Coach, don’t carry

Sep 29, 2022 | by Susy Natal

Assuming responsibility for your client’s goals can lead to PT burnout and reduced client success. Coach Susy Natal reflects on the impact of delivering support, and upskilling your client to take more responsibility.


  • Many clients and fitness professionals operate under the belief that the personal trainer/coach takes on the responsibility for the client’s goals – this is not a helpful assignment of responsibility for either party
  • Burnout, especially empathy burnout, is a common struggle amongst coaches: assuming responsibility for the client’s goals can take a heavy toll on mental health and on the capacity to uphold a quality service for the long-term
  • Clients do not benefit from this dynamic, with the absence of feelings of ownership being very disempowering and consequently impacting their ability to achieve and maintain their goals
  • If the coach instead takes responsibility for nurturing goal ownership within the client, this can create an empowering and symbiotic dynamic between coach and client – allowing the coach to provide expertise and support, and the client to take this on board and execute
  • In matters of mindset and motivation, allowing a client to arrive at their own solution is more likely to aid their progress and help them realise their goals.

Fitness coaches are hired to show clients the way towards their goals. To share their expertise about how their clients might take the steps towards achieving a particular training outcome. Coaches are educators and guides; they are motivators and pillars of support.

Because of the fitness professional’s specific expertise, it’s not uncommon for clients to delegate some of their thinking about the technical specifics of their goals to the coach. Not every client wants to know the ins and outs of why their training program is designed in a particular way, and that’s fine. When the responsibility of the goal itself is also delegated to the coach, however, the coach/client dynamic can get messy and both parties can suffer.

The amount of emotional energy that a coach puts out during a day’s work is huge.

Care or burden?

As fitness professionals, we work very closely with a number of people, day in, day out. For some clients, we might be the person they talk to or interact with most frequently. The amount of emotional energy that a coach puts out during a day’s work is huge. This is not necessarily negative, and in fact can fill the cup and heart of many coaches, particularly when they possess genuine care for the clients. However, when this care is interwoven with a sense of being responsible for the outcomes of these few dozen people, fulfilment can gradually turn to overwhelm, burnout and potentially even resentment if not managed.

Fulfilment can gradually turn to overwhelm, burnout and potentially even resentment.

A division of responsibility

As a coach, it is important to remember that the client takes the coach’s lead – the coach is responsible for setting expectations when beginning to work with a new client or when reassessing if a current strategy has not been working.

In the same way that it can be tempting for a client to want to hand over responsibility for a goal that they do not really feel they are capable of managing, it can be tempting for a coach to allow the client to become more dependent.

Consider the implications of this dependency though. A client who feels helpless without you, and who feels that they could never stand on their own two feet, is not a powerful advocate for what you do. The happiest and most loyal client is someone who achieves their goals and who feels confident in their ability to continue taking the steps necessary to take care of themselves. This is done with your ongoing guidance and support, but the work is ultimately theirs.

A dependent client who feels helpless without you is not a powerful advocate for what you do.

Goal ownership and achievement

Goal ownership is vital for long-term success, and it goes beyond the client having simply come up with the goal. A disconnect from the ownership of that goal can teach the client learned helplessness. They feel that without your input they will flounder, and this promotes a psychological shut-down when things get hard or when you are unable to be there to guide their decisions.

Goal achievement and maintenance for something as complex as physical health requires a certain level of initiative. Unexpected things happen in everyone’s life, including your client’s. If they feel paralysed without your immediate input, because they are so accustomed to you performing that role, the scene is set for failure. On any given day, week or month, there are countless opportunities to go off the rails, and without possessing the initiative to manage their responses in a positive manner, they are liable to feel helpless whenever you are not there to tell them what to do.

Where there is purpose and value for something, action will follow.

A hard earned task

It is widely acknowledged that we more strongly appreciate the things that we work for and put in effort to achieve. Retaining ownership of a goal, and nurturing it as their own, provides clients with the opportunity to do that work and consequently to keep feeding the spark of purpose. Where there is purpose and value for something, action will follow.

Health changes are not usually fast, and they pose a lifetime commitment to ongoing effort. A client that is unable to truly connect with their ‘Why’ will be at risk of losing their way. A client who is connected to the fire that made them start, and is proud of the effort they have put in so far, is at a tremendous advantage. Feeling confident in their capacity to keep putting one foot in front of the other, they are far more likely to persist when challenges appear.

A question of trust

One of the best ways to help a client take responsibility for their goal is to trust that they have the answers. This isn’t with regards to the technical specifics, of course. The responsibility of communicating the intricacies of how to safely and effectively squat, and how many sets to complete, for example, sits clearly with you.

We all like – and trust – our own ideas and decisions the most, after all.

While some education will be necessary, the ultimate decisions on what to do can also come from the client. Encouraging them to participate in the decision-making process will help tremendously with their commitment in the subsequent stages of the execution. We all like – and trust – our own ideas and decisions the most, after all.

Collaboration and choice

Once a client has established their goal, you can provide knowledge around what may be needed to achieve it, but then ask their thoughts on execution – how many training sessions a week do they feel they can commit to for this goal? Are they interested in hearing more about sleep hygiene and how that might help their goals? What might be one change they can make in their day-to-day to reduce stress?

Rather than being tempted to fully inhabit the role of all-knowing expert and tell them what and how everything is going to be, involve them. Teach a man to fish, as the saying goes. Provide choices, with some expertise where relevant to help them make the best choice for themselves. There is never just one way to execute on a goal after all, and while you may be the technical expert, nobody knows how the client operates and what their life looks like, better than they do.

The scope of this article touches on one specific aspect of the mindset coaching that goes into training individuals. For further insights into this area, read the following Network articles:

Susy Natal
Susy is an online strategic mindset and lifestyle coach, fitness coach and wellness writer. She has previously studied a Bachelor’s in Psychology, Certificate IV in Fitness and Diploma in Coaching, and is a Master NLP Practitioner. Because of her varied background, she typically addresses health and wellness goals with an integrated approach. Working online with training clients from around the world, she focuses on lifestyle factors to nurture deeper and long-term change. She also works with fitness professionals in general business coaching and on branding, communication and writing skills.

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Disclaimer: Where Certificate III in Fitness, Cert III/Cert 3, or Fitness Coach is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Fitness, Cert IV/Cert 4, or Personal Trainer is mentioned, it refers to SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Program™ is mentioned, it refers to Fitness Essentials and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Plus+ Program™ is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Massage or Cert IV/Cert 4 is mentioned, it refers to HLT42021 Certificate IV in Massage Therapy. Where Diploma of Remedial Massage is mentioned, it refers to HLT52021 Diploma of Remedial Massage.