Personal Trainer or Therapist? by Claire Winter

When you see a counsellor or therapist you book an appointment, you have a set time, service and boundaries, you see them, you talk, you leave. 

When you have a best friend they are on call 24 / 7 for pretty much any level of “emergency”, good friends may be available during more sociable hours or for certain types of crisis and acquaintances are often around for the surface level stuff or to say hi in passing. 

But when you have a personal training client what do you do? 

Whilst life and relationships aren’t divided into boxes with nice labels we generally have an internal guide of where our boundaries are with different people.  Initially, this is formed based on our interpretation of what is expected and appropriate. e.g. when we meet someone for the first time at an interview we will arrive with certain expectations and behave differently than when it is at a party.  When we are introduced to someone’s grandparents we will generally have different expectations and behaviour than when we are introduced to their toddler.  After the initial hello the relationship will develop based on how the two of you behave and on your combined expectations.  If someone “crosses a line” the response generally either moves the line or reinforces it. 

When you have a personal training client you get to decide where that line is.   

Often trainers will act like therapists or will take on concerns and worries from their clients and, I get it, most of us join this industry to help people.  Alternatively, they will complain that their clients see them as therapists, again completely understandable as we generally encourage information on how someone is feeling and often the areas of food and exercise create emotional responses in people.  Regardless of how normal or understandable this is, it does not make it inevitable.  As a key person in the relationship, you get to determine the boundaries of that relationship.  By your words and behaviour, you give clues to those boundaries and create expectations of what is acceptable in your client.   

If you have a client who seems to treat you like a therapist (although not in terms of my description above) ask yourself how have you given the idea that this is acceptable.  Have you told them you’ll always be there for them?  Have you encouraged them to contact you at any time?  Have you responded to their initial communications in ways that encourage more of that behaviour?  Are you trying to solve all of their problems?  

The Importance of Boundaries

One of the best things you can do is decide where your boundaries with clients are. 

What do you see as acceptable? What will your own life pressures and stresses allow you to provide to clients whilst still providing the appropriate levels of support to other people in your life? Then ensure that your words and behaviour reinforce that boundary.  Don’t respond to a client at 2 am “because you are up”, or during family time “because you might forget”.  If you are prone to forgetting things create a system to address that, maybe make a note on your phone and move on, maybe have set times to review all messages and respond in those times, maybe set up out of office notifications.  Tell clients, as part of your charter of expectations when they sign up, that you are available at certain times or that messages will be responded to within 24 / 48 hrs or not on weekends or not on Tuesdays or whenever works for you and your life.   

Clients can sometimes morph into friends over time and if this is the case then you have to decide if the level of support you provide is congruent to the level of friendship they occupy.  If you can’t separate the paying relationship from the friendship and it is causing an issue, then maybe you should consider ending one of them or having a conversation to clarify the boundaries.  A true friendship works both ways, if you wouldn’t dream of asking them for support is it really a friendship? 

This may all sound a bit harsh and if you are happy with the level of support you provide and the relationships you have with clients then there are no issues.  However, if it is impacting your life, your emotional wellbeing or your relationships with friends and family then I urge you to reread the first sentence.  If you were a therapist you would be providing a service within set parameters. 

Similarly, it is not about becoming a robot and removing all support or personal interaction. It is good that you care, it is good that you are interested in the person, not just the money they provide, but at the end of the day you run a business, you provide a service and you are in control of what that includes or doesn’t include. If you call out a plumber, they won’t fix your car whilst they’re there, you wouldn’t expect them to and they don’t encourage you to tell them all about the issues you are having with it. 

Decide your boundaries, reinforce your boundaries and stick to your boundaries.   

Not Sure Where to Start?   

*If you don’t already have a charter of expectations or client agreement around communications and when you are available then implement one.   

*If you have rules about communications but aren’t sticking to them then, look at how you can make changes so you do.   

*If you have 1 or more clients where you feel you need to make changes look back over the questions I asked earlier about how you have ended up in the situation you are in and come up with how you can start to shift the boundaries back to where you want them to be. 

Experiment until you find what works for you to ensure you protect your emotional and mental energy and are happy with the way your relationships with your clients operate.  Looking after yourself isn’t selfish. Remember no one benefits if you’re burnt out.

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