Occupational Identity & Client-Centered Coaching: An OT Perspective

For people who are not preparing for a particular sport and/or are not competitive lifters (i.e., the overwhelming remainder of human beings), training helps regain or safeguard the ability to do stuff. They seek not only to train their strength but also to keep some strength in the tank so that they can wield it. Their occupational identity, and the occupational activities associated with them, supersede their identity as strength athletes.

Occupational Identity & Client-Centered Coaching: An OT Perspective

By: Michael Burgos, BLOC Exclusive Coach

“I’m in a situation where I need to start biking to my new job, but I don’t want to disrupt my strength program. What should I do?”

Coaches run into some variation of this question all the time. Several clients of mine have shared similar concerns with me. They worry that dance practice, recreational swimming, or martial arts training will interfere with their strength progress or cause them to regress. As coaches, it’s our job to have a plan, but to paraphrase Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until life happens. So, it’s also our job to approach and manage our clients’ concerns about their strength and their progress practically and to respond to their needs as a whole rather than relying solely on our favorite programs or templates.

After all, strength training is one of the best gateways to other meaningful, functional activities. Barbell training increases physical strength, improves metabolic conditioning, restores and maintains the capacity to participate in activities of daily living, and even assists in the regulation of mood states in the presence of mental health disorders. In a nutshell, barbell training is a comprehensive approach to the health and wellness of human beings. As superbly beneficial as strength training is, it may seem prudent to prioritize strength training above all else, all the time. But this would mean far fewer swing classes, backstrokes, recreational rolls, and other activities that might create a recovery debt and compete with the processes of the body associated with becoming stronger. From my perspective as an occupational therapist (OT) and a barbell strength coach, the idea that a person should sacrifice the physical pursuits that bring them immense value in order to chase some concept of optimality for strength gains completely misses the point of strength training.

Occupational Identity

Occupations are everyday activities that occupy our time. The life roles associated with those (mostly) voluntary activities will define a person’s occupational identity.1,2,3 In a very literal sense: you, as a person, are the result of the activities you choose to spend (or waste) your very limited time on. Car folks fix and drive cars; lifters lift weights; parents raise children; professionals work for a salary; etcetera. The activities that are meaningful to us are selected intentionally—if not always consciously—through an interplay of our values, our habits, and how well we think we can engage in those activities productively.2,3

If a trainee wants to unrack 700 pounds, squat it to depth, and lock it out without dying, there will be some significant trade-off between how seriously they take their training and everything else they do. Strength training becomes a sizable component of their occupational identity, if not one of the primary components. These are the folks who buy the online merch riddled with battle imagery and will deadlift anything not bolted to the floor. They hashtag posts with their profession, followed immediately by “who lift” (#OTswholift). They rise, they grind, they conquer…you get the picture. Strength training is a huge part of who these people are. It is their culture, their lifestyle, their identity. Most coaches find themselves, at one point or another, in this group of people.

For people who are not preparing for a particular sport and/or are not competitive lifters (i.e., the overwhelming remainder of human beings), training helps regain or safeguard the ability to do stuff. They seek not only to train their strength but also to keep some strength in the tank so that they can wield it. Their occupational identity, and the occupational activities associated with them, supersede their identity as strength athletes. As such, stated goals often have nothing to do with smashing huge and gnarly lifting personal records (PRs) as frequently as possible or eating like they are the on-call grocery disposal. Instead, goals for this population are often functional or procedural:

“I want to–

be able to ride my bike to work until I retire.”

pick up my old chubby dog, so I can take him to the vet.”

be held accountable to an exercise regimen.”

Stop. Collaborate and Listen

It is the task of fitness professionals to translate these nebulous goals into objective and measurable goals; a coach or trainer that cannot produce results can often be found in the unemployment line. A coach’s default strategy is often to design goals involving increasing physical strength as measured by the client’s lifts. It is extremely easy for the well-intentioned professional to overreach and project personal values onto a client and generate goals about the lifts alone.

  • “Biking to work will definitely stall your program’s progress prematurely.”
  • “Your jiu-jitsu practice is interfering with your training block.”
  • “That swim you take every week is why you’re not completing your heavy lifts lately.”

You are a value-projecting coach if you have ever said anything like the following:

  • “I got my clients a bunch of PRs, and then they quit. What else did they expect?”
  • “My client keeps telling me they want to stretch out. How do I tell them that they are just wasting time?”
  • “Strength makes everything better.”

Ask me how I know this is true. I’ve been there. I’ve said all of these things. These words came from my mouth, and I thought nothing of it because I was just doing my job.

To make matters muddy, the adherent and dutiful client will likely discontinue any “disruptive” activity. This is usually accomplished by relinquishing something personally valued. The coach or trainer is often pleased by this. The client is back on the straight and narrow, back on track. But this approach disregards the person’s occupational identity—their purpose for training in the first place. It remakes that identity into one they may not be ready, willing, or able to assume. The coach has ejected the client’s values, dehumanized the goal-setting process, and corrupted the plan with their own principles, excusing their behavior with the pursuit of efficacious and expedient strength gain. To me, this is short-sighted, rife with arrogance and narcissism, and unbecoming of a professional dedicated to serving people first.

Hear me:

Yes, people that do not train as hard or identify strongly as strength athletes will not get as strong as other people who eat roofing nails for breakfast, stem cells for lunch, naps for snacks, and deadlifts for dinner.

No, I don’t think that matters in the short term.

If you, the coach, and your client agree that strength training is a worthy occupation to pursue over the long haul (ideally, the entirety of one’s mortal life), then I am not convinced that it matters what the first several months or even what the first year of training looks like. This is not hyperbole. I do not care about that. Why not?

We know that linear progression (LP) strategies can be utilized numerous times over a lifter’s training career, whether it be a true novice linear progression or a custom linear-progression-style program for developing momentum and habit with barbell training after a significant event like a competition, layoff, or illness. Minimum Effective Dose (MED) programming principles can be employed to customize the lifter’s progress, outcomes, and experience under the bar in response to immediate objective indication and/or subjective report, leading to a highly individualized training program (simple program or not) at any point during the lifter’s tenure with their coach for arguably any logically-formed reason. So why split hairs about adding five pounds to the bar tomorrow? What actually matters? At the end of the day, people are more likely to perform tasks that are meaningful to them.1 Therefore, training programs must be established with the following in mind.

Firstly, the client’s stated and collaboratively established goals must be considered the primary outcome for a measure of time. The progress on these goals must be assessed and reassessed, and new goals formed, if indicated, at regular intervals. If you’re not assessing, you’re guessing.

Secondly, a program must be developed to satisfy those goals by considering all facets of their occupational identity. This will include relevant factors specific to that person’s training and recovery contexts, including—at a minimum—work, home, and training environments. Pertinent medical history, dietary preferences, and current habits and attitudes surrounding participation in exercise and exercise settings must also be considered.

Occupational Identity in Practice

If you go into default, auto-pilot mode and throw every new client on a program consisting of sets of five reps using barbells and the low bar back squat, flat bench press, a standing overhead press, and conventional deadlift, regardless of their objectives and who they are as people, then you are not programming. You are implementing a protocol. Protocols do not take thought. They lack context, creativity, and critical analysis. You, as a professional coach, are not an app. Do not behave like one.

You bring a wealth of personal experience from your training, your background, your personality, your prior careers, your hobbies, and your life to the table. Use your humanity to connect with your clients and center their training around them and their lives. Therapeutically using yourself and your occupational identity gives you a framework to understand others and their identity. Making your clients the center of your coaching creates an opportunity for lifters to develop a sense of personal causation with their training, enhances their sense of self-efficacy, and creates a positive environment for new habit formation and participation with the physical, psychological, and socio-emotive demands associated with strength training.2,3

A client with three small children and a day job with only 25-30 minutes to train per day cannot, and likely will not, succeed on a standard LP template, even if you cut it to a two-day-per-week schedule. Perhaps a four- or five-day template or a one-lift-a-day kind of program would be more appropriate in that context. A person with post-traumatic bony changes to his hip following a motor vehicle accident may not be able to squat to depth without a significant perception of discomfort or pain. Limiting the range of motion with pins or a box may be a suitable replacement until they can access more range of motion. Alternatively, perhaps they simply specialize in the deadlift and have more specific accessory or supplemental elements to their training. Someone who explicitly states, “I just don’t want to work that hard, Mike,” will likely not lift for very long if I force him to embrace the grind.

If this means that the client progresses through stages of training earlier than expected for their demographic, then I argue that is perfectly fine. Again, I recognize that the client will be on more advanced programming as a weaker version of themselves. (Read: they are less strong than they could be and are choosing to progress slower; I get it).

Is this the end of the world for them? Nope.

Do I believe they are capable of more and believe it is my duty and task to push them to achieve more? Totally.

Do my feelings about what clients choose to do with their lives matter? Probably not as much as my peers and colleagues make it out to be.

When clients make decisions that disagree with the plan, a coach’s knee-jerk reaction should be educational, not argumentative. Teach people that they are abdicating short-term strength gains and slower progress in favor of prioritizing other elements of their occupational identity ahead of their role as a trainee. It happens. It’s human. It’s OK. If your client wants to bike to work, tell them to enjoy the breeze. Their training will be just fine because they have a coach who respects them as a person and encourages them to train for life, not just live to train.

Reference List
  1. American Occupational Therapy Association. (2020). Occupational therapy practice framework: Domain and process (4th ed.). American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74(Suppl 2), 7412410010. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2020.7S2001
  2. Kielhofner, G., & Burke, J.P. (1980). A model of human occupation, part 1—Conceptual framework and content. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 34, 572-581. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.34.9.572
  3. Kielhofner, G. (2009). Conceptual Foundations of Occupational Therapy Practice, Edition 4. F.A. Davis Company.

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