In 2019 I was in a meeting with the Canada U20 coaching staff when our program director laid something out clearly. As coaches - our job is to affect change. We can have the best coaching cues in the world, make the coolest presentations, put together the world's most evidence based program - but if we cannot change behaviour in our athletes then we're not doing our jobs. Just like a teacher should strive to have all of their students get 100% on tests, we as coaches should be doing everything we can to set our athletes up for success. This doesn't mean waiting on them hand and foot, but if how we communicate isn't getting results - we need to adapt.
This is true in team settings - how does it apply when coaching private clients? When you're coaching in private practice you have the benefit of clients wanting to be there. But, if they don't enjoy the training and the process, then they'll leave and find another coach. So - how do you balance performance and client retention?
I'm a firm believer that a strong coach-athlete relationship leads to better outcomes. It may seem obvious, but there is certainly a strain of S&C coaches that have a "do what I say or else" approach right off the hop. Brett Bartholemew has a great book, Conscious Coaching, that highlights some important aspects of the coach-athlete relationship and how to avoid getting into the "I'm the boss so do it" type conversations.
The long and short of it is, the things that make life hard for you in team coaching make success impossible in private practice. If you don't have credibility and trust with your athletes in a team setting you will have your decisions challenged daily. If you don't have credibility and trust in a private practice then clients will take their money and hard work somewhere else.
Credibility comes from what you've done in the past. Degrees you've got, certifications on the wall, results you've garnered for previous clients, etc... Trust comes from what you do for your current client. Credibility gives you the opportunity to build trust. How do you do that? Make a program that is challenging - but easy to get done.
"A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week." - George Patton
I have some clients that never train on weekends because they take that time to be with their kids. I have some clients that train 2-3 sessions/day on weekends because they take rest days during the work week. The key to building adherence in private practice is setting your clients up for success. Writing the perfect plan and telling your clients to figure it out when it doesn't fit their schedule/facilities/abilities simply won't cut it.
For example, when programming workouts you have to consider equipment usage and feasibility. If my client trains at Goodlife or the YMCA and I program a circuit that requires 10 different pieces of equipment spread across 2 floors - it won't get done. You need to meet your clients at a realistic middle ground and adapt to what will get done, not what you hope will get done.
The beautiful thing about working with military athletes is that they're being deployed, going on courses, on leave, etc... so your training environment changes while your goal remains the same. When your client tells you they'll be in an austere environment for 3 months and all they'll have is a 16kg kettlebell and a skipping rope - you make it work! Similarly with lifestyle clients, if you have a client who is postpartum and can only train at home when their baby is sleeping - you design workouts to meet those parameters. In terms of programming: Best is ideal. Good is okay. Good is better than nothing.
Balancing Needs vs. Wants
My online clients right now are mostly split between LGN (Look Good Naked) lifestyle clients and tactical athletes (firefighter, military, etc...). Some of my LGN clients are training for half marathons, or trying out powerlifting, but for the most part whether they hit a PB run time this month won't dictate how their life unfolds. So I can have a bit more of a fun approach to programming, making it more enjoyable and tailoring it to the things they like mixed in with the things they tolerate.
With my performance clients, it's the opposite. For my athletes going to spec ops selection, by the time they ship out they will typically be doing ~1000 push ups per week, running 5 days/week, rucking 3x/week, doing 2-3 sessions/day, 6 days/week. Regardless of how much you like training, it's tough. And what they're preparing for is even tougher - so how do you make that amount of training palatable? The answer: managing variety.
One thing I've changed in my programming the most in the last 2 years is consistency in exercise selection for strength exercises, and variety in accessory work. After graduation in part I think I wanted to show off how many exercises I knew, but I also wanted to keep training fun and exciting for my clients. The more I train myself, and the more people I train I've realized that like anything - lifting is a skill. If I changed from tennis to badminton to racketball to pickle ball every week, I wouldn't get much better at any of them. Similarly if I change which squat exercise I use every week it's a lot harder to manipulate intensity.
It's a different story for accessory work. The difference in stimulus between doing a plate crunch vs. med ball crunch vs. DB crunch vs. feet elevated crunch, etc... isn't drastic in terms of performance gains. But keeping the accessory work fresh for your private clients can make a huge difference when they're doing coming into their 4th year of working with you or their 15th session for the week. This is where training with other coaches or just looking at other coaches programs can be super helpful for inspiration on how to keep things interesting for your clients.
If you're a coach who is has been in high performance sport and are branching out into private practice for the first time - you already have the credibility. The next step is adapting your programming into a product that people want to buy. Once you have an athlete's trust, the ceiling for their progress and how far you can push them goes up dramatically. In saying that, if the "my way or the highway" thinking comes in it can lead to a lack of adherence, lack of results and soon enough a lack of clients.
Mylan Clairmont MSc, CSCS