// The transformational trainer: Thinking, behaviour and skills

by Jon Denoris & Gary Stebbing

This is the second of two articles on the concept of ‘Transformational Training and Clients for Life’. The first article featured in the Spring 2006 issue of Network. Although it is recommended you read both, each is written so that it can stand alone.

Successful one-to-one training is fundamentally based upon creating exceptional client relationships. The thinking, behaviour, actions, and skills that are the basis of this concept must be explored in order to move from a transactional approach to a transformational approach to personal training. The best trainers consistently work to discover new ideas and creative ways to become exceptional at what they do.

Intention vs technique

‘Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion’, Martha Graham Transformational training and helping clients succeed is not about techniques or a series of steps to success, it is about intent. Success is achieved through the way in which you go about your work and life, through your unique personality and characteristics.

You cannot fake intent – if it is not genuine, somehow, somewhere it will come through in your communication with your clients.

What’s in a name?

The range of names or titles we use in fitness is like a proverbial deck of cards; practitioner, specialist, coach, trainer and so on – no wonder the public, our client base, can become confused. Although it is not for us to re-define these labels, we believe there is a common link that runs through all successful fitness professionals, and that is the ability to provide skilled help. Transformational trainers are skilled helpers.

The thinking

Transformational training requires a unique mindset, the ability to interact with clients in a highly personalised way and to ‘touch the client’s world’. Fortunately the skills and thinking to create transformation are not genetic, they are available for every fitness professional who wishes to develop them.


Are you a good listener? Whenever we pose this question at seminars or workshops, as you might imagine, the room seems to be full of exceptional listeners. We beg to differ; good listeners are few and far between – and great ones are a very rare breed. If you can demonstrate great listening skills to your clients it will send them the invaluable message ‘you matter’.

A fundamental of listening is attention, which means being present, engaged and focused. According to Nancy Kline (2004); ‘The quality of your attention determines the quality of other peoples’ thinking’.

Now consider these questions; could you write down the eye colour of all of your clients? How much attention are you really paying to them? Are you really a good listener?


Questions are not just about fact finding; they can help build rapport and even change emotional states. Initial client meetings are an excellent place to begin reviewing your questioning ability. Far too little emphasis is given to this meeting and its importance in the overall success the client achieves. Too often trainers rush the process, pay too little attention to the client and jump in assuming that they understand the needs and wants of the client; after all, they are the experts in training and the client has their kit bag at the ready and their chequebook on the table - who can resist its magnetic pull? Skilled helpers understand the importance of questions in all they do; they understand the value of listening, attention and noting the cues, both verbal and non-verbal, in the answers they receive.

It is useful to consider it this way; ‘the answer is sitting in front of you, it lies inside the client. Your job is to help them find it, not to find it for them’. One of the most useful pieces of advice we have come across is to consider; ‘What is the best question I can ask right now?’ (Kline 2004).


This involves more than simply asking the client what they want to achieve. It seems obvious to us all that a client’s training should be goal centred. No doubt you are experienced in setting goals with clients, but this goal setting or establishing the vision of what the client wants is rarely explored in any significant or useful depth. Transformational trainers massively improve the understanding of what is driving their client and use a range of skills and techniques to explore with the client the many elements of their goals.

Helping clients create a crystal clear picture of where they are going and exploring the reality of what is required creates a wonderful opportunity to establish and build the trainer/client relationship. It allows the client to begin taking responsibility and increases the probability of achieving objectives.

Two excellent techniques to research and consider are the use of timelines to plot progress and future interviewing to gauge the client’s feelings about their training.


As a personal trainer you have hopefully achieved great success with clients; the question you should ask yourself though is who was responsible for that success? How often in the sporting world does a coach or manager soak up the plaudits when their team is playing well, only to shift responsibility to the players when problems arise? Many trainers enjoy a client’s success as their own, yet blame the client when things do not go so well. In the ‘clients for life’ mindset the client is responsible for their results; the trainer is a resource they use to help them achieve their goals.

The relationships

‘Whenever two people meet there are really six people present. Each person as they see themselves, each as the other sees them and each as they really are’ William James Recent times have seen a shift of emphasis from IQ to EQ (emotional intelligence) to what Robert Holden refers to as RQ or relationship intelligence.

Simply, we must develop the ability to interact with our clients to create an effective relationship, to develop our interpersonal skills. Much is written on this area, yet many trainers mistakenly continue to believe that it is only by developing more technical skills that they will increase their success. There is a huge range of resources out there to help you – some useful titles are listed on this page.

A less discussed skill is our intrapersonal ability. This involves becoming aware of our own behaviour, abilities and thinking. Do you regularly seek feedback from colleagues or clients on your training? Do you compete with colleagues or compliment them on their excellence? Do you regularly have your training observed and assessed? When a client is unable to learn an exercise, is it because they can’t do it or because you can’t teach it?

Fitness is wide open to health fraud and like all immature fields, suffers from insecurities.

The concept of critical thinking may be new to many in fitness but is fundamental to our development if we wish to gain credibility with clients, be revered as professionals, and become exceptional at what we do. We must examine not only our own thinking, but also the information we are presented with (such as this article) constantly. Too often we are vulnerable to lively or persuasive presentation and fail to look more deeply at the subject matter.

A transformational trainer constantly strives to develop inter and intra personal abilities. The approach we propose is not a quick fix or an easily defined formula or series of steps; it is a lifetime commitment, a journey.

Further reading and references

• Time to Think, Nancy Kline
• Re-Imagine, Tom Peters
• Success Intelligence, Robert Holden
• The Inner Game of Work: Overcoming mental obstacles for maximum performance, Timothy Gallwey
• The Experience Economy; work is theatre and every business a stage, B. Joseph Pine II and James H Gilmore
• Funky Business; Talent Makes Capital Dance, J.Ridderstrale and K.Nordstrom
• The Likeability Factor, Tim Sanders
• The E Myth, Michael E Gerber
• Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman
• Learned Optimism; how to change your mind and your life, Martin E.P.Seligman
• Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
• The Trusted Advisor, David Maister, Charles Green & Robert Galford
• Batteries Included; Creating Legendary Service, Nigel May Barlow
• Clients For Life; How Great Professionals Develop Breakthrough Relationships, Jagdish Sheth and Andrew Sobel
• Changing Eating and Exercise Behaviour; A Handbook For Professionals, Paula Hunt and Melvyn Hillsdon
• Motivational Interviewing; Preparing People For Change, William R Miller and Stephen Rollnick
• The Skilled Helper, Gerard Egan

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