Motivation is a fickle thing. It can come at any time, in any number of shapes or sizes. From a dream you’ve held onto since you were a child to that attractive woman sitting a few desks behind you or maybe from the two most motivating words spoken in the English language: “You can’t.” The list goes on and on.
And as a coach, your job isn’t just to be motivated — that goes without saying — but to be the motivator. To be the one who cracks the code, to find out what makes your athletes tick and to use that to elicit positive and lasting change from them.
And at the same time, the athletes themselves can prove to be the biggest roadblock in this situation. Not by choice but because every person, every mindset is different. Unfortunately, what motivates one athlete washes over the next to no avail. Each athlete is like a snowflake — a big, burley chested snowflake. This is unfortunate and exciting at the same time because it means that you as a coach have to approach each athlete differently and discover what works for them.
Whatever the end goal may be, just like in any good relationship, communication is key. Especially when it comes to a topic as potentially volatile as nutrition and making healthy choices outside of the gym. It’s through my experience that people tend to gravitate toward three sources of motivation when it comes to diet: performance, lifestyle and aesthetics. It is your job to figure out which camp they fall into and use that to motivate them toward their goals.
How to Motivate Gym Members
I used to be obsessed with the CrossFit Journal. Every night, it was an impossibility to even consider going to sleep without first consuming whatever was newly posted on the journal. It didn’t matter what was posted or if I was even remotely interested in it. And it was here, buried toward the end of an easily skippable three-minute video, that I had one of those watershed moments in my coaching career.
It was a short video featuring CrossFit OG Greg Amundson discussing nutritional goal setting at one of his seminars. In it, he has a short back and forth with a participant about how to adjust nutritionally to meet his fitness and aesthetic goals. Greg replied, without any hesitation, with a quote that’s stuck with me since: “Chase performance. You focus on athleticism and being the best athlete you can be, and the body’s physique will take care of itself.” Simple. These few lines changed my perspective on nutrition when it comes CrossFit. A new way to communicate with my athletes about diet and performance.
Performance is a powerful motivator — especially when it comes to CrossFitters and their downright obsession with it. So why not use that to your advantage? It’s not really a revolutionary idea when you think about it — not even close. If you eat better, you’ll perform better.
But sometimes it’s not about what you’re saying, but how you say it. It’s hard to catch a person’s ear and hold their attention when discussing things like their HDL to LDL ratio or their triglyceride count but mention taking 30 seconds off their Fran time or adding 10 pounds to their snatch and the floor is yours. At the end of the day you’re essentially saying the same thing but sometimes with radically different results.
If you chase performance and do whatever’s necessary to perform better — meaning making healthy choices, recovering properly and training hard — then everything else will fall into place.
When I discuss nutrition with my athletes in the context of lifestyle, what I’m really talking about is living an improved quality of life. You don’t have to be a CrossFitter to understand the merit in that. It’s something that’s easy to lose sight of but in reality this is why we all work out. Only the tiniest fraction of athletes earn the right to compete on the floor at the CrossFit Games.
The rest of us train for life and the ability to experience all it has to offer for as long as possible.
Motivating your athletes to make healthy choices outside the gym can be as simple as that. Eating healthier and ditching processed foods and additives can improve and extend your quality of life. It allows you to experience the world. To take that trip you always wanted, to climb that mountain that people said you’re “too old” for. It affords you the opportunity to play and bond with your children or grandchildren and not burden them with old age and sickness. Family, in and of itself, is one of the most powerful motivators at your disposal.
I was a philosophy major in college, meaning you can essentially take everything I’ve said or will say as total BS with a grain of salt. Either way, Hippocrates, the Father of Western Medicine and namesake to the Hippocratic Oath, is one of those first revolutionary thinkers you come across in class. (Bear with me here. I promise this is going somewhere.)
Hippocrates, amongst many other things, coined the saying, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” Even back then, over 2000 years ago, people understood the value of eating correctly and its positive affect on health. Sickness is an unavoidable eventuality for some of us but rather than opening the door and freely inviting sickness into our home through a poor diet and lack of exercise, why not make the simple decision to dedicate yourself to a healthy lifestyle and reap all the benefits life has to offer?
Aesthetics and Weight Loss
Finally, aesthetics. The real reason probably 50% of people — and believe me, that’s a conservative number — walk through the doors of your gym in the first place. By aesthetics I’m referring to outwards appearance, whether that means to lose weight, gain muscle or the all important LGN: Look Good Naked. It may be the easiest way to get new members through the front door but in my experience, probably the hardest way to motivate them outside of the gym.
The reason it’s so difficult to motivate someone to make healthier choices outside the gym solely based on aesthetics is because uncannily enough, everyone already knows that! I feel safe saying that you’re not exactly reinventing the wheel by explaining to someone a healthy diet will lead to improved weight loss coupled with exercise.
Motivation doesn’t come from aesthetics in and of itself for most. As a coach, it is your job to ensure motivation is developed through positive reinforcement and good habits. I can’t tell you how many athletes I’ve trained that have made the commitment to go all in with diet and exercise only to fall off the bandwagon when it comes to diet in favor of exercise. The exercise is the easy part. Diet takes work.
The main issue is progress can be dauntingly slow compared to the other two topics we discussed. You might see an uptick in performance overnight with a modified diet. The same can be said with how it affects your lifestyle: an increase in energy or lack of lethargy. Losing weight, gaining muscle takes time. At times, it becomes difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
This is when good coaching is at a premium. Encourage athletes to keep a food log. Take before and after or even month-by-month pictures or take body measurements (we all know the scale doesn’t exactly tell the whole story). Holding your athletes accountable — not guilting them — is a great way to motivate and help keep them on track. Reminders of where they’ve been, where they are and where they could someday be is just as powerful as a number on a scale.