Shannon Fable by Shannon Fable

As health and fitness professionals, we pride ourselves on helping our clients achieve goals. One of our first tasks is to help make sure their goals are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound). But even with SMART goals, there’s room for error. Even though well-thought-out goals tick all the boxes, losing weight may be harder than your client ever expected.

When the work to achieve a goal becomes tough or a goal takes longer than expected, our job becomes chief motivator (with a bit of detective thrown in the mix). While the cheerleading may help, what our clients really need is a bit of intrinsic motivation that can only come through increased self-confidence. Simply put, our clients need to get some wins to have the motivation to continue working toward their bigger goals.

If fitness and healthy living has always been a way of life for you, it may seem odd to celebrate a dog walk or drinking one fewer soda a week. But depending on your client’s starting point, something that seems so small may be a monumental building block toward gaining confidence that snowballs into long-term weight loss.

Here are a few ways to help your clients celebrate small victories while working toward larger goals:

1. Stack the Deck

There are a litany of tests and assessments you can do when you begin to work with a new client. It is, however, important that you carefully choose which assessments to use based on the goals and starting point of each client. Use only those assessments that are crucial to developing a plan to help your clients reach their goals. And be sure to include assessments that can easily be repeated at shorter time intervals to show consistent improvement.

For example, you’ll most likely assess weight and body fat. Just be aware that these numbers may be hard to change and if the numbers don’t go in the right direction (due to normal fluctuations), it may elicit a negative response for the client. If you can also include a simple physical test that is easily repeatable and easily improved, your client will get a win.

Consider a five-minute treadmill walk as a warm-up and note the distance. You can return to this often at the start of a session or have a client complete one on his or her own from time to time. As the client gets stronger, the distance walked over the same time period will most likely improve. Even a small gain of .01 miles is an improvement worth noting. The same principle can be applied to  increasing weights or range of motion. Digital trackers can also be helpful. For example, if using a step tracker, have the client monitor the number of steps he or she takes in a day. Then the following week, ask the client to modestly increase that number. Sure, we’d love to see our clients getting the recommended 10,000 steps per day, but if their base is 2,000 steps, even 2,500 is a step in the right direction and should be acknowledged to build confidence. Anything you can note that showcases improvement will go a long way in helping your client string together small victories on the way to a healthier place.

2. Clever Calendars

Ask your clients to start keeping a calendar (paper works best for this) and mark off each day they successfully complete an action that will move them one step closer toward their goals. Visual victories are compelling and seeing positive days strung together can motivate your clients to stick with it.

For example, if you have identified daily activity as a major contributor to achieving weight loss, have your client mark off each day that she gets active. Of course, you’ll want to define exactly what being active means (and that definition might change over time). Using the example from above, if your client notes that 2,000 steps is her baseline, for the next week you might count getting 2,500 steps as a day that she “won” with daily activity. The next week, the goal might be to reach 2,750 steps. Of course, the same can be done for nutrition. If you’ve identified your client doesn't drink enough water, ask him to keep track of his water intake and mark the calendar for each day he consumes eight glasses of water. Of course, if his baseline is around two glasses per day, eight may be too large of a jump. Refer to the Stack the Deck section above when choosing the “rules” for the calendar game. Whatever will allow your clients to gather positive marks on their calendars will do the trick.

3. Brag Book

Encourage your client to keep a small journal at all times (again, a physical journal to write in would be best here—there’s something powerful about handwriting and having your eyes read back your positive words). Have your client write down at least one action each day that he or she is proud of that will positively influence the end goal. No action is too big or too small and writing down more than one small victory is highly encouraged.

For example, your client may start her morning by writing down that she actually got more sleep than normal and woke up feeling rested, which could positively influence her workout. At the coffee shop, she might reflect on the great choice she made when she passed up her usual pastry with her cup of coffee. You get the idea. It doesn’t have to be a great workout, upping her steps or anything monumental, but the little things she’s doing each day to influence her ultimate goal.

If you are a group fitness instructor, you can help celebrate small victories as well. Here are a few easy strategies:

  • No man left behind – Plan workouts that get participants of all levels moving quickly and easily. Use clear, concise cueing and provide opportunities for rehearsal to get everyone on the same page. It’s also important to have clearly defined objectives with lots of options to achieve. Avoid providing the ultimate expression of the drill and then providing ways to scale it down. Instead, go the other way. Start at the easiest level and then provide options for further challenge.
  • Positive Positioning – Instead of telling your participants what you don’t want, tell them what you do want. Avoid constantly cueing what you don’t want to see and instead tell participants how to do move correctly and offer ways they can check to see if they are getting it right. For example, in a squat you might say, “Turn to the side for this first set and look in the mirror. I’d love to see your tush going as far back as possible while your chest remains up. Take a look.” You might also score points if you provide one focus point instead of giving people a laundry list of things to keep in mind as they perform the exercise.
  • Let them get it RIGHT – Ask questions to reinforce the form or intensity you’re looking for and allow participants to say yes (even if it is silent). For example, asking “Could you put a little more weight into your heels on the next five squats?” gives participants a chance to think about whether or not they can. If the answer is yes, they score a point for their self-esteem. If the answer is no, you can provide ways to make it happen and participants can self-correct.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” It’s true—the journey to get to a healthier place is long and involves many small steps along the way. While we do not need to reward every positive behavior (i.e., treating yourself to ice cream after you reach your first milestone or buying yourself a new outfit after five workouts in a row), reflecting on every positive behavior has significant merit.

Building your clients’ self-esteem and empowering them to make the daily choices that will affect the end result is what we’re after. In the ACE Coaching Behavior Change Manual, habits expert BJ Fogg, Ph.D., writes, “So, above all else, no matter what approach you take, help people feel like they are succeeding. I deeply believe that’s the key to achieving long-term change in challenging areas like nutrition, stress and physical activity. I’ve seen this clearly: When people feel successful, they keep going.” In other words, helping your clients to feel successful is the best strategy to achieving long-term goals.