Chris McGrath by Chris McGrath

The term “fitness leader” is often designated for those who carve the path for all other professionals to follow. While this may be the top of the food chain for the fitness profession, we are all fitness leaders for our clients. Our status or rank in the fitness world is not as important as the status we establish in the eyes of our clients. We may be the only true voice they hear when it comes to fitness and wellness guidance. When other “voices” are present, they are often in the form of hyped-up articles, TV sound bites and coffee-break talk—most of which cannot answer complicated questions, nor provide personal advice. We are most likely the only option to offer reasoning, clarity and personal guidance. Which means, we all wear the LEADERSHIP badge. And it is our responsibility to wear it well.

There are many characteristics associated with leaders that few would debate, such as integrity, conviction, focus, intuitiveness, etc. Leaders are willing to take risks, but not unnecessarily, and never at the expense of others. They do what they believe is best, regardless of popular opinion. Leaders earn respect. They earn trust.

In fitness, top leaders rethink the way we train. They also help us retrain the way we think. Therefore, there is no reason not to lead our clients in the same way. Leadership is not about mimicking a specific technique or style of training that we learned from the “best.” It is about finding the best solutions we can provide that do not conflict with professional integrity and responsibility. It is about being prepared and doing the “right” things.


Wants vs. Needs

Perhaps the essence of fitness leadership is best captured in a quandary we all face at one time or another: Do we give our clients what they want? Or what they need? If we are lucky, we don’t have to choose one side of the proverbial “fence” over the other. This only happens when wants and needs are in sync, and/or when our clients choose to trust the solutions we provide for them based on our professional assessment. But considering the many outside influences that can create conflict and inadvertently sabotage our efforts to do the “right” things, we likely have to make decisions as to which side of the fence we will act on.

When asked to choose between wants and needs, many fitness professionals respond with “a little bit of both.” But this response is vague and noncommittal, and allows too much room for negotiation into areas that may be either useless or harmful.

Consider two, not-so-far-fetched scenarios:

Scenario 1) A client highlights common “trouble areas,” suggesting she wants to “trim” fat off her triceps, lower abs, and inner and outer thighs (sound familiar?). She requests a workout routine filled with “spot reduction” exercises that target these areas. Your professional assessment determines what she “wants” for a workout will not help her accomplish her goals. Do you give her what she wants or what she needs?

Scenario 2) A client requests a hardcore, butt-kicking workout. However, his toe-touch looks more like a knee touch, he can’t move very well, and he has not worked out in three years. Your professional assessment determines what he wants is not safe for him at this time. Do you give him what he wants or what he needs? 

If we choose to focus on a client’s needs, the direction is clear. However, the exact path to get there with each client is a little more complex and relies heavily on the relationship and communication paths we establish with our clients in the beginning. The role we establish as a personal leader will influence how effective our communication and recommendations are with each client. Luckily, the world is not black and white, so there is room for “a little bit of both.” But to maintain integrity and earn respect as a leader, it is more important that we start firmly with needsand work our negotiations from there.

Choosing to focus on needs does not mean disregarding a client’s likes and dislikes. It all fits into the equation. But what is appealing to a client is not always what is best for the client. In fact, what is appealing to many clients is what brought them to us for better answers in the first place. And while no client should be “forced” into something they are not comfortable with, we as professionals should not feel pressured to deliver something we do not consider appropriate.

There is no question we need to keep our clients satisfied. But there has to be a line drawn somewhere. The more flexible we are with that line, especially to appease a client paying for our expert advice, the less of a true leader we become. Ultimately, our professional responsibility is to provide our clients with what they need so they can obtain the results they want. Achieving this goes far beyond delivering what is popular for the sake of popularity. It goes beyond catering to a client’s desires when those desires conflict with our professional judgment. Each decision we make must be made in the moment. But the conviction and integrity in our decisions in the moment must be made prior. This decision is based on the type of leader we choose to be and which side of the fence we choose to start from. Choose wisely. Our clients are depending on us!