Seven Things I’ve Learned As An Online Fitness Coach On Coach.me

I’ve been an online fitness coach for over two years now, but three months ago I started doing something different.  In October, a reader of mine told me about a habit-tracking and coaching platform called coach.me.

Unlike the kind of comprehensive coaching I’ve been doing for years, coach.me is geared towards coaching programs where people focus on building just one or two good habits at a time, and check in with their coach more or less every day. 

Over my years as a coach, I’d come to realize that this is what some people need- simplicity, daily accountability, and a laser focus on doing just one thing.  I’ll get to what makes that style better for some people later in this article. 

So I decided to give it a try.  I’ve been a fitness coach on coach.me for over three months now, and have coached around a dozen clients on there, in addition to indirectly getting a couple of comprehensive coaching clients through my work on there.  I’ve also coached dozens of clients through my email-based comprehensive program over the years, and from doing both kinds of coaching, I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons about what clients need- and in particular, how different kinds of clients respond better to different kinds of coaching. 

So in no particular order, here are seven lessons I’ve learned from three years of online fitness and habit coaching, and three months of coaching specifically on coach.me.

1. Different clients need different things from a coach

Some clients know what they need to do, and mainly need someone to hold them accountable.  Others know what habit they need to build, but need tactical advice on how to do that- how to build their gym habit, for instance.  And a rare few have no idea what they need to be doing at all, and need strategic advice on which goal they should be pursuing- like whether to focus on diet or exercise.

Tony Stubblebine, the founder of coach.me, says: People are actually better than coaches at choosing short term tactical strategies. The reason is that people gravitate toward a tactical solution that they actually think they can follow through on. And follow through is everything. What people want coaches for is expertise and accountability. A coach helps with what to expect, what to do when things go wrong, and reminding you to stay committed.

In practice I’ve found that’s generally true- people may not pick the habit you’d want them to focus on first, but they pick one they have reason to be confident that they can build.  They vary a lot, however, on how much they need advice vs accountability. 

One determinant of what clients need is how advanced they are.  In fitness, at least, novices need more accountability than advice.  When you first start out, “move more, eat less” is all you need to know.  People who have been dieting and exercising consistently for years don’t usually need as much motivation or accountability, but they do need more detailed knowledge and more fine-tuned programs to follow.

The other big factor I’ve seen is the clients’ habit tendency.  This is a concept that was developed by Gretchen Rubin, who I saw at Forefront last year, and it describes how easily people meet expectations that come from within vs those that come from external sources.  In my experience, it’s very accurate.

The four types are:

Upholders:  Are very good at keeping expectations and commitments, regardless of where they come from.  Usually need advice or a sounding board for their ideas, more so than accountability.  Least likely to need a coach on the first place.

Questioners: The second most common tendency, questioners are resistant to doing things just because other people want them to, but will meet expectations that seem justified to them- they need a logical reason for everything.  Once they have one, every expectation becomes an inner expectation, even if it wasn’t to begin with.

Obligers: The most common tendency, obligers are terrible at keeping inner expectations but highly responsive to external accountability.  Of all the four tendencies, they benefit the most from coaching. 

Rebels: Resist all expectations, both inner and outer.  Have a very hard time forming new habits or developing self-control.  The two things that most often work are a) Getting into a situation where discipline is essentially forced upon them, like joining the military, or b) Connecting the desired habit to their identity, so that it feels natural rather than like something they make themselves do. 

Knowing which tendency you fall into will help you formulate effective strategies for building better habits.  Thankfully, Gretchen has a Four Tendencies Quiz on her site. 

2.  You can usually tell who will be successful right away

As a coach, you quickly learn a few signs that allow you to gauge how well a client will stick to their program.

The biggest is how consistently they communicate with you.  Clients who check in every day do well.  Clients who frequently disappear, only to pop back up after a week or two, almost never succeed, though in a couple of cases they’ve been upholders who simply didn’t need much help, and only wanted to check in when they needed something from me. 

Following on that, I can quickly gauge someone’s ability to stick to big commitments by seeing how well they stick to small ones.  If someone can’t build the habit of weighing themselves every day, that’s a bad sign.  On the other hand, I told one guy to start tracking calories, and he started sending me weekly meal logs without even being asked- he’s crushing it.

Another is how they describe themselves.  If someone says they’re lazy, too busy for fitness, or overwhelmed, that’s a bad sign.  If they they’ve plateaued and are looking for help getting to the net level, that’s a good sign.  They way they describe themselves telegraphs their subsequent behavior.

Related: whether and how they take responsibility for their actions. People who don’t succeed have a thousand excuses, ranging from the plausible- they’re busy- to the bizarre- they can’t work out because the music at the gym sucks.  Winners take full responsibility for everything, but when they fail they frame it as temporary- none of this “I guess I’m just lazy” crap.

If someone talks about how they feel really motivated, that’s a bad sign.  You heard that right.  People who are truly motivated don’t feel the need to excitedly tell you about how motivated they feel; since they feel motivated most of the time, it’s not special to them.  When someone is shouting from the rooftops about how motivated they are, that usually means that what they’re really feeling is just the novelty-based excitement of starting something new, which will wear off before long. 

As a coach, you can use these tells to quickly evaluate clients- or better yet, target better clients in the first place.  As a client, you should emulate the behavior of successful people- describe yourself as a winner, knowing that the things you say about yourself tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies.  Check in every day, and spare no effort to build the little habits that will support the big ones. 

3.  Momentum is crucial

The first week- and really, the first three days- sets the tone for the entire coaching program.  I nee to evaluate clients before I can formulate a program for them, but it’s best to get through the evaluation as fast as possible, within 1-3 days.  In order to make that happen, I have to make an effort to message them multiple times a day for the first few days so I can get them started as soon as possible.

If a client can get started within 2-3 days, then follow their first habit every day for 5-10 days after that, success will come easily to them later.  If they get stalled right at the start, it only gets harder to course-correct later.

Psychologically, it helps to give clients one or two small, quick victories early on, that build towards the big wins later.  For instance, having them clean some junk food out of their home, or setting an initial goal of simply making it into the gym and doing five minutes of any exercise.  These small wins build momentum, which then allows them to snowball towards a bigger goal.

4.  The coach is at least as important as the coaching

It seems pretty obvious what a good coach needs- expertise in their subject area, good communication skills, and experience. 

To quote Tony Stubblebine: We sell on been-there, done that. Our first wave of coaches had all been extremely successful in the behaviors that they coached. Caching is about facilitating a change in the client, which means the client does most of the work (sorry clients–you do have to get off the sofa). Despite that, clients are really drawn to coaches who have personally succeeded in the goals that they are coaching. 

And he’s right, but…in my experience, this is only half the equation.  People don’t buy coaching so much as they buy coaches.

Yeah, they care about expertise and experience.  They care a lot.  But they also have to like their coach.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gotten into long conversations with clients about dating, Dungeons and Dragons, or my travels through Southeast Asia.  And when I’ve been on the client side, I’ve hired coaches almost as much on personality fit as on expertise.

I used to wonder why so many successful coaches spend so much time writing about “frivolous” stuff like movies, video games, and drinking Scotch.  Now I know- people are more likely to trust you and hire you when they feel like they know you, and have stuff in common with you.

5.  The more you charge, the better the clients

I sort of already knew this, but you have to experience it to really get it.  When you charge higher prices, not only do you make more per client, but you get better clients.

What do I mean by better clients?  I mean they check in more regularly, are more likely to do what you tell them, and they complain less.  They ask more smart questions and fewer questions they could easily just Google for themselves, and they make fewer excuses. 

All in all, higher-paying clients are less of a hassle, and generally more successful in a coaching program. 

If you’re a prospective client reading this- realize that your willingness to pay for coaching- or a gym membership, or health food, or a training course, or whatever helps you reach your goals- is a strong proxy indicator of how committed you truly are.  Be willing to invest in yourself.

6.  Focus on 1-2 things at a time

This varies a lot between people, so perhaps it would better be described as “match the workload to the client’s level of time, energy and motivation.”  Some people can handle totally revamping their diet and lifestyle while also starting a new workout program, while others need to focus on just one thing at a time. 

In my opinion, coach.me is set up a lot better for the second type of client, the one who only has the motivation or mental bandwidth to handle one or two small habit changes at a time- and it also seems to be the kind of client I get trough their affiliate program. That’s why I use it to deliver my habit coaching program, but not my comprehensive coaching program.

This comes down to being able to assess how motivated clients are, how disciplined they are, and how much time and energy they can put into fitness at the current time.  That’s a skill you have to build as a coach- although the best clients will have a feel for it themselves and be honest with themselves about how much they can take on. 

7.  What people need changes over time

People’s habit tendencies don’t change, but their level of experience, goals and life situations all do.  It follows that what they need from a coach will change over time as well.  There are a few situations that I see over and over.

First, there’s the newbie who initially just need to build the habit of exercising or following any kind of diet, but doesn’t need to worry about doing it “right” yet.  Eventually they get “over the hump” and are consistently following their program, and then they need to shift the focus from developing basic discipline, to modifying their diet or their workouts to give them better results.  From the coach’s perspective, their main need changes from accountability to knowledge. 

Second, there are people with turbulent lives (or if we’re being honest, poor time/energy management) who alternate between periods where they’re able to focus on fitness, and periods where they’re “busy” and can only really focus on maintaining one or two small habits.  With these people, the coach needs to periodically alternate between providing knowledge and positive encouragement, and holding them accountable so they at least keep doing the bare minimum.  In the long run, these people also need help learning how to better manage their time, and to adopt a dial mentality rather than a pause button mentality.

The third case I see a lot of is simply someone who starts out focusing on diet and then later shifts focus to exercise, or vice versa.  Not much to say about that really, except that they need to make sure that once they move onto a new habit, they’re still maintaining the one they built before.

Other than that- everyone’s needs change over time in some way.  It could be they need to switch from gym to home workouts, or change their diet as they get leaner and more active, or sleep might start/cease to be an issue that needs attention.  A coach needs to be re-evaluating the clients’ needs every couple of weeks to see if a change in focus is warranted.

Your next steps

“That’s cool,” you say, staring intently at your screen and trying to absorb every bit of Fawkes wisdom, “but what do I do with all this?”  Good question hypothetical sock puppet dude!  Here’s what you do next:

  1. Take Gretchen Rubin’s quiz and learn which of the four habit tendencies you fit into.
  2. Figure out what your goal is- weight loss, having more energy, better overall health, or simply to build consistent health habits for their own sake.
  3. Asses your current level of motivation and the amount of time and energy you can put into your goal.  Be honest, and don’t confuse motivation with excitement.  Can you tackle several related things, like diet and exercise, all at once, or should you focus on just one thing at a time?
  4. Think about whether you need a coach, and if so, what you would need from one.  Do you need accountability?  Tactical knowledge?  Strategic advice?
  5. If you do want a coach, figure out which kind of coaching is going to be best for you- in person vs online, comprehensive vs single-habit focused, daily vs weekly vs monthly check-ins, etc.  Figure out where you can find a coach that fits your needs.
  6. If you want me as a coach- meaning your goals are health and fitness related, and you want online coaching- you have two options.  For comprehensive coaching, email me at john@johnfawkes.com and ask for a client application and intake form.  For habit-focused coaching, go to my coaching page on coach.me and sign up for coaching on the habit you want to start with.

One other thing: all coaching on coach.me (not just mine) comes with a free trial period, currently set at three days.  That’s enough to get past the assessment period and into the meat of the coaching program before you decide if it seems right for you. 

Remember: the most successful people invest time and money in the things that are important to them, and are eager to learn everything they can from others.  They hire coaches to help them along the way, because to successful people, coaching is not an expense, but an investment in oneself