How to have the hard conversation when your client isn't progressing

When clients feel they’re not progressing fast enough toward training, nutrition, or physical therapy goals, it presents a dilemma for a coach. How does a coach approach such an uncomfortable conversation?

It can be challenging. After all, in a culture of immediate results, quick fixes, and all-is-good lives curated on social media, preaching patience and big-picture, long-term progress can be a tough sell. But that’s the necessary route to take assuming the plateau, whether real or imagined, is a product of impatience on the client and not a lack of commitment or work ethic.

“Whether you’re talking about weight loss or recovering from surgery, it’s important to revisit your initial conversations on a regular basis to remind them of the plan,” says Tyler Wilkins, EXOS director of performance. “The plan can be refined but for the most part you need to stick with it to move forward.”

Here are five ways to approach tough conversations and overcome obstacles to make sure your client stays on track:

1. Always talk about the good stuff.

It’s difficult for a client who’s made progress to suddenly plateau during a lengthy physical rehabilitation or weight loss program. That’s why it’s important to celebrate small improvements as much as big wins. Much like the miracle of compound interest can produce a millionaire over time, small daily gains add up with a training regimen.

“Focusing on small wins day to day and week to week helps support a realistic timetable and expectations,” Wilkins says. “And knowing that they’re improving a little each time can be tremendously motivating.”

But it’s not just about their wins on the training floor. “Hopefully, you’ve gotten to know this individual personally and professionally,” says Jenny Noiles, EXOS performance director at Mayo Clinic. Connect with them about successes in other areas of their life. Congratulate them on leading groundbreaking research, being up for a promotion, or having their first child. Instead of saying, “Hey, where have you been? What’s wrong?” lead with comments like, “How did your presentation go? Congratulations, I learned that you're heading up this new project.”

“It shows the client you know more about them than their weight,” says Noiles. “You're not trying to be fake with people, but at the same time, you want to reward them for what's going positive in their life.”

2. Be straightforward, but don’t make accusations.

While you do want to be positive, you don’t want to make the conversation so casual that you’re avoiding the issue. You need to begin to discover what might be causing a dip in their progress. “The best thing is to be direct,” says Noiles. “Just say, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity for us to touch base. How are you feeling about the program?’”

“Phrasing it that way puts it on you,” she explains. “You're telling them you’re ready to receive whatever information they're going to give you.” If you zero in on the problem too soon without giving them a chance to share their experience, you risk triggering a defensive attitude and may reduce their willingness to change their behavior.

Then, when it’s time to get down to brass tacks about what exactly isn’t working, resist the urge to tell them what you think the problem is. Instead, ask them what they think are their biggest barriers. “Most of the time, they can get to the root of the problem on their own,” says Becki Rabena, EXOS performance dietitian.

This is a great motivational interviewing technique to help people realize which behaviors are roadblocks for them. And because you’ve put the ball in their court rather than making accusations, hopefully they’ll be more open, honest, and willing to analyze their progress (or lack thereof).

In a culture of immediate results, quick fixes, and all-is-good lives curated on social media, preaching patience and big-picture, long-term progress can be a tough sell.

3. Ask them if their goal was realistic.

There’s nothing wrong with ambitious goals. At the same time, they should be “SMART” - specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. Not every athlete training for the NFL combine will run a 4.2 in the 40-yard dash, regardless of training commitment. Likewise, some people starting careers in the corporate world, especially those who were athletes in college, struggle with not being able to maintain elite standards of body composition and athletic performance.

“It helps to look at the big picture,” says Russ Orr, vice president of performance at EXOS. “Maybe their goals were not realistic or attainable. It’s okay to adjust accordingly.”

If it turns out their goal was too ambitious, you don’t necessarily have to scrap the whole thing. It may be as simple as adjusting one of the SMART requirements, like extending the expected time frame or cutting back a little on the specific measurement they’re aiming for. “It just has to be part of the fabric of the training program to be able to say, ‘OK, we need to deviate and we're here for you,’” says Noiles.

If their goal was realistic, but they still didn’t achieve, then it’s time to discuss unforeseen variables that might have impeded their progress, or what their dedication to the plan is like at home.

4. Discuss their progress at home.

With any plan, there’s work the client needs to do at home, away from the watchful eye of their coach or dietitian. Anything less than total buy-in could derail progress, leading to plateaus, setbacks, and frustration. Remember, just because a client leaves it all on the floor during training doesn’t mean they aren’t backsliding into old habits once they leave the gym.

But if your clients want to achieve their goals and dreams, negative behaviors have to stop. Talking to them about potential shortcomings may feel awkward, but they’re necessary for them to make progress. “You just have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” adds Noiles.

She suggests leading with something like: “Hey, you’ve been in our program for X number of weeks. We want to refresh and look at how you’re doing in comparison to the goals we set.” At some point, ask them what their eating habits are like at home or how they’re winding down at night after a workout to make sure they’re getting quality sleep.

If you discover they’re not sticking to the plan at home, take the time to remind them of their core motivation. They might have lost sight of what’s important and need a push from you to get back at it. Or you might need to help them figure out how to overcome unforeseen hurdles.

“You have to be able to put your leadership hat aside and allow that person to share their experience,” says Noiles. “They might be really struggling in another area of their life, but you're just seeing the physical results.” So make sure you’re giving them the opportunity to share what’s going on in their world. As a coach, you might realize you’ve completely ignored the mindset piece of their training or some other factor, and now you can make tweaks to their training plan based on that new information.

But if they’re following the plan at home and still aren’t seeing results, it’s probably time to go back to the drawing board. Help minimize the negative feelings that might arise by reminding the client that everyone is unique. Bodies change from week to week as they make progress, so it might take some tweaking to find the right formula for success.

Much like the miracle of compound interest can produce a millionaire over time, small daily gains add up with a training regimen.

5. Consider referring them to other experts, if necessary.

If you’re unable to get to the root of the issue or you feel like your client needs more specialized support to commit to change, consider referring them to a trusted nutritionist, physical therapist, or fellow coach for advice.

“A lot of times you get to working with someone and become myopic, stuck on a routine that’s been successful with others,” Orr says. “Then when you get another pair of eyes on it there’s a simple solution. As a coach, you should never be above asking for help.” Let’s say you’re still not seeing improvements after two weeks. “At your next check-in, just say ‘Hey, let's go talk to the dietitian. You've been putting the effort in here, so let’s see what else we can do.’” It doesn’t have to be formal.

And viewing it as a casual learning experience for yourself might give you some tools for future client interactions. If your client returns refreshed and ready to overcome the next challenge, talk about the process they took to get there. Every experience your client has — including with other experts — is an opportunity for you to learn and grow as a coach. You’ll likely encounter another client with similar obstacles in the future, and next time you’ll be prepared.

“I always try to turn it around to myself. If I'm paying for a service, what kind of communication would I want? What kind of accountability structure would I want those people to give me?” says Noiles. Let that guide your coaching conversations — especially the tough ones.

Want to keep expanding your coaching skills? Check out our guidance on helping clients overcome bad movement habits.

About the Author

Pete Williams

Florida-based writer Pete Williams is a longtime editorial contributor to EXOS.

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