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From training to coaching - shifting my approach

 Health and Fitness is an evolving space.

[This is quite a long post. There's a bit of storytime first, but for the TLDR version, scroll down to the subheadings at the bottom which I invite you to consume in any way you prefer]

The fitness industry is still relatively new - the science and art of looking after our bodies and minds is in a constant state of growth as our environment, technologies and needs change.

It feels like not at all long ago when our only sources of information and guidance were a trip to the family doctor and a written programme from the guy at your nearest gym.

When I first qualified as a Personal Trainer, I mentioned to my instructors that I was considering online PT, and they didn't know much about that. Now almost every successful trainer I know is at least offering a hybrid (online/in person) model.

In my own practice, I felt a natural evolution, initially away from the face-to-face/Zoom training where I am there for every rep, into a hybrid model that included less frequent "set-up" sessions with online programming for in-between (that the client completes in their own time and space) with short conversation-based coaching sessions to support them and keep them on track.

Then I started working with people who didn't need a programme....

My ethos is that "fitness" or "exercise" should be the movement that you most enjoy, that works best for you.

Yes, I can absolutely tailor a perfect programme to sort out all your movement patterns, improve performance, and get you to your goals as efficiently as possible. But if you aren't able to stick with that and execute it as written, you won't get there. The best plan is the one you can do consistently, and for a lot of people I work with, that isn't a programme at all.

I found my client niche organically. They are often people like me, or people who resonate with me. They are often living with chronic pain, neurodivergent, they are often a bit mistrustful of mainstream exercise, fitness and diet culture. Over time I started to understand that most of my clients don't need a prescription for what to do with their movement/food/sleep/stress management. They need a roadmap and a tour guide while they figure out, not the "what, but the "why" and the "how" that are very unique to them.

Break the Diet Habit was one of my first steps towards this, where I realised that I needed to divorce the mindset/habits practices of the Free Living Fitness group programme from the movement plan, because many of the people I was working with were figuring out that their movement looked like a local class, or lots of dog walks.

I did my first coaching training with Precision Nutrition. PN train (and employ) a lot of coaches who are not PTs, or don't offer exercise programming, just conversation-based coaching. When I first started out, that felt alien, I didn't understand why people would engage with that, or how impactful it could be.

So back to those clients who didn't need a programme... I had clients who had previously enjoyed local classes, but needed some support to get back into them. I had clients who didn't need 1:1, so I offered them a package that included a regular coaching conversation, and then attended my group classes. And then I had those whose mobility or health meant that the level of movement they could access was limited to short walks and a few gentle rehab exercises. I couldn't justify a full PT package for that, but the support and guidance I could offer through coaching conversations made a huge difference for them.

And then I stopped taking new clients.

If you follow my blog and socials, you will notice I have been a bit quiet for a bit. This is because I took up an incredible opportunity to work with the NHS, in Health and Wellbeing coaching, working with people with long term health conditions in very disadvantaged areas where around 30% of the population are considered "inactive".

I won't go into a lot of details here, because I need to keep my private practice separate from my NHS work - for conflict-of-interest, and well, ethical reasons I will never charge clients for the same service they could access for free.

I mention this however because 3 years of pure conversation-based coaching, with an enormously diverse client base, alongside training, mentoring and managing a team of coaches has taught me an awful lot about what people really benefit from when it comes to making changes that affect their health. Managing a publicly funded service I have had to be evidence-based; finding out what produces the best outcomes for people and also recognising when resources are being used well, or wasted.

I am re-opening my client books. Because I enjoy working with my niche clients, and because I want to offer specialist support. I will be changing the way I operate, for a way that I think works better for both me and my clients. So here is my case for conversation-based Health and Wellbeing Coaching:

Firstly, what is coaching?

I've used the term "conversation-based coaching" here, because when movement and coaching are put together, people often naturally associate this with sports coaching.

Back in the old days, being a personal trainer meant building an exercise plan and maybe a meal plan for clients, and trying to make sure they stuck to it with various "motivational" ideas such as "no pain no gain" and " we all have the same 24 hours in the day". A few people do respond well and enjoy this approach, which is great, but for a lot of people (who aren't natural gym rats, or have other priorities) it just isn't effective, sustainable or healthy.

Now we understand a lot more about behaviour change psychology - Concepts from academic and clinical psychology have been increasingly adopted into the health and fitness field. We know a lot more about what makes us tick, how change happens, and why people get stuck. Practitioners are increasingly aware that people are the experts on their own lives. 

We can't tell people how to be, we have to collaborate with them.

Good personal trainers are now training in coaching conversations (as are health and social care professionals) because it is increasingly understood that working with people and guiding them through the process of making their own informed decisions and plans is a lot more helpful than giving advice - which they are often uninterested or unable to implement. 

Behaviour change coaching is personalised to each individual, and where they are in their process, but it may include elements of the following:

  • Exploring your values and internal motivations
  • Working together to set goals that align with your values
  • Breaking down those goals into realistic and achievable processes
  • Exploring barriers to change and figuring out how to work with or around them
  • Trying out strategies and routines
  • Reflecting on the process to figure out what's working for you and what needs tweaking or binning.
  • Highlighting and celebrating successes and progress
  • Investigating and troubleshooting the things that aren't working for you
  • Building plans that work for your needs, interests and lifestyle
  • Creating sustainability so that you can eventually manage on your own
For many people who need support in managing their health and wellbeing, this is the most helpful kind of intervention. Why?

Information is freely available

Back when I was writing my original Free Living Fitness programme, working with a group of people and getting feedback, it became very apparent that they didn't really need educating. Most of my clients are actually pretty clued up on what a healthy lifestyle looks like (with a little bit of interference from media myths etc, but that's too much information, not too little!)

In our connected world, it is fairly easy to reach information. Sometimes people need signposting to reliable, accurate information, but it has always been my policy to use media like this blog, to provide general information freely. My paid services have always been about tailoring for the individual.

Most of my clients don't need education, they need help in figuring out how to apply it to their circumstances. And that's coaching.

Not everyone needs an exercise programme

It is so easy now for people to even access full fitness programmes online, classes, training programmes for athletes, it's all there. Some people will want or need something more specific, tailored or high quality, and that is where a great PT or sports coach will come into their own. But for people without the need for special accommodations, who just want to move regularly and feel good? I don't need to provide a paid service.

Ultimately if a client needs something very individualised, I can absolutely do that, but for me, it doesn't feel like a fair or effective use of our time and your money, for me to offer a standard package that includes generic education or programming. But I do offer pre-done programmes here.

Movement your way

walking dog on the beach
There are definitely people who love having a gym PT to be at their side every session counting their reps and cheering them on.

I have never been the PT for this. For starters anyone who has trained with me knows that I can't count reps, I get way too excited about form and movement and I lose track.

When I certified with OTA, I got really on board with their hybrid model, which includes a supervised training session at the beginning of a training block, to teach and correct movement patterns etc, then a programme that the client can complete independently, with brief check ins for support. This gives much better value for people who don't feel they need to spend several hours a week with their trainer.

Many of the people who connect with my ideas and love working with me don't want to train in a gym, or follow a programme. There are lots of reasons why this might be the case and when  it is, my role is to help them find what works for them, how to fit it into their life and how to make the changes stick.

I also do a lot of work with people with health conditions or disabilities. Chronic pain and fatigue can really benefit from healthy lifestyle changes, accessing those changes can be really hard when your needs are different from an able-bodied, healthy person. Often the starting work here is looking at improving your ability to recover, and nurturing your central nervous system - this is conversation-work.

Real connection is valuable

So if information and advice are free, what can I do? 

There are some things that you need a real human being for, and that is where our highly-connected, but highly-automated world is lacking.

An external perspective, a sounding board, a space to voice and process your thoughts can be incredibly useful and productive for our personal growth.

Have you ever had a friend visit from outside town, and you go and play tourist with them? You visit the botanical gardens you have never set foot in, despite having lived 10 minutes away for years. You start looking at buildings you see every day in a completely different light, because your guest asks questions you never thought to, or shares some information they read in their guide book. Maybe you go on a walking tour together, and you learn a load of new things, because you would never have prioritised that by yourself.  

As a coach, I am a bit like that visitor, to your life. I know that you have a deep understanding of the reality of living in your body - when we collaborate, you benefit from my curiosity, knowledge and experience of working with others on similar paths.

Being a coach is about being really curious, and non-judgmental, having no agenda outside of the client's. Most of us don't have this in our personal relationships, simply because those relationship are more complex and less boundaried.

Motivation comes from self-reflection

Often when I talk to people, they will start out by telling me why they want to make changes, and it might sound like:

  • my doctor says my health will get worse
  • I don't fit into my old clothes

These aren't usually new ideas, but also, by the time they speak to me, it has become very apparent that knowing these things isn't helping them. 

Usually the reason for this is that their stated motivation isn't really the root of the issue. It's not important enough for them to go through the (always uncomfortable) process of change. When we start looking properly at their core values, what really matters to them, rather than what they feel they "should" do, then things start to make sense.

Sometimes this means finding the reason to get on track. Sometimes it means realising that your goals aren't really right for you, and making a new plan.

Motivated people don't make excuses, they have barriers

Motivation is the will do to the thing. It is not however, the ability or the readiness to do the thing. It can be immensely frustrating to be really committed to your goals, and a plan to get there, but somehow, just not able to do it.

Sometimes this is a really obvious barrier, like an injury that means the plan needs to be reworked or postponed. Sometimes it's not so obvious, like an executive function issue making the best laid plans impossible to initiate. Coaching can help you identify those issues and work around them.

Self-activation is the goal

I don't want my clients to be reliant on me. That's not great for either of us. I want to help you develop the skills you need, not just to get started and on track, but also to be able to get back on track, or make a new plan when life happens (which it characteristically does)

Getting the best of me, and you

Keeping a really small private client base, means that I have to think about where I can do my best work. Supporting people through changes and personal development, as an educator, a doula, a trainer and a coach has taught me where I can be most valuable. I'm not about wasting our time and your money. 

For most of the people I work with, coaching conversations are the most empowering and effective means to support healthy, sustainable changes in their lives.

I am no longer offering set packages for working with me - even though my packages have always been pretty flexible. There are strong arguments for regular sessions, committing to a process etc, but this is something we can figure out together.

If you need a one-off session and feel confident to come back if you need me, great! If you would like a standing session so that you have some accountability, also great! If you would like an exercise programme written for you, I can do that! If you want a call where we practice and correct your movements, we can do that too!

If you would like to try coaching with me, fill out this form, and we will arrange a chat.

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