Problematic Athletes Make You A Better Coach

Dream clients: they pop up only when the planets are aligned, the oceanic magma vents are opened up just right, and the Arctic penguins have a successful mating season. You probably know the kind I speak of: they show up, don’t complain, do the work, track their lifts and macros, etc. Some coaches call them robots because they go through their sessions like clockwork. I like to call them Destriers. They are what coaches have in mind when they first set out on their coaching careers.

Then, you have the standard client: they show up on time, usually. They have some aches and pains, miss their lifts sometimes, go for a few months without a PR, etc. These clients are generally just fine to work with and require more care than the dream client.

Then, finally, you have the problematic client. Their behavior can manifest itself differently, but usually appear in the following ways:

  1. No clear goals even though they keep coming to your gym or stay on as an online satellite client.

  2. Don’t track weights or weight progression in almost any way, even after repeated reminders.

  3. Show up late or miss the session with no forewarning.

  4. Blame all aches and pains on the hour they spend with you, without looking at the 23 hours outside the gym they don’t spend with you.

  5. Don’t perform “homework” (stretching at home, fixing sleeping position, don’t adjust the way they sit on the couch, etc.)

  6. Talk incessantly during workouts to the point of detriment.

  7. Are lazy about tracking food, and then wonder why progress isn’t taking place.

  8. lack of feedback and communication.

  9. Refuse to take it easy outside of the gym when they’re injured (and then blame the workout you planned that works around their injury).

Now, these are just a few of the manifestations of a problematic client. There may be some in your life that behave differently, but the outcome is still the same. Naturally, the coach can be problematic too. The coach can contribute to these factors, and the coach may even think they’re doing a great job, when they’re really the problem. But that’s not what this article is about.

For instance: let’s say the nutrition plan is 100% dialed in, the programming is sound, and the coach is doing all they need to, yet the client is still manifesting these symptoms. That is what I would describe as a problematic client. I don’t necessarily want to say they’re a “bad” client, as I feel “problematic” is a better term. There may be things going on in the client’s life that they’re not telling you, such as mental disorder issues, relationship issues, stress from school, etc. However, as a coach, we want the client to get the most for their money, which takes accountability on the client’s part as well.

This is where I think that having a problematic client can be a boon for the coach, in the end. Now, the younger me would reach the end of the rope after a while, and cut the client loose, but I’ve learned better since then. Sometimes it’s something as simple as not responding to a text or email right away, so as not to give a hot-headed, knee-jerk reaction that will only end poorly.

The problematic client is where a coach’s real skill can shine. It may be a headache while it’s going on, but you can turn that headache into serious skill-building for yourself. We can the dream client because they’re easy, but as I said, they’re incredibly rare.

Working with someone who has a bad attitude, who is always injured in one way or another, or someone who can’t seem to track their food forces the coach to come up with alternative paths to success. Working with someone who throws a wrench in the way you normally do things forces you to pop the hood and take a look at all the moving parts to see if a different approach will work. As stated before, it will most definitely benefit you in the long run because it will teach you how to deal with a variety of approaches in order to help reach all of your clients.

For me, more than anything, it’s taught me patience. I usually have good levels of patience, especially with new clients, because I like working with new lifters the most. Every once in a while, though, there comes a client that just doesn’t seem to get it, even when you feel like you’re doing everything that can be done. After all, we can’t monitor them 24hrs a day, and some clients tend to pass the buck on all the blame when things aren’t working out, but that’s what they pay us for. They pay us to do a lot of that thinking for them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t need us. If you give up on them, you may negatively affect their future life of lifting, and may even make them abandon lifting completely. Not everyone will be a great lifter, or even a good lifter, but everyone can exercise to the utmost of their ability, no matter the level of their ability. It’s our job to find that ability and work their programming in a way that helps it click for them. It may be months, even years, until you unlock that special pathway that the problematic client may need in order for them to find success.

In closing, do your best to remember that every problematic client can be a lesson for you, the coach. After all, when we stop learning, we stop growing. Coaches can always learn another trick, and the tricks you pick up along the way when working with a problematic client can serve a tool to help future clients that may be struggling with their own issues. Don’t give up on them, remember what you signed up for when you became a coach.

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