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The 5 Biggest Mistakes Coaches Make When Training Female Clients

Effectively coaching and training women is about more than understanding the anatomical and physiological differences between men and women. It’s also about understanding the psychological and emotional differences, including what women are conditioned to believe and say about their bodies and how it relates to their worthiness.

With a community of over 600,000 women from more than 70 countries around the world, we have been able to glean really powerful insight from our community members about their experiences working with a coach or trainer, and how these experiences have impacted them personally, as well as the effect these have had on their relationship with that professional.

In 2017, we surveyed the Girls Gone Strong community and asked women about negative experiences they’ve had with their coach or trainer — here’s what we’ve found.

Of the women we surveyed:

  • 97 percent eventually fired their trainer.
  • 16 percent left that gym all together to avoid seeing their trainer again.
  • Only 3.5 percent shared the truth about why.

What Does This Mean for You As a Health and Fitness Professional?

It means that you are often on the front lines of this conversation about women and their bodies and you can have a profound impact on how they feel about themselves, their fitness journey, and their potential. It also means that you have the opportunity to be a tremendous force for good.

To be clear, you cannot make someone feel a particular way about themselves. We are each in charge of how we feel, how we respond, and how we react to others. What you can do, however, is work to a creative a welcoming, inclusive, safe, and body-positive environment that encourages your clients to develop a more positive body image.

Here’s a list of the top 5 mistakes women reported their trainers making.

1. Making Comments That Leave Women Feeling Embarrassed or Ashamed

Some examples of comments made by trainers were:

  • Telling a woman who pulled up her shirt to wipe off sweat, “Wow! There are abs under all of that.”
  • Telling a woman struggling with an exercise that she was too weak to do it.
  • Referring to a client who has competed in endurance sports as “skinny fat.”

Reported impact:

  • 71 percent of clients reported feeling unworthy, discouraged, and that they should not be at the gym.
  • 68 percent of clients of clients reported this shaming left them feeling vulnerable and like the gym was not a safe place for them.

2. Not Relating to the Client’s Situation

Some of the reported examples:

  • A trainer trying to force his client on the scale, despite her repeated refusal to do so, when she came to him seeking nutrition advice.
  • A female coach telling a client that she could never gain any muscle or lose any weight while eating a vegetarian diet, and that Paleo was her only option.

Women who felt that their trainer could not relate to their situation reported feeling:

  • Unmotivated
  • Angry and upset
  • Ashamed of not being able to meet the trainer’s expectations
  • Ignored and devalued by the trainer

3. Over- or Underestimating Clients Based on Their Appearance

Here’s what this can look like:

  • Acting shocked when a client isn’t able to do certain exercises because she appears to be “in shape” (overestimating).
  • Telling a client “I didn’t think you’d be able to do that” (underestimating).
  • Crushing a client with intense HIIT workout because she appears to be “fit” (overestimating).
  • Assuming that because a woman is overweight, she must not exercise or is a beginner (underestimating).

Reported impact:

  • When underestimated, women felt insulted, angry, frustrated, upset.
  • When overestimated, women felt apprehensive and unsafe.
  • 86 percent of women who were judged by their appearance felt that they did not get a chance to reach their potential.

4. Ignoring Clients’ Requests

Here are some examples:

  • A well-muscled male trainer consistently telling his client that she “wouldn’t look like him” if she lifted weights,” when she repeatedly told him her goal was hypertrophy/muscle gain.
  • Repeatedly discussing nutrition or weighing your client when she isn’t interested.
  • A trainer refusing to modify exercises for a client with prior knee injuries, and then when finally relenting, offering “less effective” exercises from the client’s perspective.

Clients were more likely to report feeling:

  • Ignored
  • Unmotivated
  • Angry
  • Defeated

Clients also often reported that when the trainer did not listen to them, it:

  • Discouraged them from achieving their potential
  • Led to or exacerbated injuries

5. Pushing an “All or Nothing” Approach

Some reported examples:

  • A trainer refusing to give alternative exercises — insisting that particular exercises are a “must” — after being told by their female client that the original exercises made them uncomfortable.
  • Calling a client 8 weeks post-abdominal surgery to tell her that she needed to take responsibility for herself and would never see results if she didn’t start upping her training (the trainer felt he was “motivating” her).

How this was received by the clients:

  • The trainer was often pushing weight loss as a goal (even if unwanted), and it always ended up with clients feeling unworthy and feeling badly about themselves.
  • Clients often felt that it was impossible to meet the goals set by the trainer and felt defeated.
  • These trainers were more likely to shame the client.

When reading through these scenarios, it’s easy to roll your eyes and wonder who in the world would say these things or behave this way with the clients, but the reality is, this stuff happens all the time.

And even if you’re not someone who would treat their client or patient this way — many health and fitness professionals do. That means there’s a good chance that your client or patient is entering your space with some level of trauma or “baggage” related to their experience with another health professional.

What You Can Do

If these are the things we aren’t supposed to do with our clients, what can we do? Lots of things! You have the opportunity to profoundly impact your client’s life in a positive way. Here’s a specific, actionable list of things to do, and things to avoid when working with your clients and patients.

DO: Listen to Your Client

  • Ask questions about their background.
  • Repeat back to them what they say and follow up with meaningful questions that show you’re listening.
  • Take notes during your meeting.
  • Make sure your client is comfortable performing certain exercises and/or in certain places.
  • Have progressions, regressions, and variations available if their program needs to be modified on the fly.

DON’T

  • Interrupt or talk over your client.
  • Assume you know what your client is going to say.
  • Allow yourself to get distracted by your phone, yourself, or other gym-goers during your session.
  • Push them or make them feel awkward if they request a certain exercise or location be changed.

DO: Assess Their Ability Level

  • Have them fill out a medical history questionnaire in addition to a questionnaire about their previous experience with training and/or nutrition.
  • Review the questionnaire with them to give them an opportunity to talk more in-depth about what is important to them.
  • Dig deeper, ask more/different questions based on their responses.
  • Take them through an appropriate physical assessment to evaluate their abilities.

DON’T

  • Tell them what is “wrong” with them during their assessment.
  • Suggest that they may/should be in pain.
  • Put them through an intense workout as an assessment tool or to “prove how good of a
    trainer” you are.
  • Spend a lot of time talking about what they can’t do (from your perspective).

DO: Give Them The Space To Determine Their Goal

  • Ask them what they would like to accomplish working with you.
  • Help them get specific with their goal if they aren’t able to do it themselves.
  • Ask more questions to determine if their goal is really their goal.
  • Help them determine what is realistic.
  • Validate their goals and discuss how you can help (or not).
  • Ask more questions and educate them gently.

DON’T

  • Say things that may invalidate their particular goal.
  • Assume you know what their goals are based on their appearance.
  • Push your personal preferences on your client.

DO: Identify and Respect Their Individual Situation

  • Learn as much as you can about their individual situation.
  • Ask questions to learn about what their life looks like outside of working with you (family, work, sleep, stress, etc.).
  • Ease into some of these questions as they might be sensitive.

DON’T

  • Make recommendations that are insensitive to their situation (culturally, morally/ethically, financially).
  • Make them feel badly about their individual situation.
  • Compare your client to another client in a negative way.

DO: Consistently Evaluate, Check-In, and Assess

  • Regularly ask what they have going on in their life.
  • Pay attention to their body language, mood, and energy level.
  • Have a backup plan if they seem “off” and take advantage of when they are feeling great.
  • Work with them to determine a strategy when stuff hits the fan.
  • Learn what motivates them (e.g., compliments, competition, results).

DON’T

  • Diminish how major life events affect their training.
  • Blindly push them harder when they seem less motivated.
  • Make fun of them or ridicule them for expressing their concerns.

DO: Validate What Your Client Says

  • Validate your client has to say by rephrasing it to show that you’ve been listening.
  • Normalize your client’s feelings.
  • Recognize their body autonomy.

DON’T

DO: Be Mindful of Your Behavior and Communication Toward Your Client

Sexual assault is far more common than one would suspect, and one in four North American will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime [1], the majority of whom are women of color (especially Black, Indigenous and mixed-race women) [2]. An overwhelming 83 percent of disabled women will be assaulted in their lifetime [1].

With this in mind, be extremely mindful of:

  • The language you use
  • The way you touch your client and the manual cues you give (remember to always ask permission before touching them)
  • Your descriptions and verbal cues
  • Your physical proximity to the client
  • How you make eye contact, and where you are looking
  • The physical environment you’re creating (music, pictures, culture, location, etc.)

Above all, it’s important to recognize that while you cannot make your clients feel a particular way — we all must be responsible for our own reactions and feelings — you can cultivate an environment that encourages clients to feel welcome, safe, included, and good about themselves, their potential and their body.

References

  1. Sexual Assault Statistics in Canada, A Numerical Representation of the Truth, https://www.sexassault.ca/statistics.htm
  2. Women of Color and Sexual Assault, Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, http://endsexualviolencect.org/resources/get-the-facts/woc-stats/

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About The Author: Molly Galbraith

Molly Galbraith, CSCS is co-founder and owner of Girls Gone Strong, a global movement that aims to empower women to embrace all that's possible for their lives and for their bodies through body-positive, evidence-based, nutrition, training, and self-care information. She is also the author of The Modern Woman's Guide to Strength Training. As a former figure competitor who dabbled in powerlifting, Molly understands the more extreme side of training and nutrition, and after years of personal struggle with her own body image and self-worth, Molly is committed to helping women embrace their bodies and fall in love with themselves, and teaching other coaches and trainers how to better understand, connect with, and serve their women clients. Learn more about Molly on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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