as the ability to perceive other people’s emotions and thoughts (Clients for Life, 2000). This can enable us as trainers to understand the world from the perspective of our clients, to form meaningful relationships, and to respond more effectively. This is vital if we are to learn about our clients and become more innovative and effective.

The skilled helper

If the qualities of acceptance, genuineness and empathy are present then a ‘therapeutic alliance’ may exist. This requires hard work on the part  of both practitioner and client in the effective relationship. These qualities also help us to develop trust, as demonstrated by the formula below:

Your client’s perception within each factor in the equation will raise or lower the trust they place in you.

Transaction to transformation

Developing these skills enables you to change from being a transactional trainer to a transformational trainer; one capable of creating ‘unique experiences’ for your clients. In The Inner Game of Work (2000) Gallwey expands on this, calling it ‘the art of creating an environment through conversation’.

What’s in an experience?

If Oprah Winfrey were your personal trainer, what industry would she really consider herself to be in? She is really an analogy for developing the skills of empathy, trust, listening and communication, and perhaps emotional or ‘relationship intelligence’. In The Experience Economy (Pine and Gilmore 1999) this concept is demonstrated superbly by the criteria which state:

  • If you charge for stuff you are in the commodity business
    If you charge for tangible things then you are in the goods business
  • If you charge for the activities you execute then you are in the service business
  • If you charge for the time customers spend with you then you are in the experience business If you charge for the demonstrated outcome thecustomer achieves then, and only then, are you in the transformation business.

Hanging with the weirdos again!

As a trainer with the ‘clients for life’ mindset, you will be in the business of transforming lives, and great physical and emotional demands will be placed on you. You will be required to become a new kind of fitness leader, one who is a master listener, communicator and educator. As Larsen (2005) says, you should aim to become an emotionally expressive and inspiring person who can create the right atmosphere rather than have to make all of the decisions yourself.

To help you get some clarity in the areas we have mentioned, in our next article we will get into the thinking, behaviour, skills and actions of a transformational trainer. We will explore the relationships this builds and how, when applied, it will help you revolutionise your business and create clients for life.

Jon Denoris, MSc CSCS
Jon is the managing director of catalysthealth.com whose clients include celebrities, athletes and business people. He is also a fitness consultant to the Cabinet Office in the UK and was the first personal trainer to address The Royal Society of Medicine. Jon has ten years experience in exercise science, has featured in over fifty publications and is also on the advisory board for Shape magazine.

Gary Stebbing, BSc (Hons) CSCS
A specialist in personal training and strength conditioning, Gary has advised, coached and helped rehabilitate performers across a range of sports including premiership soccer players and elite dancers. Most recently his skills have focused on working with professional golfers, including both club and European Tour professionals.



NETWORK • SPRING 2006 • PP24-26