One of the sessions at the Motivate Summit was convened with the question: “How Important are fast initial results in long-term client success?” It was such a great question that we decided to keep the discussion alive on the Motivate Forums.

Andrew McGunagle summarized what I think is a very common experience. “As a young coach working in a high-end commercial gym, I believe fast initial results can sometimes be very important for long-term client success. This is because quick improvements can get skeptical people to buy into me and my training so I can keep them long enough to help them achieve long-term success.”

“In my experience this isn’t that important,” retorted Roland Fisher, a veteran nutrition coach who works both online and in-person. “It seems to me that for long term success, everyone needs to work through a lack of apparent motivation, and if that comes early or later doesn’t matter, they all need to work through it.”

Marc Halpern, an RD who works in a similar environment agreed. “The most important thing is to get them to come to the next session…” but he definitely noticed that there are some people who need something more to come back. “Sometimes (even if it is an illusion), they have to start a bit faster and have a tougher program to get going.”

So what is this problem, really? We all agree that the most important thing is to get clients to show up consistently and for the long haul, but why the different experiences?

From motivational perspective, results make sense. We see results inspire and we can remember when results have inspired us. But digging a bit deeper, what are results?

"Results are feedback. Results are an answer to the question, ‘how am I doing?’ and ‘is this worth it?’"

Doing things is hard. And forming new habits takes investment, so we rarely do things just to do things. We try something, get feedback from other people or our environment, then assess whether it’s worth the investment to come back and try again. Self-Determination Theory calls this “the perception of competence,” and it is one of 3 universal Basic Psychological Needs. So we don’t just want to know if our investment is paying off need to know. So much so that we look at every source of information we can to get feedback.

My favorite study on the power of feedback for promoting motivation is Vansteenkiste & Deci (2003) which is called, “Competitively Contingent Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation: Can Losers Remain Motivated?” Competitions are fantastic sources of feedback. Winning, losing, ranking, it’s almost impossible not to form an opinion on “how am I doing” in an competitive environment. But it turns out that winning and losing is only one source of feedback in a competition. And it’s not even the most powerful one.

Vansteenkiste & Deci (2003) is one of the only studies that controlled for other forms of feedback in competition and tested to see what happens to the motivation of the losers. The researchers used a novel puzzle game called, “Happy Cubes,” a game like Tetris that people played in the lab even when they didn’t have to. They gave the game to people with different sets of instructions that I’m paraphrasing.

  1. Non-Competitive. The experimenter simply asked the participants to work on the puzzles, “doing your individual best.”
  2. Competitive with rewards for winning. The experimenter added, “the purpose of this competition is to try to outperform the other person by solving your puzzles faster than he or she. You will get $3 if you solve more of the puzzles more quickly than your opponent.”
  3. **Competitive with rewards for winning and feedback on standards. **“You will get $3 if you solve more of the puzzles more quickly than your opponent. Solving three of the four puzzles within the allotted time will put you in the 70th percentile of performance.”

Then they gave them questionnaires to assess how motivated they were to continue playing the game (and remember, this is a game as addictive as Tetris) and recorded how long they played the game when no one else was around. So what happened?

Winners in the competitive groups showed more intrinsic motivation than the non-competitive control group. But everything changed when there was feedback. Losers who got positive feedback (the ones that were told they were in the 70% percentile)

  • Reported they enjoyed the game more and spent 50% more time playing the game in their free time than losers who got no feedback.
  • Spent 50% more time trying to figure out the puzzles they got wrong than losers with no feedback and 4 times longer than the people who won.
  • Reported they enjoyed the game more and played the game more in their free time than the people who won.
  • Showed intrinsic motivation statistically no different than the control group.

And here’s the kicker: Remember the instruction “Solving three of the four puzzles within the allotted time will put you in the 70th percentile of performance?”

It was entirely made up.

The losers just needed feedback that they could trust. Since they had no other context for understanding how they were doing, they believed the people around them and the person with the clipboard.

We wield a lot of power with our clipboards. With a word or a glance or a screen or a choice of weight, we can build or destroy a client’s perception of how they’re doing. But Motivate Collective member and gym-owner Rob Morris has discovered that the best place for feedback can come from is the clients themselves.

“I had a client who after an initial FMS screen displayed some pretty bad shoulder mobility and after an hour of targeted work and a re-screen, no improvement. I was pretty bummed as one can usually get some improvement in one session. The next day he told me that his morning workout included crawling and he had never felt so smooth and uninhibited in his crawls. BAM, lesson learned. I was defining success by some numbers on a paper. He redefined it for me with fluid pain free crawling. That was a big awakening for me.”

Or as Seth Munsey found out, the best way to give them that feedback is to introduce them to a new community with a new definition of what “normal” is. “I don’t define results for them, or even ask them for their definition of results. Because, do they really know? I don’t think so… I just get them into class, introduce them to everyone, get them winning right away, and deliver a ton of high fives. No expectations set.”

The most rich and important source of feedback is other people. People want to know what the standards are. They want to know what “doing well” means and they want to see how other people are doing so they can compare themselves. So many books on habit-formation and behavior change miss how important community is precisely because community is all pervasive. It’s more than just accountability; community is where we look to find out if all this shit is even worth trying to learn.

Our clients have been dropped into a weird world where people swing heavy things and eat kale. They need feedback right away and they are looking everywhere for it. So make sure they get it before they jump to conclusions!** **Set the stage, tell them the story of how they are going to succeed, cast them as the hero and their peers as fellow heroes on their journey. Introduce them to the new normal and get them the results they deserve by giving them the feedback they need.