Coaching Kaizen

Sweating and grinding up a steep climb last weekend, I was reminded of a client and her own climb up the same hill years ago.


She started at Catalyst to lose weight. But after a tiny bit of success, her progress began to wane, and she eventually started to gain weight again. Her willpower was completely exhausted by her job. Her early strength gains no longer motivated her. She began to cancel appointments and ignore my emails.


So we made a big change: I challenged her to participate in a local duathlon. We decided that she’d only complete the cycling portion because she was uncomfortable running in front of other people.


Three months later, I cheered her through a 40km course that included the hill on which I now labored so intensely. Her family was there, waving signs and taking pictures. I’d driven over the course at 5am to write her name in chalk on the roads. She wore a yellow “Livestrong” bracelet on one wrist and had a motivational quote from me taped to her handlebars.


Through this new focus, she trained more. She lost weight. She started sleeping better. Her stress plummeted. Mission accomplished.


She threw a party for me at her home later and–no joke–there was a huge poster dedicated to me in her living room.


She had become an athlete. But my first plan failed completely.


Yesterday, I wrote that a good coaching plan follows the “kaizen” principle of continual improvement.


That means constant assessment and frequent change.


These assessments can happen at different levels at different times. Here are the different applications of the “kaizen” principle at different points in the client’s journey:


Point Kaizen: quick “on-the-spot” improvements to technique, form or delivery. Usually a reminder to return to the optimal path.

For example: an instructor leading a group meditation exercise might remind their students to “return to the breath” to help them refocus. Or a personal trainer might remind her client to pull their shoulders back before the next deadlift rep.


Method Kaizen: medium-term adjustments within a training system.

For example, a nutrition coach might adjust a client’s macronutrient ratios to help them lose a few pounds. Or a CrossFit coach might prescribe four days of workouts per week instead of five.


Systems Kaizen: a long-term change to the overall plan.

For example, a fitness coach might change a client’s focus from strength-building to power output as they near their competitive season. Or they might put a client on her bike.


When my client’s plan began to fail, I first tried point kaizen: I yelled louder in our sessions and emailed her more often to encourage attendance. That didn’t work.

Then I tried method kaizen: I adjusted her caloric intake to help her get some “bright spots”, and tried to focus my workouts around her favorite activities. That didn’t work either.

Finally, I tried systems kaizen: I took her out of the gym and got her on a bike.


Luckily, I cared more about the client than about the system I was selling at the time. That hasn’t always been the case for me. I’ll admit that sometimes, I’ve tried to convince people that my system–powerlifting or weightlifting or sprinting or CrossFit–would solve their problem best, because that’s what I was selling.


Kaizen strategies aren’t new. In practice, everything we do as fitness coaches should lead to continual improvement. But most of us are limited by the rigidities of dogma; our own fear of being “wrong”; or simply the bounds of our experience.


Many coaches try to hold a client in one system–or “routine”, as we said in the 1990s–until the client quits due to stagnation, boredom or injury. But the key to continual improvement is the ability to change course as required. A coach must measure a client’s response to their prescription, and when the rate of improvement begins to slow, they must change the prescription. At first, point kaizen is enough. Before long, method kaizen is necessary.


Eventually, system kaizen is unavoidable. Every client will require change eventually. Can they still count on you to coach them?


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