Coaching Success: Dilemmas and Considerations

We are all coaches because we want to help people. Helping people requires understanding nutrition and the human body, which is covered in depth at our RP Nutrition Certification. But even with the right knowledge, you can’t help everyone - a frustrating realization. 

It's very important to realize that no matter how good of a coach you are, some people will not be able to reach their goals despite your help, or sometimes they may fail to show any progress. This is normal and not something you should be too hard on yourself when it happens. 

It's a very good idea to make this clear right at the beginning of the coaching relationship. I do it by giving the analogy that coaching is like a GPS. With my knowledge and experience, I will tell my clients the best and most efficient way to get where they want to be, and I will also customize that journey to their very specific needs and adjust it on the fly whenever needed. However, I'm not actually driving the car; they are. If someone isn't doing the required driving, it doesn't matter how good the GPS is, they obviously won't reach the destination. 

However, yet another important point, and in direct opposition to the above, is that whenever someone struggles to make progress, try to some degree to hold yourself accountable. Is there anything you can do better? Indeed, you can't help everyone, but there is definitely a range where people can make progress if only you help them in the way they need, but you aren't doing it. This is quite important for new coaches because you don't have a lot of experience, so the chance that you can indeed be better and perhaps make some changes that would finally make the client progress is higher.

For instance, earlier in my career, I focused a lot on macros because I thought that was the bulk of coaching - knowing the specific macros to give to people and adjusting them as needed. This is, of course, an important element of it, but for most people, this is actually a detail in determining if they make progress or not. The main challenge is getting them to stick to a calorie deficit, more or less, regardless of the specific macros implemented (extremes aside, eg no protein). 

So in many cases when my clients weren't making progress, my assumption was that I was doing everything I could (give and adjust macros), and thus the fault was with my client, who just couldn't follow through. In reality, in many cases, I just wasn't providing good enough guidance on behavioral changes and how to make following the diet easier, so the macros prescribed were hit. 

This is also a danger for more experienced coaches. While new coaches have the problem of not having enough experience or knowledge, older coaches have the problem that because they have so much experience and knowledge, they tend to feel like there is nothing they need to improve. You have figured out how coaching works, and it's supposed to be done. Therefore once again, if clients are not making progress, it's not your fault. You have done your job. 

One way to frame this dilemma is a pull between fundamental attribution error and self-serving bias. With fundamental attribution error, you have the tendency to attribute outcomes to internal factors, such as your coaching ability. At the same time downplaying external factors outside your control, such as the ability of your client to follow the program. 

The self-serving bias is the opposite. We like to put ourselves in a positive light. “Sure, my client isn't making progress, but it can't possibly be my fault because I am a good coach, and I am giving them all the resources they need!” We like to maintain positive self-esteem, and putting the blame on external factors is very convenient. 

Of course, these are direct opposites. You may have a baseline bias towards one or the other depending on your personality, confidence, and other factors. In practice, both will always be operating to some degree in different forms depending on your mood, expectations, relationship with the client, and so forth. 

The million-dollar question is, how do you know what bias you're falling to? Can you do better, or are you just being unnecessarily hard on yourself? You don't know. There is no set answer to this. The best you can do is realize the dilemma and try to work through it as best you can. Always be aware of both possibilities and argue with yourself about them: come up with arguments and evidence that you can do better. Likewise, do the same and state arguments and evidence that you are indeed doing enough and it's not your responsibility. 

It’s also helpful to talk with other coaches. Just like coaching benefits the client by the coach giving a more objective assessment of how the client is doing and how to move forward, coaches themselves are more biased when analyzing the situation from their own perspective, and having external feedback can be helpful. 

One appealing way to potentially analyze the accuracy of this dilemma is to consider the success rate of your clients. Maybe instead of trying to have a complex psychological analysis of several opposing biases, you can just look at the data of how many clients can achieve their goals. Benchmarking that against some coaching standard, you can tell how good your coaching is and therefore where the responsibility lies in case a client isn't making progress.

At first glance, this may sound great, but in practice, this is utterly impossible. No matter how good of a coach you are, there is going to be a wide variation in the type of clients that you get, which will massively affect the success rate. 

A key factor is the experience of the client. People who are completely new to fitness will, generally speaking, have a harder time changing the required habits. No matter how many great tips you give, for many, it will always be a struggle when trying to change behaviors that are now automatic. They have been ingrained for years, sometimes decades. 

The goal the clients are trying to achieve also greatly affects the outcome. Are they trying to lose 10 lbs or 50 lbs? The latter is a lot harder. The context also matters. If they are losing 10 lbs, where are they starting from? Are they 10% body fat, in which case losing those 10 lbs will be quite difficult as the body fat levels required to achieve those 10 lbs will be quite low, and therefore the compensatory mechanisms that occur during the diet will be quite strong. And even if that's equalized, doing that type of diet for the first time is very different than doing it for the 5th time. And the success or overall difficulty of those previous diets also matters. 

The experience with fitness is another important variable. You will have some clients that have never tried to diet at all. They just didn't think they needed it, or they were postponing it for whatever. Perhaps they would diet quite well regardless of how they do it, or if they had a coach or not. They just wanted some extra guidance and accountability. Or perhaps they thought they needed a coach to be successful, and they didn’t. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, you will have some clients that have been trying to diet their whole life, and failing every single time. Sometimes never losing weight at all, sometimes losing weight only to regain everything again. In some cases, they have been following fad diets. This makes your job a lot easier because it's fair to assume that their failure was likely caused by how they approach dieting. But sometimes, their diet approaches have been reasonable with no apparent red flags. Yet you will have to help them and somehow try to figure out a way for them to finally succeed rather than be another failure like the countless previous ones.

The buy-in will also greatly affect coaching success. Many coaches at the beginning of their career will coach clients for free or very cheap. This is a good approach to try to build a client base, accumulate coaching experience, and have client testimonials. However, in these cases, the client's buy-in is very low. The more expensive you are, not only do clients take you seriously, but also they feel more motivated to ensure that money was well spent. 

Because of these variables, and many others not mentioned for the sake of brevity, there is no possible benchmark of what percentage of clients are successful with coaching. To give you an example of how much this can vary, almost all my coaching experience has been with my own coaching business, and working almost exclusively through referrals. Furthermore, a lot of my clients are intermediate or advanced. 

This puts me in a great position to deliver good results, and my success rate is very high. While I haven't measured it, I'd guess probably around 90%. However, these factors have the following consequences: 

  • Because clients picked me as their coach, they trust me and are interested in working with me
  • I’m recommended by someone they know, often a close friend. This builds extra trust and credibility 
  • Since the clients are intermediates or advanced, they often have decent habits set in place already. Adherence often isn’t a big problem. 

However, there was a period when I tried working with a coaching company instead of my own. This was a vastly different context. The clients that I worked with were signed up for coaching without knowing who their coach was going to be - they had no idea who I was. They often also didn't have social proof about the service, and they were almost always beginners, with little diet experience or even fitness as a whole. Some had never tracked food in any shape or form before, and some had never worked out since high school. 

Lastly, many of those clients were being signed up through a trial period where they had free coaching for the first 2 weeks - this massively impacts their motivation. All of this is a completely different context than my usual clients. I found coaching through this company extremely difficult, and while again I did not track this, I'd estimate my success rate was probably around 20%. Almost the exact opposite of my own coaching. Does that mean that I was a worse coach to these clients? No. In some ways, I was a better coach. I felt bad that they were struggling, and I ended up putting a lot more effort into each and giving a large and unhealthy amount of emotional labor. 

In conclusion, coaching success is a complex and multifaceted issue, with numerous factors at play, including the coach's experience, the client's background, and the specific coaching context. There is no one-size-fits-all benchmark for client success rates, as it is highly dependent on the unique circumstances surrounding each coaching relationship.

As a coach, striking a balance between taking responsibility for your client's progress and understanding the limitations of your influence is crucial. Being aware of potential biases and continuously evaluating your coaching approach will help you provide better support to your clients. Engaging in self-reflection and seeking feedback from other coaches can further enhance your coaching practice. The challenge of navigating the delicate balance between responsibility and unnecessary guilt is an ongoing process.

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