empathetic coaching

Compassionate Coaching for Client Breakthroughs

Clients may lack knowledge and grit or value other physical attributes over strength. For those with different goals, we provide barbell training that best helps clients reach their goals. For the confused and weak, we grab hold of the best part of those people--the component that brought them into the gym--and nourish them. In this way, we have the best chance of helping the person and spreading the method to the most people.

Compassionate Coaching for Coaching and Client Breakthroughs 

By:  Dan Shell, Coach, BLOC Client and Intern, & BLCA Student

Forced to Reflect

I did not expect to be emotionally challenged at the Professional Barbell Coach (PBC) Certification, but I’m glad I was. 

During the certification seminar, a BLOC coach asked me what type of client I struggle to coach the most.  I replied that I struggle to coach lifters who lack mental toughness. She asked what I might do to improve my ability to coach these clients.  I quickly responded that I should detach, observe my reaction to these clients, and work to stop judging that person and be more empathetic. She pressed further–not accepting my automatic answer—and asked how I could improve my interaction with such a client.  I paused and thought. I did not know the answer. The coach sensed that I needed to confront a major deficiency in my coaching.  

I understood that I need to empathize with my lifter.  I knew that my lifting experience provides an appreciation of the lifter’s struggle.  I approached empathy, however, as another box to check off a list: elbows forward, straight wrists, big breath, tight, empathy.    

After some reflection, I began to say that I would tell the lifter that I struggled with heavy weights sometimes and that it’s okay to be afraid of the bar–that’s normal.  As I said this, however, I realized that I shouldn’t just confront the bad–the fear, the difficulty, the doubt–I needed to address the good: I teared up and said that something brought that lifter to the gym that day, and I needed to encourage that part of the person on the platform.  

Something called that person to the gym. Something in him was aiming up, striving to improve and overcome things he didn’t like in himself.  He had taken the time and spent the money to try barbell training. He had overcome fears and doubts. He may have never performed a physically difficult task.  He may not have understood what would happen in the gym. None of that mattered–he was here today. He showed up. 

Coaches work with clients to remove physical or mental barriers that might stand in the way of changing the person’s life. 

The issue I  have had to confront as a coach–the issue that the BLOC coach’s question illuminated–isn’t that “mentally weak” lifters don’t take cues or receive instruction well.  It’s that the coaches’ role is to remove those physical or mental barriers that might stand in the way of changing this person’s life, including, yes, mental weakness.  

Negative Customer Service—A Hypothetical

You arrive at a hospital to get a copy of your medical records.  You approach the help desk.

“I can’t believe people.  Who did he think he was, trying to buck the system?  The process is simple. Ugh,” said one customer representative to the other.  You stand there awkwardly as they discuss the previous customer.

“Hello,” you say.

The customer representative rolls her eyes and then looks at you.  “Can I help you?”

“Uh, yeah, I’m here to get my medical records,” you say.

“I need two forms of ID, a Form 217, and the request form from the other hospital,” she recites.

“Form 217–what’s that?” you ask.

“Sir, I can’t process your request without a Form 217.”

“Well, do you have one I can fill out now?” you ask.  

She points to a sign behind her desk that says in all caps, WE DO NOT PROVIDE FORM 217s.

“Okay, so where do I get them?” you ask.

“Ugh,” she sighs.  “Sir, why would you come here without being prepared.  You download the form from the website and fill it out.  This is all listed on the website–why didn’t you read the article on the website before coming here?” she asks as she returns your papers. 

I expect most of us have experienced working with a customer service representative who was shocked by our inability to understand a process.  This customer service representative deals with the same issues, every day, hours on end, seeing customers repeat the same mistakes, every day, hours on end.  For us customers, however, this is likely our first time encountering the process. Instead of responding with charity, she responds with judgment, an air of superiority, and incredulity.  In the case of an administrative task like the one above, it’s a minor annoyance in our day. We arrived confused but ultimately completed the necessary steps and returned to accomplish the task.  New clients, however, often show up to a gym just as confused as the customer in the above situation. Greeting these clients with judgment and derision–even if muted–may discourage them to ever return to a gym.

I’m not suggesting that anyone reading this treats clients like the hypothetical employee above, but seeing people make the same lifting mistakes can become frustrating.  Not every client will approach training with the same attention to detail or determination you do as a client or a lifter. We can forget that this may be the lifter’s first time in a gym.  This may be the client’s first encounter with this method. He may have simply searched for a “gym” in his area and tried this gym because of the proximity to his house. To prevent a negative interaction and foster the best in this person, we must coach with patience and charity.

New clients may arrive wearing a slick shirt and running shoes, full of skepticism or ignorance, possessing fuzzy goals, and expressing surprise when the first session ends without heavy breathing and a pool of sweat.  They may have psychological baggage and tendencies that promote quitting. They may struggle when the weight gets “heavy.”  

Good.  This means we have much to offer them.  

Who Wants to Be a PBC?

I asked a BLOC coach about his coaching journey, and his response resonated with me.  He said when he went to his first coaching conference, he recognized that the other coaches were “his kind of people.”  Besides respecting the current BLOC coaches I have worked with, I admire the coaches attending seminars and participating in the coaching academy.  These are the type of people I want to call my colleagues and with whom I would like to chat over a drink. I recognize in them the same drive pushing me to earn my PBC and pursue coaching excellence.  We must acknowledge, however, that our clients may not be the type of person who would become a PBC, and that–if we want to expand our coaching clientele and succeed as a coach–we want to coach other types of people.  We limit the number of people we help if we only coach people who approach this method as we did.    

We must acknowledge that this person may be an expert in another arena.  We can readily identify aspects of our lives with which we struggle. We may be encountering this person’s weakness, though that person may bring a focus to his work, family, and hobbies.  We can bolster his strength, confidence, and toughness as he progresses.  

Furthermore, barbell training will almost undoubtedly not be as important to this client as it is to us.  This person will likely not bring the same drive we bring to something that has transformed from exercise to hobby to side hustle to potential career.  This is fine. Barbell training–even suboptimal barbell training–can enhance their lives. We provide the best barbell training that we can under the circumstances.  

Coaching the Difficult and Diverse

One of the challenges for the professional coach is to provide the best strength training possible within the context of another person’s life.  We want to coach people with different goals and experiences. We don’t belittle goals or hobbies–such as yoga or triathlons–that we don’t value.  We appreciate that they see the benefit of adding strength training to their training regimen. We acknowledge that barbell training may not be as important to our clients as it is to us, but we appreciate that they value it enough to spend 3-5 hours a week pursuing it.  

We want to coach people inexperienced in overcoming physically difficult tasks.  Through navigating a simple, hard, effective strength training program, they can see their confidence, psychological health, and mental toughness transformed along with their squat strength.  These types of clients have more room to grow, so we can improve their lives more. The critical thing we want in clients is a desire and willingness to improve, but we must realize that our interaction with them may further or lessen this desire.  

If someone struggles with mental toughness, we don’t coddle, but we don’t chide either.  We do what we need to to help coach that person, and her mental toughness can progress along with her strength.  This person may be experiencing something physically challenging for the first time in her life. So it’s understandable if her first confrontation ends in an early racking of the barbell.  It’s okay if she didn’t read the book, listen to the podcast, or research the method before coming to the gym. They made the first and most important step–identifying a problem and coming to the gym–and our job as a coach is to help her make the next steps.  Beyond walking through the teaching progressions, we have to help the lifter overcome fear and doubt. Besides delivering concise, clear cues, we have to instill confidence in the lifter. Besides programming, we have to encourage the lifter as she confronts particularly challenging training sessions.  

It’s admittedly easy to espouse empty platitudes about changing people’s lives.  But it is in the moments when the client struggles and our frustrations grow that breakthroughs lie.  In the difficult moments–when we grow tired of seeing the same error or become upset at someone quitting on a “heavy” rep, when we lack enthusiasm and don’t feel like coaching–when we can contribute the most to the client and potentially change their lives.  Just as putting forth effort in training sessions or sets when we don’t want to is critical to growth as a lifter, exerting ourselves as a coach when we don’t feel like it is critical to helping our clients.  

These difficult moments as a coach, where we become frustrated, contain the potential of our improved coaching and the clients’ growth.  We must first address our mental failings. We are here to help the person in front of us get stronger, and we may improve in doing this by–just as the lifter learns to grind despite the pain and doubt–ending our habit of anger, judgment, and frustration preventing us from helping the client.  

We understand that to see clients achieve a double bodyweight squat or their first chin up, we will first see them flounder with extremely light weights.  We accept this as part of the process. To instill confidence and build mental fortitude, we similarly may witness them bail on a still-ascending squat or fail to grind on a doable deadlift.  We will see mental weakness manifest itself in the gym, and just as we don’t deride physical weakness’s manifestations, we should similarly not react with anger or frustration when mental weakness presents itself on the platform.  

We must remember that we may react harshly against those things that we have struggled with ourselves.  If I assess myself honestly, I could list numerous times I faced adversity and took the easy path. I quit.  I displayed mental weakness. I have reached greater mental fortitude by putting myself through difficult situations and overcoming them.  I have progressed along the mental toughness development curve. And just as I draw conclusions from the sad fact that I do not deadlift 700 pounds, I realize that in the realm of grit, I have farther to go and that there are those who were endowed with greater natural determination than I have.  

We’re here to help people, and with compassion, we can help more people.  We can help those who come confused, mentally weak, and prioritizing other fitness attributes.  We chose this profession, and part of the difficulty is bringing the same energy and understanding to every new client asking the same questions and struggling with the same hardships.  If we do this, we can make bigger differences in more people’s lives. Can you imagine a more rewarding activity or a more meaningful goal to strive for in a career?

Dan Shell is a BLOC intern living in Albuquerque, NM who just transitioned out of the Army and is making coaching a bigger part of his life.  He is working toward improving his coaching and earning the Professional Barbell Coach (PBC) Certification. 

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