I Know What to Do

One of my first clients as a personal trainer was Erin, an 80 year old Irish woman who came into the gym, straight from Mass on a Tuesday, only to find her previous personal trainer had stood her up for the 3rd time. She was hopping mad, and just wanted a personal trainer who would show up. “My doctor says I need to lose 15 pounds,” she told me with a slight Irish brogue. She was maybe 5’3” and did not look 80 years old. She was active, spry, and still worked a full time job. Her apparent motivation and positive attitude were inspiring to me at 6AM on a Wednesday. “That should be totally possible, Ms. Erin. We’ll just need to take a look at what you’re doing now for exercise and diet.” I flashed her a confident smile because my freshly minted Strength and Conditioning Specialist Certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association meant that I had at least gotten some of the answers right on the “fat loss” part of the certification exam. “Then we’ll help you create a caloric deficit with more activity and less calories–” “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she dismissed me. “Look, I know what to do. I just canna make myself do it.”

The Wrong Tools

We find ourselves in this position every day as coaches. We are tested on our knowledge of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, programming and nutrition, but the problems our clients have are rarely a lack of information. As John Berardi, PhD, the co-founder and Chief Science Officer of Precision Nutrition notes, “there is a wide gap between knowing about nutrition and doing nutrition.” I have had many people come to me for help with advanced degrees in health, nutrition, and fitness including more than a few RDs, MDs, and even a PhD MD. They know what to do, they just can’t make themselves do it. But my CSCS, and I doubt any coaches’ certification, did not prepare me to actually coach. I had to get an MA in Sport and Exercise Psychology and understudy with the best coach in the world for 2 years to learn just how wrong I was about getting people from Point A to Point B. I needed a whole new toolkit to help people find their own path.

Skills as a Habit

My introduction to the idea of using habits in coaching was from John Berardi and Precision Nutrition in 2008. The team at PN have been changing the way people eat, one habit at a time, since 2000. They don’t mention habits as much in their marketing material now, but 24 habits taught and reinforced one at a time for 12 months is still the core of their brilliant nutrition system. But it wasn’t until I met Dan John in 2011 that I got to see the power of habits in action.

After meeting Dan at conference and going to the taping of Intervention, Dan invited me to the Coyote Point Kettlebell Club. Every week someone would post the location and time on the Facebook page, we would meet for a workout that consisted of the same Five Basic Human Movements every week, then eat sandwiches and talk about matters of consequence. People would come and go, but those of us with the courage to take Dan’s advice and do the important things (like the Basic Human Movements) every day would get stronger. Instead of “working out” we were “practicing,” and missing a day of practice began to feel like missing a day brushing my teeth. By training strength as a skill, I learned that training is best done as a habit. So I began to take those lessons to my clients, and began my graduate studies with these lessons in mind.

Habits as a Skill

As a graduate student in Sport and Exercise Psychology, I read a great deal about the underlying theories behind how and why people change behavior and about the different interventions that have been tested in the social science literature. I also amassed more than 400 supervised training hours trying to put those interventions into practice over 5 internships. I brought those lessons back out to my professional clients as well, and it was surprising to see them all in play back at Coyote Point and in Dan John’s every day interactions. Over our conversations in 2012 which took shape in the book Intervention, a basic structure to any client intervention began to also take shape for me and I realized that acquiring habits is a skill, too. A skill that few people have mastered and fewer still have mastered teaching. It takes awareness. It takes patience. Both as a teacher and a student. Most importantly, it takes a community dedicated to staying focused and staying on the path to success. So I have created UNSEEN DEGREES as a way to encourage this community of coaches to converse about coaching, and to talk about the skill of acquiring habits and teaching others to do so. Every month, I’ll bring you stories of habit-based coaching in the field and research that will hopefully make us all better at our jobs. I’ll round up a few articles and introduce a new concept that will get some wheels turning in the direction we all want to go: helping people by being better coaches.