Mastering the Mind Games: SUCCESS Counselling Skills for Personal Trainers

Psychological and emotional issues outside of the professional expertise of Personal Trainers may arise as the personal relationship with your client develops. How are these often difficult issues best dealt with? Where do we draw the line between PT and Counsellor? This article provides a six step S.U.C.C.E.S. strategy for keeping you and your clients ‘on track’, and some simple ‘self preservation’ skills for PT’s.

It’s natural to build a close friendship with your clients as your professional personal training relationship grows over time. As with all friendships however, sometimes the other person asks for your opinion or advice about an issue outside of their fitness or lifestyle program, or is in serious need of help to resolve an issue of mental anguish or emotional distress to themselves.

For the most part, such calls for help will be of a relatively ‘light’ nature, and the person is really just looking for a sounding board rather than seriously asking for your suggestions for action. However, there will be those times when the person would benefit from some gentle personal guidance, or referral to a suitably qualified therapist for serious issues of distress. How can personal trainers, who are certainly not expert in psychological counselling, to approach this situation – both ethically, and practically?

Four Guiding Principles
One could say that the best approach is to leave well enough alone, and simply explain that you’re not ‘qualified’ to offer counselling advice. However, the problem often becomes identifying the rather blurred distinction between the person just ‘having a chat’ about a problem at work or in a relationship, and a genuine overture for assistance. The person themselves may not even be aware that the issue is a ‘problem’ for them – and will often deny that it is – so how can a personal trainer judge effectively?

There is also a reluctance by some people to seek professional ‘therapy’ because it can be misconstrued as being ‘weak’ or somehow psychologically disturbed, and so even if the personal trainer correctly identifies an important emotional issue and suggests referral to a professional, the client is as likely as not to do nothing about it – even if it is suggested.

Further, one of the issues that makes personal training so effective and beneficial for clients, is the fact that the personal trainer is someone, hopefully, that the client can admire and look up to; someone who is not just taking them through an exercise routine or designing a diet for them, but rather a mentor – someone they can really aspire to be like. It is difficult in such a mentor role then to deny a request for help, particularly when one is being paid by the client, and their continued custom is contingent upon the level of friendship and trust you’ve established with them. Friendship and trust are established by sharing thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and the personal trainer who keeps aloof and seemingly uncaring of their client’s day to day issues may soon lose business.

Therefore, I suggest the following four guiding principles for personal trainers as providing both an ethically acceptable and practical procedure for dealing with potential counselling situations in personal training. [ An even better option is to undertake further professional training – there are some excellent short counselling, psychology, and sport psychology courses currently available – and it would add an extra string to your bow wouldn’t it? Whichever one you choose, do ensure it includes some basic Neuro-Linguistic Programming [NLP] techniques, as without doubt NLP offers the most effective and practical counselling and personal development tools]

They are:
1. Establish Personal Boundaries
3. Identify and Refer Serious Issues
4. Stay on Track – Using the S.U.C.C.E.S Model

Lets consider each of these in turn, and discuss how you can put them into practice to enhance your reputation as a professional personal trainer of the highest standard.
1. Establish Personal Boundaries
In order to be of most effective help – both from a personal training and ‘counselling’ point of view – it’s important that your relationship to your client is not clouded by your own emotional entanglements. You’re not going to be as effective if you end up having an emotional or sexual relationship with your clients, and you will soon get a reputation and lose credibility.

Keep your relationship professional by clearly establishing personal boundaries and a conduct of behaviour that clearly signals to the client what is and is not acceptable – for both you and your client. This includes simple things avoiding physical contact, and if required, (for example, in assisting with or demonstrating a particular exercise or stretch), asking for permission to touch them before doing so; politely asserting, immediately, that any touching of yourself by them is unacceptable in a professional personal training relationship; saving ‘flirting’ for outside of work times; and so on. Needless to say, the above suggestions are doubly important when dealing with married clients!

Of course, you may choose to become involved in a relationship with a client – however, ensure it is by considered choice rather impulse reaction, and if you do, you’d be better off deleting them from your client list, and seeing them in a non-professional capacity.

In the long run, professional trainers who keep their relationship with clients strictly professional earn the respect of both clients and colleagues, and can provide that ‘neutral’ emotional perspective that is so necessary to truly offer counselling assistance if required.

Command presence is such a sense of complete confidence in what you’re doing, that your clients are literally dragged along by the force of your own personality and willpower. I’m sure you’ve seen it in great speakers, teachers, actors and public figures – something about them affects the people around them.

You can deliberately cultivate this in yourself as a personal trainer by making yourself someone worthy of respect. Set high standards for yourself, and demonstrate these standards in your own behaviour. Walk, speak, and act like a mentor – because that’s precisely what you are to your clients.

When you do this, often the specific ‘techniques’ or ‘approaches’ you use are really irrelevant – what makes them work is the simple presence of you.

3. Identify and Refer Serious Issues
It’s important to be alert for signs of more serious problems which may require referral to a qualified professional. These can be broken down into two simple categories: high energy and low energy problems.

High energy problems may indicate overstress and include symptoms such as insomnia or sleeping too much; poor appetite or overeating; confusion; circular thinking; and an inability to relax. Low energy problems may indicate depression and even suicidal tendencies and include symptoms such as low energy and lack of motivation; apathetic attitude towards life/work/family; and accident prone.

A helpful idea is to have a list of professionals and services to refer your clients to, and this might include : masseuse; GP; naturopath/homoeopath; domestic violence unit; chiropractor; drug and alcohol unit; and psychotherapist.

4. Stay on Track – Using the S.U.C.C.E.S. Model
Another way to ensure you maintain a truly professional approach with your clients is to stay on track. Even if there is no temptation of emotional entanglements, still many personal trainers lose clients simply because they either haven’t identified precisely what the client wants initially, or the larger goal gets forgotten in the day to day training routines over time. Problems occur for people because they either ‘don’t know’ what they really want, or they haven’t taken the time to flesh out their desired outcome thoroughly enough.

Identifying, describing and committing to a desired goal is half the battle – and it’s far easier to maintain interest and motivation when a client has a clear picture of where they are going, and demonstrable progress steps along the way.

The following SUCCESS model provides an easy to use, and very effective way of clarifying a client’s, (or your own), desired goals, and is especially useful for working with elite level performance. The process is just as powerful whether you’re dealing with other behavioural issues (such as wanting to give up smoking, be more relaxed in public speaking, cope more satisfactorily with change at work, etc), as it is with fitness or weight loss/gain goals.

I use it in my work with elite athletes, sports teams and corporate training. It is the first step I take in working with my clients, and I find it to be the single most powerful tool in achieving peak performance.

The model comes from the human technology of Neuro-Linguistic Programming [NLP], and you can recognise that while this outline provides a useful introduction, mastery of its use also requires some professional training in NLP – in particular, meta-model questioning skills. The model is modified from McClendon & Associates NLP Practitioner Training Course, and I highly recommend their NLP training and certification courses as among the very best available.

To clearly see and get a feeling for how you can use this with your clients, I suggest you go through the SUCCESS model with a desired goal of your own right now, and explain it to yourself in your own mind as you go through each step.

So, what do you want to achieve for yourself in the next year or so? Pick something you’d like to change, do, learn, or have.

Here are the steps:

The first step is to elicit a precise, positively stated desired outcome.
What is important here is to ensure that the goal is phrased in positive terms – ie. what they want, not what they want to avoid, or don’t want. For instance, someone stating a goal such as: ‘I don’t want to feel tired all the time’, or ‘I don’t want to smoke or overeat any more’, or ‘I want to not get nervous before important matches’, will want to rephrase them to be something like: ‘I want to feel alive and energetic’, or ‘I want to eat healthily and be a non-smoker’, or ‘I want to remain calm and confident before important matches’.

Clarity and precision is also important, and goals such as ‘I want to get fitter’, or ‘I want to lose weight’, or ‘I want to play better golf’, or ‘I want to be a better speaker’, and so on require further clarification, to: ‘I want to be fit enough to easily complete the Gold Coast half marathon next year’, or ‘I want to maintain an athletic, trim build and weight of 75kg’, or ‘I want to reduce my golf handicap from 18 to 10’, and ‘I want to prepare and rehearse my talks well, remain calm and confident, speak clearly, and hold eye contact with my audience.’

U. UNDENIABLE REALITY : I know this to be true when ….. (sensory-based description)
The next step is to identify how the person will know when they have achieved their goal, emphasising a sensory-based description of this knowledge.

While this might at first seem obvious, it becomes a little more challenging when dealing with desired emotional states or behaviours. Consequently, it becomes necessary to identify in sensory specific terms, precisely what the person will see, hear and feel when they will have achieved their goal. A simple example for achieving a desired weight goal might be: ‘I see the bathroom scales reading 75kg when I step onto them; I feel light and energetic; and I hear my friends and work colleagues telling me how great I’m looking’.

An example of a desired change to your telephone manner might be: ‘I hear myself using a helpful, polite tone to the customer; I picture myself providing a standard of service and helpfulness that meets and then exceeds their expectations and I imagine them smiling and content; and I feel relaxed and confident, knowing I can help the customer and the satisfaction of being truly helpful and service oriented.’

This is a really important step, because you will identify the specific behaviours you want in either yourself or your client in order to achieve success.

Too often in desired change situations the emphasis is placed on the outcome, rather than the means by which you will achieve the outcome – and it’s the process that provides the specific information and direction for you or your staff to follow.

C. CONTEXTS : The places and times I want this are …..
The next step is to identify in what specific situations and contexts the person wants to experience the behaviour/feeling.

It’s important to recognise that even positive emotional states like confidence and relaxed, might not be appropriate in all circumstances – for instance, would you want to feel confident and relaxed walking alone late at night in a dark alley in a known criminal area? A more useful feeling state might be cautious alertness wouldn’t it?

By doing the process with several specific situations your client will then generalise the behaviours to other areas by themselves.

Note, it’s quite common for a person to also identify contexts that are related to work or other personal areas in addition to those that specifically relate to their fitness or sports goals. Some simple examples relating to positive eating habits might be: ‘when I open the fridge’, or ‘when I feel bored’, or ‘when I eat out at restaurants with my friends’, or ‘when I’m visiting my parents’.

C. CONGRUENT WITH PERSONAL VALUES : I want this because …..
The next step is to ensure that the desired outcome is in line with their personal values and higher level goals.

Sometimes, a person can want something that either goes against another strongly held value, or they may want it for a self destructive reason – for instance, someone wanting to follow a strict dietary regimen ‘to punish myself’.
Asking for what purpose the desired outcome is, can ensure you help the person work toward constructive goals and those that are in harmony with their important values and beliefs.

An example from someone who is aiming for a higher sports performance might be: ‘I want to achieve more and do it with ease to give me a feeling of satisfaction and contentment and self worth’. An example from someone wanting to improve their telephone manner might be : ‘I want it because it will help me advance in my career, and increase my volume of telephone sales.’

E. ECOLOGICAL : Does any part of me object to being/doing/having this?
This step is to check that the desired change is in harmony with all ‘parts’ of your client.

This leads on from the issue of values outlined in the previous step, and is a simple check to ensure that there is no inner resistance from the client to the desired change. This is important, as one of the main reasons for ‘backsliding’ in effecting positive behavioural change, is that if there is a ‘part’ of the person that didn’t really want to change, then it may sabotage the process.

It is more common than not to have some objections – and this makes sense when you think about it. If the person whole heartedly wanted to be that way, they already would be in the first place! They are the way they are now, precisely because the way they are now is doing something of a perceived positive nature for them.

So when you come across objections, the trick is to identify the positive intention behind the objection, and find at least three other more useful way of achieving that same intention. For example, a common objection to giving up smoking is that smoking currently gives the person a way of feeling relaxed and at ease, so in designing a positive change for such a client, you would want to teach them three or four other ways of feeling relaxed and at ease. Likewise, a common positive intention for being overweight is that it gives the person a sense of protection or solidity, and so in your personal training you would want to teach them three or four other ways of feeling safe and solid.

It is recommended that at least three other behaviours are provided for the person to allow them a range of choice in selecting how they want to behave in a given context.

S. SELF INITIATED AND MAINTAINED : How can I take charge of doing this myself?
The final step is to ensure that your client can initiate and maintain the desired change themselves.

The most effective work is done with clients who eventually don’t need you isn’t it? This ability of a personal trainer to train so well that your clients no longer need you is an indicator of the very best trainers – because you empower others to positively and successfully take charge of their own lives.

The most effective, positive changes occur when the responsibility for that change comes from within the individual themselves, rather than being imposed from outside. So establishing self control of the new behaviours in your clients is essential to the S.U.C.C.E.S. process.

An example for an elite athlete might be: ‘Develop a pre-performance mental routine. Control negative self talk in stress situations. Use posture, movements and emotional triggers to generate positive states prior to big matches’.

Likewise, an example for someone who wants to control over anxiety in public speaking might be : ‘Develop a pre-performance mental routine of visualising and thinking about the desired positive outcome. Stop negative self talk, and use a confident posture, movements and emotional triggers to generate positive states prior to the presentations’.

Another helpful hint is to establish the old behaviour as the trigger for beginning the new one! So the feeling of desire for a cigarette now becomes a trigger to engage in some deep breaths or a quick walk to relax and let go of stress; the feeling of nervousness and unconfidence before dealing with an angry staff member or customer now becomes the trigger for active listening to their grievance, building positive rapport and feeling confident about finding a positive solution.


S = STATED POSITIVELY : I want to …..
Example : feel confident and relaxed; be determined and aggressive; to produce my best; to be positive, at ease and looking forward to it; sleep well the night before; etc.

U = UNDENIABLE REALITY : I know this to be true when ….. (sensory description)
Example : Feeling …. I feel taller; relaxed around my shoulders with even breathing; I experience a sense of strength throughout my whole body; I move in a way that shows I mean business and am on a mission; there is a warmth over my whole body; and face relaxed.
Seeing …. I clearly see everything around me; and I picture myself doing what I’d like to do successfully. The pictures are in front of me about 5 – 6 meters away, bigger than life and in dynamic lifelike colour, bright and with movement and action.
Hearing …. I hear all the sounds around me, and experience internal silence.

C = CONTEXTS : The places and times I want this are …..
Example : # Before major tennis events – state or national titles.
# When I have to play someone I don’t know.
# If I’m given a new task and deadline by the boss.
# When I’m around my older sister or her associates.

C = CONGRUENT WITH PERSONAL VALUES : I want this because …..
Example : – I want to achieve more and do it with ease to give me a feeling of satisfaction and contentment and self worth.

E = ECOLOGICAL : Does any part of me object to being/doing/having this?

S = SELF INITIATED : How can I take charge of doing this myself?
Example : Develop a pre-performance mental routine. Control negative self talk in stress situations. Use posture, movements and emotional triggers to generate positive states prior to big matches.

About Jeffrey Hodges B.Sc.(AES) M.Sc.(Hons)
Jeffrey Hodges is a performance consultant to elite athletes, sporting teams and corporate clients. He is the author of the widely acclaimed “Sportsmind – An Athlete’s Guide to Superperformance Through Mental & Emotional Training” and “Champion Thoughts, Champion Feelings”; creator of the Sportsmind performance enhancement workshops and audio tapes; and Director of the Sportsmind Institute for Human Performance Research.

He is a NLP Master Practitioner and Associate Trainer, and his Sportsmind programs have been endorsed by the NSW Dept Sport & Recreation, and recommended by top sportsclubs and successful athletes. Jeffrey has competed in many sports, notably Volleyball, Squash, Soccer and Golf, and currently trains in Aikido, holding a black belt.

Some of his clients to date include :
Australian Rugby Union
St. Joseph’s College
Woodlands Golf Club
Financial Institutions Remuneration Group (FIRG)
Societe Generale
Qld. Swimming
Network for Fitness Professionals
North Sydney and Penrith Rugby League Clubs
Qld. Athletics Assn
NSW Netball Assn
Northern Inland Academy of Sport
Victorian Soaring Assn
Orange Agricultural College Equestrian School
Qld and NSW Departments of Sport and Recreation
Qld Academy of Sport
and the RAAF.

For more information, contact :
FLAXTON Qld. Australia. 4560.
PHONE 61 7 5445 7994
email :
website :



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