7 ways successful strength and fitness coaches use mental performance mastery (and how you can, too)

by Brian Cain, MPM

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What makes a successful health, fitness, or strength coach? It’s not just about writing great workout and conditioning programs or knowing a lot about nutrition. There’s something else at play here… something booming with possibility, yet something few coaches are tapping in to. Here are the “secrets” elite coaches use to get results. 

You know the type of coach. It’s the coach who seems to have it all together… 

The strength coach who not only churns out ridiculously strong, fast, and conditioned athletes… but who also somehow cultivates untouchable mental toughness and confidence in each person he works with. 

The health and fitness pro who seems to always get impressive client results–and not only that—but their clients maintain their progress for months, even years later. 

What is it that makes these coaches so special?

Is their education? Their hard work and commitment? Their passion? Or do they know something most others don’t?

The answers to all of those questions is yes. 

The most successful strength and fitness coaches DO know something most don’t. But it’s not just knowledge… it’s knowledge of a particular discipline plus the daily practice of it. 

I’m talking about Mental Performance Mastery: Understanding that training the 8 inches between your ears is as important as any physical preparation you can do. 

And this practice of regularly coaching mental performance with their clients and athletes is what makes successful coaches so, well, successful

Here are the active habits, practices, and skills that successful strength and fitness coaches apart from the rest. 

1. Successful strength and fitness coaches know clients and athletes who self-sabotage, crack under pressure, or struggle to stay consistent aren’t “stuck” that way.

The foundation of mental performance mastery rests on an understanding that mindset is dynamic. It can change, and it can grow. 

Many people are stuck in a “fixed mindset”—believing their intelligence or abilities are traits they can’t change. Contrast that with a “growth mindset”, in which people believe anything can be trained and developed. 

Better coaches know this—and they make a consistent, intentional effort to craft an elite mindset in everyone the work with. They know that with the right training, anyone can overcome these obstacles and reach their goals…. no matter what they’ve struggled with in the past. 

By strategically asking questions and giving feedback, they guide clients and athletes around obstacles so they can achieve their goals. 

To practice this approach:

There are two very simple, very immediate ways you can begin to integrate Elite Mindset coaching:

First: Be aware and on the hunt for a fixed mindset voice. When you hear a client or athlete say something that leans more toward a fixed mindset, use it as a coaching opportunity. Ask them, “Is that thought elite or average? How can we take that thought and make it Elite?”

Second: Provide “Elite Mindset” feedback. Avoid praising ability. Instead, describe the effort that was put in, and focus on how much the individual learned and developed their ability through the work invested. 

So instead of saying something like this: “Well done. You’re naturally gifted at this exercise.” 

Say this: “That’s great execution. You have obviously been working really hard, and it’s paying off. Look at how you have improved.”

It’s important to emphasize the process and the effort (what they can control and develop), not the talent or inborn abilities (what they cannot control). 

2. Successful strength and fitness coaches know the difference between motivation and commitment—and why it matters. 

You’ve seen it before. A client or athlete starts out strong. They’re begging to add extra sets to their workouts, rearranging their entire schedules to accommodate their new meal plan. 

In short: They’re really motivated to reach their goals. But then “it” happens…

“It” can be a million different things: An injury, a sick family member, a bad grade, a night of bingeing on their favorite forbidden food or a hard night out on the town with friends… whatever. 

Or maybe you’ve experienced coaching someone who says they’re interested in making a lot of healthy changes to their life… but their actions say otherwise. 

The best strength and fitness coaches have a way of keeping clients motivated despite what’s happening around them so they can keep progressing toward their goals, whether they “feel” like it or not. 

How do they do this? 

To practice this approach: 

When it comes to motivation and commitment, there are two common challenges, as outlined above, each requiring a specific technique to overcome:

The person who says they want to change—but struggles to get started. 

Coaching Technique: Make “it” easy to start. Building new habits and taking on new responsibilities is hard. If you overwhelm your clients/athletes by trying to change too much at once, or starting with habits and practices that are too difficult, you run the risk of them quitting early on. 

For clients/athletes who say they want to change (or reach a specific goal), but struggle to get started, it’s important to ease into things. When building new habits, behaviors, or skills, ask, “What would this look like if it were easy?”

Make sure they can say, with a 10-out-of-10 confidence level, that the can do whatever habit/practice you decide on. 

Over time, all these little “wins” will add up, and they’ll realize they don’t need some massive surge of motivation to sustain them—they just need to show up and make one small change at a time. 

The person who starts out strong, and then fizzles out. 

Coaching Technique: Motivation and commitment are daily decisions. The key here? Choices. 

Teach this to your clients and athletes. Motivation is not something you feel, it’s something you DO. 

This may sound simple, but by making clients aware that initial feelings of motivation tend to fade, and instructing them to not depend on that feeling, creates the space for them to find a deeper level of commitment by valuing what’s truly important: The process. 

Speaking of which…

3. Successful strength and fitness coaches know the importance of competing one rep, one meal—one moment—at a time. 

In coaching, “perfect” doesn’t exist. You know this. 

And as much as we like to play the “highlight reel” of clients who burst through our doors every morning at 6am, eager to smash another workout (or dream about this happening)… more often than not, that isn’t reality. 

For every client overflowing with energy, who follows their plan flawlessly, there’s a (couple) dozen who make the same self-sabotaging mistakes again and again, struggle to stay motivated and fizzle out. 

Nine times out of ten, your job isn’t as easy as coming up with a great workout program and a 2,000 calories-per-day meal plan. 

Instead, you have to find a way to help folks who are stressed and tired make decisions that align with their goals when it’s the last thing they “want” to do, and while they’re friends are saying “C’mon, live a little. You can skip a workout and relax every now and then.” 

Elite strength and fitness coaches know how to do this. 

To practice this approach: 

First, expect that the land mines of adversity and distraction WILL show up. Then, have a plan to combat them. Here’s a powerful technique I teach to every athlete, coach, or client I work with:

Today + Today + Today = Your Goal(s). 

A key component of present-moment focus is understanding that the only thing we can truly control, to some extent, is RIGHT NOW. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift—that’s why we always call in the present. 

Share with your clients and athletes this formula. Remind them of the importance of today and of this workout, this meal. 

When practiced consistently, your clients and athletes can experience a decrease in the stress and anxiety accompanying goal achievement and performance by learning how to focus on one choice at a time. 

4. Successful strength and fitness coaches know self-control and discipline aren’t something you either “have or you don’t”—and they know HOW to develop it. 

Few coaches need convincing of the importance of self-control and discipline. Where people go wrong is thinking these characteristics are simply a form of “mental toughness” people either have—or they don’t.

 An inherent quality gifted from birth. 

The best coaches know self-control and discipline are skills anyone can develop. And by helping those they work with develop this skill, they produce people who are better able to:

  • Refocus when facing the inevitable obstacles of goal-achievement and performance (“mess up” their diet, miss a workout, progress stalls, etc.). Instead of letting one mistake spiral into a bunch more, they will be able to get back on track more quickly. 
  • Calmly evaluate different challenging scenarios and make the most effective decisions. As the self-control and discipline “muscles” strengthen, expect to notice clients who are able to make more objective decisions, rather than being run by emotion. 
  • Embrace the process—good and bad—as an opportunity for growth. 
  • Develop greater self-efficacy. Many of your clients are stuck in the belief that they just can’t do it or will never reach their goals. As they develop more discipline, their confidence grows, and they will start to believe in themselves more. 

To practice this approach: 

The first step is to teach the difference between actions and feelings. 

Here’s a very simple, yet extremely powerful concept to continually reinforce in your coaching: It’s normal to not feel like doing the necessary things for success all the time. 

From making healthy food choices when the people around you are eating junk to skipping out on a night of partying because you know it will make it hard to get up for your workout in the morning, it IS possible to make the choices that best align with your goals, whether you “feel like it” or not. 

Teaching clients that developing discipline is a skill—and how you feel is irrelevant when you’ve made the commitment to do something and have made a commitment to the mindset to act differently than how you feel—is a powerful concept. 

5. Successful strength and fitness coaches know how to help clients and athletes value consistency vs. quick-fixes. 

As coaches and trainers, a battle fought daily is this: Getting your clients to do the day-to-day, mundane tasks necessary to reach their goals… even when they don’t  feel like it. 

And without getting so overwhelmed by the end goal that they give up before they reach it. 

The best coaches know how to help clients focus more on the process—and less on the outcome. 

To practice this approach: 

A relentless focus on process over outcome should be evident in every aspect of your coaching. And a concept you continually drill into the minds of your clients. 

Setting long-term goals is important. But teach clients it’s the ability to consistently make positive choices that are supportive of their goals that will pave the path to success. 

This is why you MUST break goals down into smaller, actionable steps—or behaviors—that your clients can focus on each day. This is what I call the “telescope and microscope” approach to goal setting. 

Remember: Consistency with the small things beats intensity in most areas of behavioral change. 

6. Successful strength and fitness coaches know how to use mental imagery to build confidence and decrease the time it takes for skill acquisition. 

Mental imagery… isn’t that some new age hippy stuff?

Not even close. In fact, the best coaches in the world know how powerful of a tool this can be—and they utilize it regularly. 

Whether we’re aware of it or not, the mental images we create and carry around (both positive and negative) have a direct impact on physical and mental performance. Science has shown that our brain will process what we vividly imagine and physiologically experience with similar psychoneuromuscular pathways.

When you begin to train and develop the skill set of mental imagery, you will notice clients who are better able to:

  • Stay calm and focus on the present task, rather than getting caught up in the past or future. 
  • Be able to evaluate circumstances and respond logically and rationally, rather than allowing emotion to take over. 
  • Demonstrate more grit to stick with it, even when things get hard because they’ve harnessed the power of visualizing the process—triumphs and challenges—before they happen. 
  • Better able to manage the ups and downs of achieving their goals by turning off stress and switching into recovery mode. 

To practice this approach: 

A great way to utilize the benefits of mental imagery is to have your clients create a list of situations in their lives that make them uncomfortable and represent some kind of adversity they anticipate will make achieving their goals difficult. 

Once they have made this down in writing, use it as a checklist and use mental imagery to perform under each adverse scenario. This can include things like:

  • At home, work, or out with friends and you’re tempted by foods that aren’t in line with your goals.
  • When you wake up to a blaring alarm and you’re tempted to hit the “snooze” instead of getting up to do a workout. 
  • … And so on.

Then, it’s simply a matter of directing the client to visualize each of these situations in as much detail as possible and “play out” how they can respond positively. 

Give them space to formulate solutions to these challenges on their own. 

One of the main reasons people make bad decisions or fold under pressure is because, when faced with new experiences, we lack the ability to logically assess the situation and respond in a calm, positive manner. 

Instincts kick in and we react without thinking (only to realize ten minutes later that we shouldn’t have eaten that donut). 

By visualizing these challenging situations ahead of time, your clients will feel more control and a sense of familiarity when they arise, already having a plan in place to respond in the best way possible. 

And that’s HUGE. 

7. Successful strength and fitness coaches know how to leverage routines for consistency in preparation, performance, and results. 

John C. Maxwell said: “The secret of your success is found in your daily routines.”

Elite strength and fitness coaches know a good 50%+ of goal achievement happens outside of workout techniques, fundamentals, or any other physical element of health and fitness. 

They also know that it doesn’t matter if they can write the perfect workout program or tell them exactly what to eat—if the client doesn’t do it—they won’t get results. 

Being able to consistently guide clients and athletes to extraordinary results requires the ability to modify behavior and help them develop the appropriate structure needed to execute the plan (workout program, diet, etc.) long enough for the desired results. 

Bottom line: High-performing coaches know how to build and break habits, and they know how to help those they’re coaching develop the structure and routines needed for success. 

To practice this approach: 

Helping your clients or athletes establish routines in their lives should be an on-going part of your coaching. 

This can include things like establishing routines to make a meal plan, shop for the foods they’ll need that week, and preparing what they can ahead of time. 

It can also mean establishing specific pre or post workout routines to help transition from their “real self” (parent, partner, employee, student, etc.) into their “competitive self.”

I wrote an extensive article about pre/intra/post workout routines here. 

And this article covers how you can help clients and athletes “bookend their day with a morning and evening routine” to combat stress and level-up performance. 

What to do next

Pick one of the practices. 

Give some thought to which one of these practices you’d like to try out. Which one do you think provides the biggest potential for growth as a coach?

Which skill that you may not have yet developed, or that you don’t currently include in your coaching, could have the greatest impact on the results of those you work with?

Whichever you select, try to incorporate it with at least ONE of your clients or athletes this week. 

Master it yourself FIRST. 

Coaching other people on skills we haven’t developed ourselves will be challenging. Take a few moments to reflect… which of the areas discussed above do you need to work on most?

Don’t be too harsh on yourself, but as coaches, it’s important we attain a certain level of mastery before trying to teach skills to others.

Start small. 

Remember: Even us coaches can struggle to learn new skills and stay consistent. (We’re human, after all.) So start small. Becoming an elite strength or fitness coach takes time. 

You aren’t going to mastery the entire discipline of mental performance in a week. So take your time and focus on consistently integrating these skills into your coaching over time. 

Want to learn more coaching strategies to master the mental side of performance? Take this FREE 3-day course…

If you found today’s article helpful, and you’re interested in more cutting-edge mental performance coaching strategies, I’ve put together a free 3-day course for you. 

In this course, you will learn how to:

  • Get your athlete’s to perform their best when it means the most by using a SYSTEM to create an elite mindset. 
  • Compete at a higher level, more consistently—while managing distractions and adversity—by establishing the right routines. 
  • Create the championship culture you need in your program to develop elite athletic leaders and cultivate a clear vision that keeps motivated and juiced up. 

Drop your info below to learn the systems and secrets I use to help the top coaches in the world compete at an elite level—year after year.