What to do when “IT” isn’t working

By Alex Pearson

 

We’ve all heard a client say something like this at some point:  

“It isn’t working”  

“It’s not doing anything”  

What is “IT”? The program? The exercises? The abstracted concept of weight loss itself? 

I started my business to reach out to those people who feel they are beyond help, but still desperately want it. This means I see a lot of people who have struggled to adhere to any kind of plan, and many who still struggle for any of a myriad reasons. I hope to share with you some of the things I do to help these clients, so that when you find yourself facing a person with similar difficulties, you can be the one who makes things change for them.  

To unpick the reasons why a person is unable to adhere to anything for long enough to see results is a tricky business. Firstly, it is vitally important to be able to critically analyse your own coaching – perhaps having to compromise on some of your own beliefs, values and biases along the way. The way we interact with our clients plays an enormous role in their success or failure. The pathway from “perform action” to “get result” may seem easy to us, as coaches who are passionate enough about strength, fitness and physical wellbeing to make it our life’s work. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it would be just as easy for your client if they could only “understand”!  

Secondly, we must be able to objectively analyse the client’s behaviour. I like to use the following set of questions for this – they aren’t definitive, but I find them very helpful. Please take them and feel free to change them to make them work for you. 

 

1 – Is there a chance that the client IS adhering, but the program is not producing results? 

95% of the time, the answer to this question is NO. However, there is always the possibility that the client has done everything asked of them, but something about their physiology is hampering their progress. For example, a client who isn’t losing weight on a very low calorie intake. Normally we would assume under reporting, and normally we would be right – but there is that slim chance of, say, an undiagnosed thyroid issue. If you’re dealing with someone who has never successfully lost weight, you may be looking at a genuine physiological outlier. Chances are, though, that you’re not – so make sure you have systems in place for tracking their consistency. 

 

2 – What is the path of least resistance? 

A common reason for failure is that whatever the client is doing now is harder or more complex than whatever they were doing previously. When someone can order a pizza with one tap on their phone, it becomes difficult for a coach to present an alternative that involves no additional effort, but still gets them into a calorie deficit. I say “no additional effort” because these are the people who are most likely to follow the path of least resistance and default back to their old behaviours. 

Step away from your biases. Be flexible. An example suggestion for clients like this? Ready meals. Yeah. All they have to do is microwave three trays of food every day. Done. Of course this is far from “ideal” nutrition, but at this point getting them into a deficit with minimal effort is more important than arguing macros. One thing at a time. If they still struggle, after making something as simple as possible, we know that complexity isn’t the problem. Conversely, success breeds success – if they have just ONE thing they are confident they can do, this breaks the cycle of failure and gives them a much better chance of actually moving forward. Plus, if they start to see some results – even small ones – it significantly increases their buy-in. Which brings us to… 

 

3 – Do they actually want to do it? 

Some coaches prefer to take a very direct approach to setting their clients’ programs. They can see what needs to be done, and they jump straight in telling their client, in no uncertain terms, exactly what to do. They want to help, and can see the solution as clear as day – great, let’s help this client achieve their goals! 

This is sometimes called the “righting reflex”, and it’s easily done – but doing this robs the client of their autonomy. They cannot explore their thoughts and feelings about whether a suggested change is something they actually want. We might see it as a straightforward solution to a problem, but for the client there could be any number of compelling – and very real – reasons to reject the change. 

Let them explore these reasons. Let them take responsibility for the changes they want to make. This is called a “following” style of coaching – the client chooses the path, and the coach supports them in that decision. From here we can progress to a “guiding” style – where the client retains control and autonomy, but the coach guides them towards choosing an intervention that will have the greatest impact. 

 

So the answer is….

Whatever your coaching style, the key to your client’s success is that they start developing agency… bringing us back to “IT”. The truth is, there is no “IT”. To say “IT isn’t working,” is to assign responsibility to an imaginary third party, when what we should be doing is helping our client to truly realise that they are the one in control. We must be unrelentingly supportive, without blame or frustration – even if they arrive sheepishly expecting you to go full sergeant major because last night they got a BOGOF on Domino’s Pizza, and ate both. The bottom line is, we cannot force anyone to change their behaviour. If we try, we do them a double disservice: they don’t get the freedom to learn and grow, and they don’t learn to take ownership of their ability to change. 

By being open and supportive, by helping to build support systems and stability (both emotional and physical), by genuinely understanding – we give our clients the space to grow themselves, and find their own path. 

 

Alex has created a number of amazing resources for LTB including a series of courses on working with clients with obesity.  Sign up for your free trial here to access all our resources for 2 weeks