Jonathan Ross by Jonathan Ross
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Guaranteed frustration. That’s what unrealistic goals will get you and any client expressing them. However, unrealistic goals can only exist in combination with highly powerful emotions, making those unrealistic goals seem realistic under the fog of emotion. To help this type of client find success, you need to address the emotion first rather than the goal itself.

Every trainer has had—or will have—a client who begins with unrealistic goals. Those that already have had a client like this are keenly aware of the folly in trying to “correct” the goals at the beginning of training. A client who has unrealistic goals will either fight any attempt at reason, or may even jump from trainer to trainer or program to program every couple of weeks in an attempt to find a suitable way to achieve the unrealistic goals.

How can you turn this challenge into an opportunity?

First, know that you most likely will hit a dead end in trying to address unwise goals head-on. The only time people believe that ridiculous things are possible is when they are not thinking clearly and are the least receptive to logic. I made this mistake frequently early in my fitness career, believing I could educate people away from unrealistic goals. It almost never happens. The powerful emotional sway of the unrealistic goal will usually block any attempt at a sensible approach.

If you have fairly strong conversational skills, you may get a client to verbally agree to what you are trying to “teach” them about his or her goals. However, inside he or she will maintain a belief in the unrealistic goal and frustrations (for both of you) will surface when progress isn’t made right away.

How do you coach the client to get started without attacking the unrealistic goal head on?

Ask questions. Lots of them. For example, with a client who wants to lose 100 pounds in three months, explaining why that is not a realistic goal will create tension and frustration between you and the client. She will not give up that goal until she is emotionally willing to. So don’t address it directly.

Ask the client to tell you something in her day-to-day life right now that feels challenging or harder than it should be. Ask if she would like whatever that is to get easier or more enjoyable. For example, perhaps she would like walking the dog to be easier or less painful on her knees or back. This can be something to ask about on a weekly basis as a measure of improvements in fitness that will be within immediate reach and something the client cares about.

This kind of “mini-goal” creates more of a daily inward connection between the client and her own body. This helps the client “feel” a sense of improving health and feeling better that can provide at least short-term motivation to continue. With no encouragement to notice improvements in daily activities, there can be a lot of effort put forth without any perceived benefit because the big (unrealistic) goal hasn’t been achieved.

Consider a student in college. If graduating with honors is the goal, it would seem crazy to suggest that the student was a failure until they graduate with honors. It takes getting high grades on quizzes and exams—“mini-successes”—on a consistent basis to achieve the bigger goal. If we feel successful when we achieve a necessary step on the way to the bigger goal, we are motivated to continue. If we feel no sense of success or accomplishment until we achieve the bigger goal, it is very easy to lose confidence in the journey. And it’s important to stress that this example is a very realistic goal of graduating with honors in college.

Our solution to working with clients with unrealistic goals involves helping them discover parallel goals that are of a more immediate nature that are connected to how they feel on a consistent basis—to feeling a sense of accomplishment, success and confidence. Once the client is on his or her way, feeling consistent and doing well, we then can look for opportunities to address the less realistic nature of the original goal.

Depending on the client’s personality, you can either address the goal head on and illustrate how unrealistic it is or you can ask the client how practical he or she thinks the goal is. At this point, the client may “know” that it is unrealistic, but feel a lack of ability to adjust the goal to a more realistic one. The stage is now set for you to teach the client about a more realistic version of the goal because he or she is now in a far more receptive place to hearing that such an adjustment to a goal is necessary.

First Step, Best Step 

“The journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” But so does a journey of a few steps that the client quits early on. Every journey—long or short, successful or unsuccessful—begins with a single step. As a result, we must do everything possible to ensure that those first few steps are successful because that will motivate subsequent steps. 

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