A Data-Centric Approach to Behavior Change
Picture this: An overfat prospective client – weighing about 94 kilos – approaches you, the almighty coach, desperate for a transformation program to look like Hugh Jackman for his upcoming wedding. He proclaims that he’s willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ (yea buddy, we’ve heard that one before) to achieve his goals in 6 months, or his missus might leave him at the altar for the celebrant. You sit down to discuss his current lifestyle habits and the necessary steps surrounding exercise, nutrition, and recovery needed for these goals to come to fruition. As the consultation process wears on, you gradually start to realize that this bloke might not be totally willing to do whatever it takes to look like Wolverine. He professes his undying love for 1-for-1 pints with the boys after work, his quasi-religious devotion to a double cheeseburger meal for lunch every day – with a milkshake that brings the boys to the yard – and an uncanny knack for conjuring his own gelato from scratch on the weekends. Add to the mix his poor sleeping patterns and habitual reliance on donuts to keep him awake in his job as an investment banker, and you have got a prospective client who might just be your biggest challenge yet.
Let’s face it, the personal training industry perennially tends to present even the most patient coaches a client who can be quite challenging to work with, especially regarding their desired goals and recurring habits in the quotidian. As coaches, we come across clients who want to have the best of both worlds: the chiseled abs that you can grate parmesan cheese on, the well-defined pecs that make young girls swoon at Tanjong Beach Club, the bulging guns that make it seem like you milk cows for a living, and the endless pints, pizzas, gelato, and fries. Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that your client must pick one or the other, because this is not sustainable living at all. However, when your client’s goals are clearly defined by temporal limits, as witnessed by our hypothetical bloke in the previous paragraph, then there must be limits set on curtailing certain behaviors and habits that can be detrimental to achieving their physical potential. Even when a client’s goals are not bound by a stipulated timeframe, and they are just looking to achieve a relatively healthier lifestyle or physique in the long run, specific proclivities that might run contrary to their goals should also be duly addressed. The grand question is, how do you get such clients to become aware of certain habits that can prove deleterious in their fitness journey, whilst inculcating new behaviors or sustaining current ones that could be beneficial in the long term? The answer: Habit-based coaching.
In a nutshell, habit-based coaching encompasses a client-centered approach of 1) discovering what habits and behaviors are either nurturing progress towards your client’s goals, or effectively throwing a spanner in the works, and 2) working on these habits and behaviors. First and foremost, let us just address the elephant in the room. I have pored over copious articles and personal training manuals to boldly assert that habit-based coaching can frequently carry a negative undertone, especially when words such as ‘negative traits’ and ‘bad habits’ are used to get coaches to wean their clients off less than ideal routines, such as staying up late or having a Nutella filled donut for breakfast. In my own coaching experience, I have overheard coaches chiding their clients for their excessive alcohol intake and outrightly telling them to start changing for the better and eating ‘clean’ (whatever that is). Not only is this problematic as you tend to discredit or even plainly ignore your client’s current lifestyle, mood, behaviors, and social milieu; but it also discounts your value as a coach who can communicate effectively and recognize highly personal elements and triggers that may be the cause for such habits. You may come off as someone who is overbearing and forceful, often adding unwanted stress in the lives of your clients who are already operating at maximum capacity. Habit-based coaching should therefore not be an exercise in denigration, a practice where you impose your ideals on clients or an effort in solely pointing out someone’s flaws.
Ergo, habit-based coaching should also recognize the positive aspects of your client’s current lifestyle, such as when they regularly hit the gym thrice a week, reach their daily step count, or even shop for groceries for the whole week. Fortifying positivity is an indispensable tool in habit-based coaching that motivates your client to stick to their guns and continue these behaviors. Tenets of such reinforcement can include but are not limited to, recognition (“I saw that you hit 10000 steps on average during the past week”), affirmation (“It’s amazing how you shopped for groceries and prepped your meals for the whole week on a Sunday afternoon), little snippets of encouragement (“You’ve been doing really well all this while hitting the gym thrice a week, keep going and you’re bound to see your goals being met”), or even physical displays of celebration and excitement (who says a high five or a small token can’t be a tool for reinforcing positive behaviors?). When you, the coach, can effectively recognize the positive as well as not-so-positive habits in your client’s lives, your stock rises; inevitably rendering you a driving force behind your client’s journey towards their health and fitness goals. By the way, realize I used the phrase ‘not-so-positive habits’ instead of ‘negative habits? Let us not establish polarities or dichotomies here, especially in habit-based coaching. We do not want our clients to be told that what they are doing is flat-out wrong. Instead, leverage on their strengths and what has been working well thus far, whilst taking care to address what has not been working as well so far. Remember, there is no such thing as failure, only feedback.
Nevertheless, I list out 5 steps that are fundamental to a habit-based coaching framework that should be present in every fitness professional’s repertoire of skills. Knowing how to graciously navigate the whole spectrum of problems and issues that silently plague your clients’ lives, whilst fortifying positivity, will be an asset that they would naturally find value in.
- Establishing Data Points. The first step in the process, and dare I say the most salient one. Data is what drives us fitness professionals in our daily tasks with our clients. From frequent check-ins regarding alcohol intake or cravings, weekly progress photos, macronutrient tracking, to morning weigh-ins, these are some of the multiple tools various coaches have used to gather information. This serves as a robust data collection process that provides evidence surrounding habits and behaviors that may either stymie or sustain progress. Accumulation of such data points, however, is highly dependent on open, fluid, and consistent communication between the coach and client. The client must be willing to commit to this act through the provision of constant qualitative or quantitative data to the coach throughout the program. Apart from the provision of a plethora of information for the coach to work with, another intrinsic advantage induced by the gathering of such metrics, numbers, and photos is that clients are often held accountable for their progress. By realizing that the data collected is reflective of their current habits and behaviors, this action itself can function as a stimulus to encourage your clients to take ownership of their goals and work towards them. Talk about a vast potential for rapid changes!
- Identifying Behaviors. Once the data can be collected and analyzed, you and your client are effectively able to pinpoint specific habits that may prove to be working effectively towards, or to the detriment of his/her goals. If your client has agreed to send you pictures of every meal, and you spot two pints of lager at each of those 4 meals that include a hearty serving of chicken and waffles (caked in maple syrup no less), then you are well-positioned to identify hypercaloric eating habits that are proving to be an encumbrance towards your client’s fat loss goals. If your client has decided to track their sleeping patterns using a watch of some sorts (I do not even know what is on the market these days) that instantly relays that information to you in the morning, you are likewise able to identify if he/she has had problems with recovery or is doing swimmingly on that front. As coaches, we should strive to identify behaviors that are constructive and get our clients to build on these victories, whilst discerning habits that may prove to be a stumbling block. Remember, no such thing as failures – only feedback. This is the glory of a data-centric approach in habit-based coaching: the qualitative/quantitative results are almost always reflective of our clients’ daily habits and behaviors, thus presenting coaches an idea of how best to address these.
- Understanding Triggers. Now, remember not to be too quick in compelling your clients to change their behaviors should potential ‘stumbling blocks’ be discovered. You do not want to come off as brash and unsympathetic towards their lifestyles, stressors, working conditions, relationships, etc. Instead of focusing on the bigger picture (i.e., behavior), always take a step back and identify what the triggers might be to such behaviors that may double up as hindrances. For example, you might find that your client has a disposition to always binge on 3 bags of potato chips during the latter part of the evening. Instead of asking them to stop this action immediately (which rarely works, mind you), choose to delve into and comprehend their thoughts, emotions, and physical/social environment. Prompting them to journal their thoughts down (woo, more data!), write a note on their phone, or simply have a conversation with you through text, will remarkably exude some triggers which you or your client might not have even recognized in the first place. From my experience, triggers for such binge eating behavior can stem from sheer ennui, watching a mind-numbing reality TV show for 3 hours straight, or just the endless stream of after-hour calls/emails from work. The main point? Look at what the triggers are for behaviors that can prove to be impediments.
- Formulating Progressive Changes & Testing. Once triggers have been identified after the twin process of data collection and analysis, it is time to make changes. However, we should be careful not to enforce any draconian measures or wholesale changes that could make our clients go through a gamut of unpleasant emotions. We do not want to enforce our clients to quit any habits cold turkey, because such practices are bound to come back and, most times, more extreme than before. Hence, the name of the game is to induce gradual alterations to habits in the right direction. So, instead of telling your client to switch off the TV for him to stop eating his 3 bags of Lays, recognize the trigger and advise him to reduce his TV consumption to 1 hour. What happens next, then? Go back to Step 1 and gather the data again. It is a cyclical and reflexive process of data accumulation, analyzing, and testing. Check to see if that 1 hour of watching Keeping up with the Kardashians also results in only 1 bag of Lays being munched on. This, weary reader, is the power of outcome-based decision making. If your client has trouble sleeping because of his 2-hour addiction to Reddit every night, get him to set an alarm reminder to turn off his mobile data after 45 mins of surfing, for 2 weeks straight. Test to see if his sleep patterns have altered. Remember, gradual but progressive changes to triggers in our milieu.
- Fortification of Positivity. This one is straightforward. Even when you see progressive changes occurring with regards to your client’s habits, your job is still not complete. Always remember to connect these positive changes to their outcome goals and ambitions. Get your clients to recognize their victories (progress is progress, no matter how small), inspire them to be introspective about what went right, remind them on why they set out on this journey in the first place and their purpose, motivate them with regards to their newly acquired habits and to build on the constructive ones already in place, and make them realize their true growth potential. Sure, this may all sound like generic advice and a whole lot of fluff to you. But how many of you reading this can proudly say you actively carry out this final step in fortifying positive changes in your clients?
And there you go, another interminable exposition – this time on the wonders of habit-based coaching. Remember, as coaches in the personal training industry, we have the efficacy to make viable and lifelong changes in our clients’ lives, but only if we can do it in a slow and calculated manner. Until next time, keep hustling.