Want Better Client Accountability?

One of the biggest issues we coaches run into is client accountability, right? Our clients want us to hold them accountable–but just how in the great blue blazes do we do that and is it really our job?

Is client accountability on us or on the client?

At Strength Faction, and at our gym BSP NOVA, we hold the belief that you can’t hold someone accountable…you can only create the environment in which someone holds themselves accountable. 

Facilitating ownership is maybe the most powerful way to do that.

Today, I’m sharing with you an excerpt from my upcoming coaching book. It talks about self-determination theory, facilitating ownership, and it’s all tied together with some great talk on client-centered coaching. Check it out:

“According to self-determination theory (SDT), human beings have three, fundamental psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness. We want to feel as though we can direct our own paths. We want to feel as though we have the skills and knowledge to do the directing, and we want to feel connected to other people as we direct ourselves forward through life’s tumults, calms, and transformations. The theory is also founded on the belief that people want to naturally behave in healthy, growth-fulfilling ways. SDT is one of the foundational blocks of our coaching philosophy, and in the context of accountability, all of the basic psychological needs play a serious role.

Autonomy, as it relates to accountability and training, is simple—we facilitate a client’s ability to take ownership over their training process. Rather than getting a little too big for our coaching britches and coming from a place of, “I know best, I’m the expert here. Here’s the correct answer and just do your program,” we function more humanistically and client-centered. (Remember that whole talk on being the guide and not the hero?) That means that we assume that each person has the ability to choose what’s best for themselves under good circumstances and solid guidance. It also means that we take our place as the guide, we put the client in the driver’s seat and we serve as the GPS.

Coach curiosity is the first step in facilitating client ownership. It’s the simplest way to put the client in the metaphorical driver’s seat. We ask more questions and act less directively. Asking questions does a couple of important, autonomy-supportive things: it communicates to the client that they are capable of directing their own path and that their choices actually hold the answers about what the best next move is, and it gives them the opportunity to express their thoughts and see those thoughts become the actions that become their training process. Think of it this way, we are a tool box that a client searches through to find the correct tool for the job they are currently working on. Our questions help a client have an inner self-discussion about which tool to choose. Then, they ultimately get to choose that tool.

Thinking of yourself as a tool box for your clients, and your questions as the labels on each drawer that help clients to think about, and choose, the right tool for them is especially useful during goal-setting and program planning. These are the times that buy-in is so crucial, and an autonomy-supportive process promotes that buy-in. And where there’s buy-in, there’s better accountability. Clients are usually more willing (there are always exceptions) to hold themselves to commitments that they’ve chosen, rather than those dictated to them by a coach. Accountability in this process is also the supportive type that we described earlier, rather than the punitive-feeling type that we’re so used to thinking of. That’s autonomy-driven accountability. Competency, and the feelings of capability that it engenders, helps bind feelings of autonomy with concrete action.

Earlier into this foray of all things fitness coaching, we had a great, general discussion on competency. Let’s slide the lens of accountability over it and view it a bit more specifically. People want to feel like they know what they’re doing, and when they feel like they don’t, or can’t grasp just what in the hell is going on, it messes with them. That “mess” often ends up with a person feeling de-motivated to show up and work and strongly motivated to avoid the environment that is making them feel incompetent. To draw on an earlier example, if a person feels as though they have no idea how to strike up a casual conversation in a social setting, they’ll likely avoid showing up to parties and trying. And a lot of accountability rests on the willingness to show up.

If folks feel woefully incompetent, and without a visible path to competency, as they train with you it’s going to be damn tough to hold them accountable because they won’t show up—or at least not in the way that is most productive for their growth. Feelings of competency, or at least seeing one’s ability to obtain it, motivate people to keep trying their hand. Feeling competent motivates people to keep doing the positive things that are changing them for the better. When people feel as though they can handle a situation, even if not completely now but they see a path to mastery, they keep showing up. Showing up consistently, and fighting the daily battles, is what wins the long-term, transformation war. Competency births consistency, and consistency births positive change. That’s transformation’s healthy family tree.

Fostering competency begins with understanding individual understanding, and a few simple questions lend that understanding: Where is this person currently in their exercise mastery journey?What’s at least a little bit of what makes them tick?  The answers to simple questions like these help us find a person’s starting and/or current level—as well as how they view themselves, their abilities, and the way they approach learning and challenging situations. Your movement screen and initial orientation to your coaching should answer the exercise mastery question, and getting to know the person through casual conversations as well as with questions on your intake form, like ‘How would your best friend describe you,’ will give an early snapshot of what makes him or her tick.

Using this info, their current movement capabilities and what you know about their personality, match the person with the appropriate level of exercise complexity and training difficulty. What, you ask, is the appropriate level of exercise complexity and training difficulty? Well, it’s individually dependent, of course! (Before you get pissed and stop reading, hold tight, an answer is coming.) The appropriate level, the sweet spot of competency, is when a person feels as though they have skill enough to perform the exercises on their program but there’s enough challenge to make it interesting.  Sometimes the challenge comes from the complexity of the exercise itself—learning, and performing, the movement takes a fair deal of concentration an effort. Other times the challenge comes from loading an easy exercise in a difficult way. Maybe the person doesn’t have incredible movement capabilities, but they can perform a basic goblet squat well. The goblet squat, and their ability to proficiently perform it, allows them to demonstrate their competency. The difficult loading scheme, say slow eccentrics, provides the interesting challenge.

Each human is different in how they perceive their own competence and the level of challenge they’re willing to take on. That’s why it’s so important to learn as much as possible about clients to individualize not only the combination of exercises and volume on their program, but their training experience as a whole. When a person lands in their competence sweet spot, there’s a better chance that they’ll take ownership over their training process, and ownership is the absolute crux of accountability. Relatedness, then, wraps autonomy and competence in a warm embrace of human connection that further motivates a client to keep showing up.

Relatedness is the relationship building aspect that we’ve discussed—it’s being a human being that treats other human beings like human beings. When we do this, people want to be around us, and, as we mentioned, there’s no accountability between a client and a coach that don’t want to be around each other. Relatedness is a simple reminder that relationship is at the forefront of everything.

The combination of autonomy, competence, and relatedness meets a person’s basic psychological needs, and in doing that, fosters a sense of ownership. Ownership that’s truly felt, through self-direction, feelings of ability, connection to something bigger, and connection to others is the absolute embodiment of accountability.”

Show people that they can direct their own path, make them feel capable in doing it, and develop and keep a good relationship with them and it’s amazing what people can do. One of those amazing things is take ownership and hold themselves accountable…because you’ve created environment in which they feel they can actually be successful. Having an aim that seems tough but achievable, and a great place to struggle toward that aim, is the crux of accountability-sponsored progress.

In 2010, two dudes Chris and Todd, started the business that would eventually become Strength Faction.

You know how they say the rest is history? Well, it’s not.

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