Training Tips

How Do You Respond to a Fitness Client’s Negative Self-Talk?

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Every personal training client is different. They may have similar goals related to weight loss or gaining muscle mass. Yet, the way they talk to themselves can vary dramatically from one person to the next. This is where self-talk comes into play.

What is self-talk, what happens when this talk turns negative, and how do you turn it around? This article addresses all these questions, and more.

Self-Talk Defined

The term self-talk refers to a person’s inner dialogue or inner voice. It is what they say to (and about) themselves when having a conversation inside their head.

Sometimes self-talk is conscious. You are completely aware of the voice and what it is saying. Other times, self-talk occurs on a subconscious level. Your thoughts are almost automatic, occurring without thought.

Self-talk can either be positive or negative. Examples of positive thinking include “I’ve got this!” and “I will succeed!” In this way, it’s more of a motivational self-talk. Yet, sometimes the inner self is less optimistic, resulting in negative self-talk.

What Does it Mean to Have Negative Self-Talk?

Some people refer to their inner voice as their inner critic. It is the negative voice that tells them everything that they do wrong. It continuously reinforces that they’ll never succeed. It chides them for even trying because they’ll never hit their fitness goals

Everyone has a negative thought from time to time. But what happens with negative thinking is more the rule than the exception?

Consequences of Negative Thinking

Negative thoughts often lead to negative outcomes. For example, research indicates that talking negatively to one’s self “is generally detrimental to sport performance.” That’s why many sports programs have a positive psychology component. Athletes are taught how to create a more positive outcome, while also improving their focus and decreasing their stress and anxiety.

When a client is focused more on the negative aspects of exercise—such as post-workout muscle soreness or the difficulty in creating healthy habits—it can also decrease their motivation to stick to their fitness plan long-term. They are so concerned with the challenges that they forget about the rewards. This makes it easy to walk away from the exercise program before they even see results.

A negative internal voice also contributes to low self-esteem. It’s similar to a parent constantly telling a child that they are worthless or will never amount to anything. Soon, they begin to believe it. The same can happen when your own thinking is negative. Your brain takes your thoughts as facts, leaving you feeling as if you’ll never hit your goals.

Common Negative Self-Talk Examples in a Fitness Setting

In life in general, negative self-talk often appears as internal statements such as “I’m so dumb” or “I’ll never get that promotion.” What does this type of thinking look like when it occurs at the gym? Here are a few common self-statements that have negative undertones:

  • I’ll never hit my fitness goals, so why even try?
  • I will never be able to lift that much weight.
  • I’ve failed so many times at losing weight that I’m just going to fail again.
  • I can’t do any better than I’m doing right now.
  • This is just too hard, so I might as well give up.
  • There’s no way I’ll ever keep these positive habits long-term.

How to Identify Whether a Client’s Self-Talk is Negative

While we sometimes speak our self-talk out loud, usually they are kept as thoughts in our head. This can make it more difficult to identify when a client has a negative thought or belief. 

One way to tell whether a client is prone is having self-defeating thoughts or automatically jumping to negative conclusions is to ask about this in your intake. Inquire as to whether they tend to be more positive or negative. 

Also ask them about their mental health. It’s not uncommon for someone to be more negative when they feel depressed or anxious. Emotion plays a huge role in how we speak to ourselves. If these emotions are negative, our thoughts and beliefs will often be negative too.

Every few months, check in with your clients to see if their self-talk has changed. They may gradually shift from negative to positive thinking without even realizing it. 

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Strategies for Handling a Fitness Client’s Negative Self-Talk

If self-talk can impact a client’s performance and ability to reach their goals, it’s beneficial for you, as their personal trainer, to support a more positive outlook. Here’s how:

  • Help them recognize when their mindset is negative. You can’t change negative self-talk if you don’t even realize when it exists. So, the first step in helping clients change their negativity reflex is getting them to recognize when it is present. One way to do this is to check in with them several times throughout the exercise session. Ask them what they are saying to themselves during a specific movement or sequence. Encourage them to do their own regular check-ins throughout the day. The more aware they are of their thought processes, the easier those processes become to change if they are doing more harm than good.
  • Offer suggestions for creating more positive thoughts. Positive thoughts lead to positive behaviors. They also set the stage for more positive experiences. Prompt clients to develop a more optimistic inner voice by regularly offering helpful tips. This could include replacing each negative statement with a statement that is more motivational and inspiring. Another option is to not allow the less-than-optimistic thought to even appear. Have them post positive messages where they will see them often. They can also download an app and schedule positive texts to be delivered throughout the day.
  • Continuously give positive reinforcement. Sometimes people are negative because no one else in their life continues to reinforce their worth. Through regular positive reinforcement, you can help clients begin to see their value. Tell them when they are doing a good job, such as by pointing out when they are using perfect form. When they hit new milestones, celebrate them. Before long, they may begin to develop these positive thoughts and beliefs on their own.
  • Encourage them to create a gratitude habit. When you feel blessed and thankful for all of the good things in your life, it’s tough to be negative. Your perspective shifts as you focus more on what is going right than putting so much attention on your struggles. Encourage clients to create a daily gratitude habit. Have them write down three things they are thankful for every morning or every night. When they see life as a blessing, it becomes easier to make good choices.
  • End each exercise session with a few minutes of meditation. Developing a positive mindset isn’t always easy, especially if someone has been primarily negative most of their life. Sometimes the cause of this negativity is a life that is too chaotic. Meditation can help reduce this chaos. It also increases the client’s mindfulness, making it easier for them to realize when they are having negative thoughts.

When the Client’s Negativity Becomes Too Much

What do you do if your client’s negativity is so overwhelming that it is interfering with your ability to help them achieve a higher level of fitness?

In the beginning, you may want to point out how their negativity could be hurting their results. If their negative attitude continues, it’s up to you to determine whether you want to keep them as a client. It’s not fun “firing” someone who has come to you for help, but if their negativity is keeping you from giving them what they want, you may not be doing them much good anyway.

Instead of dropping them outright, you may suggest that they speak to a mental health therapist. If their negativity is a result of a mental illness, medications or cognitive behavioral therapy may help. This type of professional can also provide advice about how to create a more positive belief system that supports versus detracting from their life.

It’s always important to never step outside your scope of practice. While you can definitely offer motivation and encouragement, if a client has mental health issues, this goes beyond what you can provide or treat. 

The ISSA’s Transformation Specialist Certification course teaches even more ways to help clients reach and maintain their fitness goals. Learn how to create the right mindset, increase their motivation, and more.


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