When our clients come to us, many of us are quick to ask, “what are your goals?” It’s one of the first questions we learn to ask as fitness professionals. But the obvious follow up question to, “what are you goals” is often left out of our education: “Why?” Why do you want that? Why are you here? Why do you think paying me money will help you get there? Why are you here at this time of day? Why are you coming to me instead of someone else?” I think that the question, “why” is the most powerful tool in the coach’s quiver, but it has the potential to sound accusatory and mean. If you just start drilling your client with “why,” you might sound like a petulant 5 year old. But just like a kettlebell, a barbell, or a yoga pose, the power of the tool is always in its proper application. “Why” is a deep question because it is open-ended. As opposed to a close-ended question like, “are you motivated?” which only require a simple “yes” or “no,” open-ended questions require the person answering to think about cause and effect. It makes them question their assumptions and reveals the gaps in awareness. And as you’ll see in this month’s review of Motivational Interviewing, open-ended questions are great way to find out more about where your clients are at. But there are other ways to get there. If you are uncomfortable asking “why,” or it’s just not appropriate, it is still possible to assess your clients’ motivations. For this month’s feature, I have collected two of the tools I use from my Initial Client Assessment to find out where my clients are at. I based these on Self-Determination Theory, which studies motivation on two axises: Quality (“Why”) and Intensity (“How much”). And you can start using these assessments today without actually having to ask either of those questions while reaping a lot of their benefits and before you ever even meet your client in person.

5-3-1st, or Seeing Past Ice Cream

When you ask new clients about their goals, how often do you hear these: “well I’m really looking to lose 50lbs so I can weigh the same I did as a freshman in high school, get more toned, and run a half marathon…” Did you take any of these goals seriously, or did you think, “this client is just telling me what they think I want to hear.” Dan John taught me a term for these kinds of goals: Ice Cream. It’s one of Paton Manning’s audible code words and it means, “everything I’m about to say is bullshit.” I’m not saying that clients don’t want these things, but that there is another level, just below the ice cream, where the real sweet stuff lies. All great coaches have assessments. Tests and tools they use to figure out where their clients and are what they need to do to get where they want to be. The FMS, the NFL combine, and all the unique assessments that individual coaches develop over years of learning what’s important and what isn’t. They are usually physical or movement-based, but if we ever want to help our clients get to where they want to be Personal Trainers, S&C coaches, yoga instructors and nutritionists need to know about client motivation, too. So when you get a new client, what are the things you would like to know about their motivation? Here is how I get past the Ice Cream, and I think it’s a tool worth trying. I call it, “5-3-1st” and you can start using it tomorrow:

“Please list your top 5 goals.” “Of those, what are your top 3?” “Of those, what is the 1st goal you would like to achieve?”

There are many benefits to 5-3-1st. First, in order to prioritize, they need to really reflect on what they want and why they want it. It gets clients thinking about why they want stuff, without even asking the question. Secondly, it gets clients thinking short, medium, long-term, which is valuable way to tell them “everything with the human body takes time” without having to tell them that. It’s obvious from the question. And finally, it gets them thinking about and valuing the process. Every client I’ve to whom I’ve asked this series of questions has looked at me with a serious light-bulb moment. And all I asked them to do was make a list and see past the ice cream. Now that I work mostly online, I send these questions as part of a screen for clients interested in hiring me which means I now have clients coming me to me thinking about why they want what they want before I ever even meet them.

The Priority Grid

Once clients are starting to think about the direction into which they want to head, I think it’s important to get a conversation started about how they are going get there. Talking about priorities is another great way to start asking “why” without using the word. To do that, I have what I call “The Priority Grid.” It’s an evolution of Dan John’s Pleasure and Pain Grid that he wrote about in Never Let Go. At it’s heart, it’s simply a series of questions about what people would be willing to spend in order to meet that “1st” goal.


There are no wrong answers or minimum scores. In fact, the scores don’t even matter. I don’t even add them up. The only thing that matters to me in this initial assessment is that someone took the time to think about and prioritize their answers. Maybe if I see a person who has answered everything “I can give that up” or “Hell no” I’d inquire about that, but most of the time all that matters to me is that someone has given it some thought. The other benefits of this grid is that when I get the results back form potential clients, I know they are already thinking about how their training is going to integrate into their life. A lot of people arrive at my inbox with some pretty unreasonable goals, but by the time they finish prioritize them and fitting them into their life, those clients have begun the process of thinking more reasonably about what they want and how long it’s going to take to get there. And as I often joke, the only things I know how to teach as a coach are awareness and patience.

The point of these assessments, 5-3-1st and the Priority Grid is get a client thinking deeper. There are as many ways to do that as there are coaches and clients, but I have been using these methods successfully for years and they have evolved over time. I encourage you to think about your own client assessments. Are you asking them about their goals? Are you asking about why those goals are important? Are you asking about how much they want those goals? I encourage to you find a way to ask these questions in your own style and in the way you feel most comfortable. The more you know about where your client is at, the easier it will be to help them got to where they want to be.