I am completely convinced that a person's fitness level is primarily determined by how they see themselves in their own mind. If someone can use their imagination to picture themselves as fit and healthy, then this image prompts consistent fitness and lifestyle activities and a pursuit of improvement. This is a simple idea, but there are very specific things that must be done — deliberately and thoroughly — for the image to take roots. Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a very powerful tool for trainers to support clients in achieving this goal.
NLP was co-created by Richard Bandler and linguist John Grinder in the 1970s. They asked themselves a simple yet fascinating question: What makes the difference between someone who excels at a skill and someone with basic competence? Their initial focus was pragmatic, modeling three successful psychotherapists, Fritz Perls (Gestalt Therapy), Virginia Satir (Family Systems Therapy) and Milton H. Erickson (Clinical Hypnosis), with the aim of discovering the successful, distinguishing patterns of behavior and communication.
From this, they developed technology around how we take in information through our senses (neurology), translate it into language (linguistic) and make patterns or mental models (programs) that influence our behavior in order to foster greater self-awareness, natural change and personal excellence.
Excuses, Excuses
I cringe when I see the super-motivated January crowd hitting the treadmills on New Year's Day. Sadly, most of these eager folks won't make it past six weeks. The reason they quit is not the pain, time or inconvenience — their internal processes don't support long-term success.
Prior to studying NLP, I'd ask clients, "Why didn't you work out?" What always followed was their glamorous fabrication that would tug on my heartstrings: "My kids aren't sleeping," "Work is very demanding," "My wife doesn't give me the time to work out," etc. I would let them off the hook, try to be positive and encourage them to do better next week. I would get the cancellation calls, and it's downhill from there. When someone says that they are committed to working out but constantly make excuses for not doing anything, what their behavior is saying is, "I am not committed."
This is where NLP comes in handy: It gives you a way to begin to deconstruct the old images (the ones that cause the current behavior) and construct the new desired actions. It's empowerment on steroids!
The Conscious and Unconscious Mind
As a starting point, it is important to know a little about the differences between the conscious and unconscious mind, as the unconscious mind is responsible for 99.9% of your clients' results! The conscious mind is whatever you are paying attention to via the senses. For example, if I direct your attention to the feeling of your butt on your chair as you sit and read this or the hum of the computer, this is your conscious mind at work. What we focus on through our conscious attention often gets stored as an unconscious program.
We have a program for brushing our teeth, a driving program, work programs, how we speak to others, etc. Most of what we do during the day is unconscious. We run on programs that we have created ourselves. The good news is that, because we made these programs ourselves, we can make new programs.
Take driving, for example. You used to put both hands on the wheel at 10:00 and 2:00 and pay careful attention to what is around you. It took time to get the feel for how hard to press the gas and brake. Now you might talk on your cell phone and eat a bagel, wondering if you stopped at the red lights!
To help facilitate a change in your clients' programming, first develop a strong rapport with them to get in tune with them and establish trust. Rapport is something that you cannot fake because it comes from a level of intentions. We intend to train the client to make some money, or we intend to be fully present at the training session. Go into each session with a positive state of curiosity and creativity so that you convey to your clients that change is possible.
Mirroring and Matching
In order to really build rapport, you can start to practice mirroring and matching. This simply means that you take on their state by matching their tone of voice, the pace of their breathing and their postures, to name a few. It might feel unnatural at first, but when done with the right intentions, you will get good at it. You do it already; did you ever sit and chat with a close friend and notice that you both were leaning into the chair the same way with the same leg crossed? This is because you are in true rapport with them; no work or conscious attention was needed.
One caveat for mirroring and matching is that you have to be careful not to get caught up in the same patterns they are accessing. You need to have empathy and be engaged but also aware of your state, as you may need to "lead" them from one state to another, more desirable, state based on their goals.
Pattern Interruption
So you meet with the same client and their glamorous fabrications. Instead of listening to them put in all that energy and fight so hard for their limitations, what do you do? You simply ask them, "Why are you telling me this?" This is called a "pattern interruption," a basic but powerful NLP technique where you interrupt the pattern of behavior that is causing the person a problem (it could also be done by dropping a pen or tying your shoe). The first time you create this mild state of uncertainty, you will be surprised at how their state has changed, as if they are stuck looking for what will happen next. This gives you the opportunity to suggest another outcome.
Setting Goals
Guide the client to talk to you about what they actually want. NLP specifies that the goal must be stated in the positive. I still hear people say all the time that they must think more positively, but they continue to describe their situations in life in one of the following two ways: what they are trying to avoid ("I don't want to be fat anymore") and what they currently have as a result ("This relationship I am in is horrible").
Saying that you want to be "fit" is not enough. Much more detail is needed to write a new program. It can be tough at first because it is like flexing new muscles, so start to ask your clients: When will you know you have attained your goal? What will this outcome allow you to do? What will others say when they see you? What do you need to get your outcome? Have you done this before? Can you act as if you already achieved this goal? Be patient with them while they formulate the answers, as it can be uncomfortable, and stay in rapport with them. Calmly remind them that being uncomfortable with this is very normal and that they are on the right track.
Reframing Experience
The clients I have seen get the best results spend time creating pictures of a new result. They write down this story and monitor what they are thinking about to make the prerequisite identity level shifts. To facilitate these types of shifts, it's important to pay attention to their language and ask questions that move them towards something new. NLP works primarily as a linguistic intervention that changes how the client thinks by "reframing" their experience.
For example, when a client says, "I am too old to get lean," ask: According to whom? What can you do now that you could not do two months ago? Has anyone your age been there? These questions take a client from a one-sentence generalization to pictures of how great they could look after dropping two dress sizes, how they can lunge across the gym floor with 25-pound dumbbells, how they inspired their daughter to get into an exercise class, etc. It's best to listen intently and let them start.
Using Anchors
Another powerful technique is the use of "anchors," which are basically responses to certain stimuli. I'm sure you've heard of Pavlov's dogs, which learned to associate the sound of the bell with feeding time. We have many anchors set up in our physiology; you might think of home when you smell apple pie, or if someone touches your shoulder, there is an immediate thought of your basketball coach telling you to get in the game.
As a means of eliciting a client to feel like working out, you can ask them to recall a time when they had a particularly awesome workout and then guide them to fully remember the experience of a great workout, and at the peak of this visualization, they can set a psycho-physiology cue (an anchor). This could be a phrase or a physical movement. This visualization works because the mind cannot tell the difference between what is imagined and what is real, and the anchor sets the experience in their physiology which they can now access at any time.
Clients need to know how to do the exercises, but many are not too concerned with the physiology of a bicep curl and could care less what their brachial radialis is. They are looking for how to change, and NLP is a wonderful set of tools to help your clients do just that!
Marc Lebert is a Certified Personal Trainer, training clients in their homes and at corporations, including 10 years at GlaxoSmithKline, and he has his BA from the University of Guelph. He is a fitness Club Owner of Fuel Fitness in Toronto, a Black Belt (competing on a National Level), a Certified NLP Practitioner, a Trainer-Course Conductor for Can-Fit-Pro accredited CEC Fitness Boxing/Kickboxing and Equalizer Courses, a published writer, a speaker and a developer of the Lebert Equalizer. For more information, please visit www.lebertequalizer.com.