John Hanc is a long-time contributor and columnist for Newsday, a contributing editor for Runner's World and a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He is the author of 14 books, the latest of which is The Ultra Mindset: An Endurance Champion's 8 Core Principals for Success in Business, Sports, and Life (Da Capo, April 2015), which he co-authored with ultra-distance running champion Travis Macy.
How to Keep the Positive Energy Flowing (Even When You’re Not Feeling It)
When Matt Sulam walks into a gym, he’s hard to miss. With his shaved head, 30-inch waist and bowling ball-sized biceps, he looks every inch the personal trainer.
It’s not just the physical presence, either. Sulam has a personality that’s almost as expansive as his pecs. He’s a sort of walking, (fast) talking, rep-counting double espresso—and it’s that caffeinated personality and positivity, he says, that he tries to bring into every session with his clients.
“You have to have what I call ‘the training glow,’” says Sulam, 47, who lives in Commack, N.Y. “When you show up at a session, you’ve got to have that positive energy going.”
And that’s true whether you’re feeling it on the inside or not. Even a generally upbeat individual like Sulam is going to have his grumpy mornings. But, he says, that’s not what his clients see. “There’s never a session where there’s a sullen look on my face,” he says. “I could be in a bad mood, I could be in excruciating pain and my client is not going to know it.”
“I think that’s a great philosophy,” says clinical psychologist Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Allied Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut. “When he’s at work, he’s at work. He’s not thinking about his personal life. It’s that ‘show must go on’ kind of mentality.”
And it’s a state of mind, experts say, that needs to be cultivated for success in personal training, regardless of your personal style.
It’s Not About You
While your clients probably like and care about you as a human being, your 30 or 60 minutes with them is not about the travails of your life. It’s about them, their training and their fitness. And that’s as it should be because they’re paying for that time with you.
A dour, sour-faced trainer is not going to cut it. “People will let it go once, maybe twice,” says Robert Morea, co-owner of Great Jones Fitness, a one-on-one studio in Manhattan. “But then you’ll start losing clients. They’re expecting the motivation you’re going to bring to their session. So you’ve got to bring it.”
This is not to say that every trainer has to be a stand-up comic or a motivational speaker. “There’s room for all types in the profession,” says Leigh Ann Richards, general manager of MetroFitness in Montgomery, Ala. “There are trainers who take a more businesslike or methodical approach and clients who want that. There are other clients who want someone like me...someone who’s going to entertain, encourage, stand on my head, whatever it takes.”
While both Sulam and Richards admit that sometimes they have to project a little more positive energy than they might really be feeling on a given day, no one is suggesting that you try to be someone you’re not.
“You have to be authentic,” says Margaret Moore, founder and CEO of Wellcoaches. But regardless of your own style, we’re all human. And whether buoyant extroverts or methodical introverts, we are all going to have our good and bad days.
“Your way of righting your own ship can be simply to realize that you have the opportunity to help someone no matter what else is happening in your life,” says Moore, who is also co-director at Harvard University’s Institute of Coaching. “You need to think, ‘I’m here to serve, I’m here to make my client feel better, and for now, I’ll set aside my own concerns.’”
Here are some other ways to right that ship and achieve smooth sailing in your interactions with clients.
Kvetch to Your Own Kind
Frustrated by having to put on a happy (or at least, businesslike) face to your clients, even when you feel like the gym is the last place you’d like to be? Talk to someone who can really understand where you’re coming from: another trainer.
“When you’re having a frustrating day with a client or it’s hard to keep your energy up, having a network of other trainers to talk with is helpful,” says Pagoto. Mental health professionals do this on a regular basis, she says. “We have weekly meetings and talk through our clients and we support each other. A little peer therapy can go a long way.”
Whether it’s a social media or online group, or just a couple of personal-training buddies you can grab a meal or a drink with, talking it over can help.
Put a Pin in That Problem!
Regardless of how he’s feeling on a given day, Sulam is ready to take the plunge. “I call it the ‘client deep dive,’” he says. “I am 100% deep diving into the client who’s standing in front of me. He or she will have my undivided attention for 60 minutes.”
Another word for it is “focus”; unwavering focus on the matter at hand—which of course is your client’s workout. But that’s easier to do if you don’t have something gnawing at the back of your mind. A problem with a spouse or parent, a bill, a repair—whatever. Those problems should be left at the door of the gym or your client’s house. Pagoto offers a suggestion on how to do that. “If your mind is distracted by something else, put a pin in it for later,” she says. In other words, think about what you’re going to do to work on the problem later—make a call, have a conversation, get online—then write a note (paper or digital) to yourself about it. “If your mind is racing on these things, here’s a short plan of what I intend to do about it later,” she says. “Now, put it aside and let’s get to work.”
Or, as Sulam, would say, dive in. “It’s actually therapeutic, just focusing on someone else for a while,” he says.
It’s Not All Good, But That’s Not Bad
“Life is basically a mixed bag, and we have mixed emotions,” says Moore. “It’s unrealistic to expect you or your clients to be upbeat and positive all the time.”
Acknowledging that reality, and the negative emotions as well, is the way to deal with it. And if it means briefly sharing something that happened in your life with a client, or allowing them to similarly vent, that’s fine.
“The point is that you don’t want to deny the things that make us feel bad,” Moore says. “It isn’t about how to be positive all the time, it’s about navigating the emotional balance well.”
Sometimes It Is an Act
Starbucks? Red Bull? Herbal supplements? Surely there must be some performance aid that always-upbeat trainers use to keep themselves that way. After watching Richards lead a spirited workout class, a friend wanted to know the secret. “She said, `Can I ask you something? Can you please tell me what it is you take or do to keep your energy and always be up?’” Richards recalls. “I put my hand on her shoulder and I said, ‘Diane, sometimes you just fake it.’”
In other words, sometimes, you just might have to give yourself a proverbial “snap out of it” slap in the face. “You just have to pull yourself out of whatever mood you’re in, and say ‘this is the way I’m going to be,’” she said. “And you know what? When you put that smile on, it might be forced at first, but then it takes over and it’s real.”
Repeat After Him
On days when he’s dragging, Robert Morea looks in the mirror of his home in Brooklyn and has a little chat with himself before heading into his studio in Manhattan. He reminds himself that being a personal trainer is the job he’s always wanted—a job that enables him to do what he loves and help people in the process. He recommends delivering a similar pep talk to yourself next time you’ve got the personal trainer blues.
“You’re a fitness professional. People are giving you their hard-earned money to help motivate them to train harder and get healthier. It’s the greatest job ever. Don’t take that for granted.”