As mentioned in the Research Review this month, I have long used choice in my coaching relationships as a way to foster autonomy in my clients. This can be scary for many new coaches who think that their value comes from programming their clients’ every moment, but as we saw in Wulf, Freitas, and Tandy (2014) the choice necessary to foster a sense of autonomy can be very small. For their experiment, the participants just chose the order they did the exercises in. Coaches can reap the benefits of incidental choice by following a few simple guidelines.

  • The choice has to be genuine. Your clients aren’t stupid; they know the difference between real choice and a false dichotomy. For example, you can’t tell people, “you have your choice of burpees or a kick in the junk!” Give them enough options that they don’t feel trapped, and level with them about the pros and cons of the options you’re giving them.

  • Give it structure. One of the reasons that people come to experts is to limit choices. Simply telling people they can do whatever they want is too vague. As their coach, you are there to help give structure to chaos, while still maximizing client autonomy so give them choices that make sense.

  • Be unconditionally positive. Don’t have a favorite and don’t try to push them in any direction. Telling them, “well I wanted us to do deadlifts today, but I’m gonna give you a choice.” That’s controlling and passive-aggressive. Instead, be genuinely excited about whatever they want to do and frame all the choices as steps in the right direction.

Putting these guidelines together, you can see this is a Goldilocks situation; you need to give them more than one option but less than too many and they all have to be great ideas. If that seems daunting, take the advice of an expert. I talked to Dan John about this study and his idea was to ask clients, “do you want to get better at hinges, squats, or presses today?” The statement is positive, implies a progression and structure, and has enough options to feel genuine. If they follow up the question with, “what do you think I should do?” don’t cave in. List the pros and the cons of each option, and keep putting the choice back on them. And if you’re working with a group, get off script and have a dedicated time where everyone can work on an exercise or a skill of their choice. The reward is that every client will feel more invested in their own progress and more confident that it’s possible to get to where they want to be.