A Coaches Guide to Client/Athlete Persuasion

TAGS: persuasion, Kevin Carr, coach, athlete

In a perfect world, everyone who we train would do exactly what we say with 100 percent effort every time we ask them. They would eat exactly the diet we suggest, hustle as hard as we want, get proper sleep for recovery, and perform every exercise with the zeal and enthusiasm we wish. Unfortunately, if you’ve ever trained people, we know this isn’t reality. Of course, I know there are athletes and clients who are seemingly perfect and completely dedicated to your program from day one. These are often outliers who are often highly internally motivated. The majority of your trainees often require some sort of persuasion and motivation in order to reach the potential you desire for them. Something is to be said for coaches who can get the very best out of the people they train. This is what sets apart great coaches from the every day coach and personal trainer.

What I want to do in this article is break down the steps of persuasion that we need to consider when trying to get our athletes to “buy in” to what we’re constantly asking them to do. If you have some experience training, I’m sure you’ve experienced the 14-year-old girl who seems disinterested in weight training, the middle-aged personal training client who ignores his meal plan, or the high school athlete who simply doesn’t understand hustle or discipline. Sometimes it’s truly a struggle to break through with individuals like this, so we have to look to the world of social psychology to understand how to persuade our clients.

Here are some things I picked up while studying psychology in college that have proved valuable in coaching.

Elaboration likelihood model: Elaboration likelihood is the probability that the recipient of a message will elaborate the information contained in the message. Simply, what is the chance that the trainee who you’re talking to will actually carefully analyze and comprehend what you’re saying? We want to know whether the teenage trainee will actually listen or if our words will simply go in one ear and out the other. This will depend greatly on who you’re talking to, what you’re saying to them, and how it’s being said. These variables can differ greatly from client to client.

To start, we need to decide which level of elaboration to use—central route (high elaboration) or peripheral route (low elaboration).

Central route (high elaboration) is persuasion that occurs when people think carefully about a communication and are persuaded by the strength of the arguments contained in it. An example is explaining to an adult client that in order to improve her body composition goals, she must adhere to a proper eating plan. You explain to her with some detail that her diet and lifestyle will be most critical for fat loss and that just showing up to work out won’t be enough. Older clients can often be convinced when you lay out the cold hard facts. They have the ability to understand, and explaining the facts can motivate them.

Peripheral route (low elaboration) is persuasion that occurs when people don’t think carefully about communication and instead are influenced by peripheral cues that are irrelevant to the content or quality of the communication. For example, you’re explaining post-workout nutrition to a group of young athletes. In addition to briefly discussing the benefits of the post-workout nutrition, you tell them that it tastes like a milkshake and that all the professional athletes at the facility drink it. These athletes will be persuaded by the fact that it tastes like a milkshake and that the pros drink it, not necessarily because of the nutritional value. Younger athletes often don’t have the motivation and ability to process highly technical information. It isn’t that they’re necessarily dumb. They just aren’t that smart yet. Often, external motivation is necessary to get athletes to buy in.

Basically, the two routes either use facts and reason to sell your plea to your trainee or exterior cues that aren’t your reason for persuading but may still persuade the trainee to the same outcome. Which route we take and how we go about taking it depends on your trainee’s level of motivation and ability.

Motivation—motivated to process the message carefully? Ability—able to process the message carefully?

Motivation and ability are both required for someone to listen to a message and be persuaded by it. We need to consider the levels of both of these variables in our clients and find a message that they will have the motivation to listen to and the ability to understand.

Different sports, different abilities, different situations = different coaching techniques
Once we consider these things and profile our client, we must decide what level of elaboration is necessary to deliver our message most effectively.

Here are the steps to follow. Ask yourself, who says what to whom by what means?

  • Who = source characteristics
    You, the coach, are the source. Are you professional looking? Do you speak confidently? Do you have positive and energetic body language? Are you an all around jerk or personable?
  • What = message characteristics
    Is your phrasing passive or assertive? What is the tone of your voice? Are you asking them to do something realistic?
  • Whom = audience characteristics
    Who are you asking? Does the audience motivation match the task? Does the audience ability match the task? How old are they? How educated are they? Are they internally or externally motivated?
  • What means = setting characteristics
    What circumstances are you under? Is the audience comfortable? How compromising is the task?

Many of you may go through this process already but are simply unaware because it’s intuitive. Congratulations. You’re probably a decent coach. Whether or not you follow these processes, it is still important to consciously consider these steps when approaching your clients because you can always be more effective at relaying your message.

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