Almost 4 years ago, I made a transition from coaching fellow Marine Officer Candidates* to helping regular people with regular fitness problems. My median client age went from 20 to 40, the amount of time I had with each person dropped from 12 hours a week to 1 hour, and the average motivation went from “OO-Rah!” to “meh.” It was a jarring shift and the biggest change for me to manage with civilian clients was the lack of an objectively measured external motivator. Marine Officer Candidates want to be Marine Officers. That means getting perfect scores on the Physical Fitness Test and Combat Fitness Test. My first 80 year old client wanted perkier tits and I don’t know what the nationally recognized test is for that.
Week after week, I would meet with my new clients and asked them if they had been working towards their goals which were often nebulously defined. “I tried, but...” was the most common answer. Meanwhile, Officer Candidates were calling me on off-days to ask if a 12 mile run was “light enough.” In my naivety I was frustrated with my new clients. These civilians just didn’t want it badly enough! They lacked discipline!
IT people everywhere complain how little people know or care about their computers. Dentists complain how little people seem to care about their own teeth, psychologists marvel at how people’s lack of coping skills, and car mechanics are baffled that we can’t seem to manage regular oil changes. Everyone who does anything for a living is shocked that no one else shares their enthusiasm for it, fitness nerds included. We gather together in sweat pants at conferences and complain loudly to each other about how clients can’t even manage to do the Minimum Effective Dose of strength training, cardio, and mobility work (“they don’t even have goals!”). Then we curse our iPhones, forget to floss, avoid calling our mothers, and drive home with the “check engine” light on.
It is folly to expect men to do all that they may reasonably be expected to do. - Richard Whately, Apophthegms (19th Century)
As I worked with my civilian clients longer, I noticed they had something that 20 year old Officer Candidates did not have: interesting lives. My 80 year-old client was a working nurse with an MBA managing the transition of a dozen hospitals onto an all-digital records system to cut down on infant mortality. She went to mass every morning before she came to the gym and often cursed me when I made her do Turkish Get Ups in a thick brogue. I realized most of the Officer Candidates I was training wanted to become officers in order to become half as interesting as this Irish dynamo. So instead of hearing my client’s life as a list of things that were getting in the way of her training, I began to simply listen. Yes, she certainly was busy, but the way she spent her time and the way she chose to relate the stories of that time was a pretty good indication of where her priorities lay. And I soon learned that learning more about my clients’ priorities is integral to keeping them moving forward.
The very fact that my clients have cut me a check and showed up to train is an indication that health and fitness is a priority for them. By listening to what else they make a priority, I can figure out where their health and fitness goals fit in the grand scheme of their life and set their expectations (and mine) accordingly. This is not a guilt trip. It’s an ego-less assessment of what is important to them and how their actions are impacting their goals.
A Fearful Summons
In Self-Determination Theory, guilt (aka, “introjected motivation”) can be a powerful motivator for behavior, but it is one of the least sustainable. People report guilt as feeling controlling, shameful, and downright ‘icky.’ Motivation researchers call both external motivation (being promised reward or threatened with punishment) and guilt “controlled motivation.” In terms of changing actual behavior, controlled motivation usually only lasts as long as the control is in place, and often this control needs to escalate to outstrip competing internal motivations to escape those icky guilty feelings. It’s no wonder that Hamlet refers to guilt as “a fearful summons.” There is, however, an alternative.
Try to Try
One of the most important tenants of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Interviewing is non-judgmentally meeting people where they’re at. Not where they want to be, not where I want them to be, and not where I assumed they’d be by now after working with me for a while. I have to take my personal ego out of the assessment, and more importantly, I have to help them do the same. I see a lot of people give up because they aren’t far enough yet, which makes about as much sense as abandoning your car on the morning commute because you’ve hit traffic. Traffic is really frustrating, but being frustrated is one thing, leaving your car on the shoulder is another. The key to knowing what you should do is asking yourself what’s really important. My clients have interesting, purposeful lives and sometimes those lives get in the way of timely progress on health and fitness goals. And that’s OK. I’m not going to tell an 80 year old who’s job is literally saving babies that she should prioritize getting to the gym more, but I will engage her in an active conversation about it. In theory, people prioritize what’s important to them with their patronage and their time. In reality, a lot people are riding on successive waves of guilt, trying to make everyone in their life happy. Much like I’ve mentioned before, I have to engage them in a conversation about what they want, and at what cost. And at the end of the day, I’m not Yoda. I’ll take “try” because “try” is a step forward from “who gives a s#!%.” In fact, I’ll even take, “I’ll try to try” because sometimes, that just where someone’s at. And expecting more than what people have to give would be unreasonable.
*So we’re clear, I was never a Marine. I was not selected for, did not attend, nor complete Officer Candidate School. I was an Officer Candidate from November of 2008 to February of 2010 and that was enough to be a formative experience in my life.