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Beyond the Intake Form: Why Coaches Must Do the Work to Know Their Clients

If you’ve been following and writing for Girls Gone Strong these past few years, you’ve noticed an exciting shift in the GGS community’s conversations. Now more than ever before, trainers and enthusiasts are recognizing that women are more than just bodies, and that a truly inclusive approach to fitness means understanding how race, sexuality, sex, gender, class, etc., shape ideas around — and access to — exercise, food, fitness education, and fitness spaces.

In Who Gets to Be Fit? Working Out the Intersections of Fitness, I briefly discussed intersectionality and how the intersections of our identities creates different experiences of identity for each person.

The concept of intersectionality, as explained by feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, does not simply examine how identities interact with one another, but analyzes the interaction of oppressions. It is important to recognize the difference between the intersection of identities and the concept of intersectionality.

For example, a woman might include her identity as a tall woman as one of her intersections. While being tall might pose some challenges for women, for example, when shopping for clothes, this is not an oppression. Tallness has not historically caused women to be denied a job, experience violence, receive less pay, be politically marginalized, etc.

Understanding that there is a fundamental difference between being inconvenienced and being oppressed is the first step in practicing inclusivity, particularly with your marginalized clients.

Today, at the national level, we are having conversations about race, gender, and sexuality, among others, in ways that are unprecedented and that require that we have cultural literacy in all aspects of our lives and employment.

Having this cultural literacy would help us understand, for example, why after the most recent presidential election, women and people from marginalized communities were experiencing “post-election stress disorder,” as reported by Jennifer Sweeton Psy.D. in Psychology Today.1 So what, exactly, does this have to do with fitness, and with how we interact with our clients?

Don’t Add to the Burden

As fitness trainers and coaches, you are invested in helping women achieve their health and fitness goals. You do this by getting to know your client and creating custom plans that, we hope, fit your clients’ lifestyles and needs, build their self-esteem, and help them achieve their best results.

However, to work toward a more truly inclusive fitness practice, it is increasingly necessary to go beyond questions about your clients’ goals, nutrition, sleep habits, and basic medical history. We need to be attuned to how the contexts in which our clients live interact with their identities and shape their experiences, fitness and food access, mental health, and motivation. In the midst of this political moment, trainers are asking themselves:

What more do I need to know about my client in order to better serve them, and how do I get that information?”

While we want to be as knowledgeable as possible about our clients, their experiences, and their communities, we don’t want to burden our clients with relying on them to explain themselves.

Black feminist poet Kate Rushin describes this expectation in The Bridge Poem:2

I’ve had enough
I’m sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody

Can talk to anybody
Without me


I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the Ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends’ parents…

Then I’ve got to explain myself
To everybody

Here you get a sense of the layers of translation Rushin engages in as she attempts to explain herself, her family, and the communities that she has to “bridge” in her work as a black feminist.

Though this was written in 1981, it still captures the sentiment of struggle that people, especially women from marginalized communities, are experiencing today. The work of explaining — of bridging — is exhausting work. Indeed, this work of educating those who don’t live on the margins is mentally and physically taxing.

When we expect our clients to do this work of educating us, we are increasing the emotional labor that they may already be engaged in.

As we well know, emotional stress also manifests in our bodies. If doing the work of bridging is also physically taxing, what can we as trainers and coaches do to get to know our clients while not contributing to physical harm?

Read, Listen, Learn

We don’t have to search far to find that women and conscious people of all genders and marginalized identities are sharing their knowledge and making it more available and accessible. They are detailing their experiences as people who are women of color, LGBTQ, disabled, poor, victims of sexual assault, and undocumented. They are giving us access to the realities of living in a world that does not see them as part of the majority or that denies their humanity.

Reading books, stories, and blogs by marginalized folks is one way to acquire more general information about the realities faced by marginalized populations. Importantly, reading with an open mind — and with the willingness to act upon your new knowledge — is essential.

Consider getting involved with local groups organizing around social justice issues. Our sense of “our community” is mostly shaped by who we see the most often.

How do you think others outside your immediate community experience your neighborhood or city? What are the issues affecting their health and safety? Working with local community groups in meaningful ways can make you more knowledgeable about the people around you and can give you opportunities to serve them.

Be prepared to commit yourself to the full duration of a project. Simply “parachuting in” and taking more than what you are prepared to give reproduces the injustices experienced by marginalized communities.

Bring It to the Fitness Industry

Talking with a diverse network of trainers and professionals in the field is critical, as well. There is still a lot of work that needs to happen in the fitness industry to give space to marginalized trainers and coaches and to dedicate more serious conversations to the impact of social and political contexts on our clients’ lives.

If you attend a conference and do not see speakers who look like your clients, raise your voice! If we truly believe that fitness is for everybody, we need to do what we can to create space for other bodies and perspectives.

In our journey to learn, it is important to be open to being challenged and even to feeling hurt.

What we read and hear might challenge our truth system, which shapes the lens through which we see the world and our clients. But as I tell my students in my university classes, we don’t learn in spaces of comfort. Just as we put our bodies through (relative) discomfort to strengthen our muscles and bodies, so do we need to challenge our minds to grow beyond what is familiar to us, and to act upon our new knowledge.

Getting to Know Our Clients Beyond the Intake Form

Before you start asking questions, ask yourself:

  • Am I asking my clients questions out of curiosity or concern? The questions should be asked in support of the training, not to satisfy your curiosity.
  • Am I open to being and feeling challenged?
  • Am I open to making changes within myself?
  • Am I motivated and prepared to find the appropriate resources for my client?
  • Have I done what I can to create a climate in which my client feels safe sharing their experiences with me?
  • Have I done what I can to understand some of the major issues related to my clients’ identities and communities?

Now that you taken personal inventory of yourself, you are ready to start asking your clients more serious questions. Here are some DO’S and DON’Ts for asking questions beyond the intake form:

DO recognize that your client is the authority on their own experience and identity.

Sometimes they may say about themselves that does not align with your assumptions about their identity.

Rather than challenge them, you can say “Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m going to remember that,” or a similar affirming statement.

DO make the purpose of your questions relevant to their training.

Otherwise, they might feel like you want them to be your cultural informant.

DO start some of your question with observations and structure them openly.

For example, if you are concerned about your client’s access to nutritious food, you can say, “I notice that when I’m in different supermarkets, the price of produce changes dramatically. The quality changes, as well. What have you noticed about the produce at your local supermarket?”

Asking for their observations will allow them to prioritize the issues that are most important to them and will give you information about the challenges that they face.

DO express that you are continuously honing your skills as a trainer.

Incorporating a short evaluation at the end of each session will create an environment of openness and will build trust (as long as you are willing to be open to constructive critiques!).

DO NOT attempt to relate to everything your client experiences.

For example, if your client of color describes feeling uncomfortable in an all-white gym, do not attempt to compare your own feelings of discomfort to theirs. Remember the example at the beginning? The social stigma of being tall cannot be compared to their experience of being a person of color. Their feelings are specific to a particular context and history of racism.

DO NOT try to minimize or “explain” their experiences for them.

This can come off as looking like you are trying to defend the person or situation that caused their feelings. Sometimes this turns into a form of gaslighting.

DO NOT impose labels on them that they do not use on themselves.

For example, if your client refers to herself as “Latina” do not refer to her as “Hispanic.” Recognizing clients’ terms for themselves — whether ethnic, racial, or gender identifiers — is a fundamental show of respect.

DO NOT think that just because you may identify with a marginalized identity that you identify with your client.

Be aware of your privileges and the important differences between you and your client.

A Last Word

As trainers and coaches, we must work to improve our social, cultural, and political literacies in order to better serve our clients. It is up to you to decide if you want to more actively know your client beyond the intake form. Every client is different and you can read your relationship, the quality of the community between you and the client, and your client’s progress to determine if there are questions that need to be asked.

But, something that we can all do is be attuned to the world around us and be critically reflexive about our training practices and the efforts we are making to model inclusivity, respect, and compassion.


If you’re a health, fitness, or nutrition professional (or you want to be)…

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  1. Sweeton J, Post-Election Stress Disorder in Women, Psychology Today, November 12, 2016.
  2. Rushin K, The Bridge Poem,
About The Author: Larissa Mercado-Lopez

Dr. Larissa Mercado-López is an assistant professor of Women’s Studies at California State University, Fresno, where she teaches courses on feminist theory, women of color, and Latina health. Her blog Fitness Cultures appeared on the San Antonio Express News website and she led a fitness collective in San Antonio, Texas. Larissa has been invited to present on women of color, fitness, self-care, and body size, at universities in California and Texas, and for Huffington Post Live, and has presented her work at national conferences. Larissa is a proud mother of four children, and her first children’s book will be released in 2017. You can follow Larissa on Twitter @LMercadoLopez.