There has been some kind of a shift this decade with the health and fitness industry (among many other shifts). This shift has been in the way that people approach lifestyle and training changes, mainly the understanding that psychology plays a role in facilitating any kind of change.
Relative to the fields that I work in—personal training and bodybuilding—I've witnessed a transition from the “old school” bodybuilder approach as the recommendation for changing your body to a supposedly more “enlightened” mindset of individualism and habit building as well as making small changes over time.
In the past, lifestyle change was often approached as a total overhaul. It was the “hard” approach, as I recall. Change your life, change everything, kitchen sink demolition. Now, it has become a softer approach of one step at a time. We take this slow. We don’t push anything. We coax the changes. We don’t get too uncomfortable. Does this approach work any better though?
Change by Force, Change by Choice
Making changes is hard, and most people are resistant to change. Adaptation then is often a forced process for people because they reach a threshold of not having a choice about it. The “choice” is what makes all the difference.
Sometimes we consciously “choose” to change, but much of the time we are forced to because we back ourselves into a corner where it's our only option. Why do we change then? Aside from being in a hard spot, the change “means something.” We need to do it. There is nothing else to do. And why do we sometimes (though not often) make conscientious changes?
If I were to go meta on the subject, one of the grand questions of humanity has always been man's “search for meaning,” meaning how we live, who we are, our place in society, our own thoughts. No one aspires to live a meaningless, empty life. And no one aspires to take empty, meaningless actions. Reduced down, no one wants to spend time and energy on things that mean nothing to them.
What does this mean relative to the “hard” and “soft” approaches to training and coaching? Neither of them truly work any better than the other.
Too Hard, Too Soft...Just Right
The hard approach is shortsighted. Making dramatic overhauls frightens people and they don’t understand most of what they are doing. Even if you tell them that it's exactly what they need and they agree, it still doesn’t mean anything to them. Fear and reticence will make them resistant. It's an "outside-in" approach, and no one likes waking up to find themselves in a foreign land where everything is unfamiliar.
The soft approach is shortsighted as well. Telling people that “big change” is possible through small changes creates a misconception that the process should be easy and free of discomfort. Small changes in habit don’t mean anything to them and why should it? Is anyone going to readily implement habit changes that they don’t really care about? Unlikely. It's an "inside-out" approach, but no one is very convinced that anything will happen when they keep waking up in the same land and everything looks exactly the same.
So what's the approach to take?
Finding the Meaning
I have no straightforward recommendation of “do this.” It falls upon the trainer or coach to ask the right questions and for the client or athlete to be willing to answer them.
“What does this actually mean to me?”
“What has meaning in my life or doesn’t have meaning?”
“What can I change that will or won't have meaning?”
And probably above all else, “What are my values, and does what I'm doing even fit into this anywhere?”
These questions will fall into your personal values, principles and ethos. There isn't any singular “way” to go about them, and there won't be a cut and dry answer. I can tell you that as a trainer, you can get any “effect” you want with someone if they do what you say. Whether what you say means a damn thing one year from now or five years from now is another thing entirely.
Health, wellness, strength and life—these are states of being. Our thoughts and beliefs become our actions and vice versa. You can't hope to change one without changing the other and both must complement each other.
The way then will always be individualistic. There isn't any one way because all people are different. You might need to hard line some things and tiptoe around others. You will have to go hard as much as you go slow. Whatever the process turns out to be, it must have meaning. Otherwise, it's all impermanent.
Mentality shall always beget physicality, and physicality shapes mentality. Find your way that evolves both.