How to Motivate People: The Start

A dog leading ahead during a walk through nature

It was the worst thing I’ve ever said to a client.

Midsummer. Hot day. At the gym at 4:30 a.m. to mop the floors. Cold breakfast at 5:15 while they dried, second coffee before the 6 a.m. group. Four days in a row. You know the feeling.

Coach two groups. Third coffee. Three personal training clients. Eight-hour workday before lunch break, with another full day to follow.

By 4:30: hot, sweaty, exhausted. Needing a nap. Working in a little private room with a personal training client, 30 minutes in, assigning her homework and answering questions. Thinking only of sitting in front of a fan for a few minutes. And she says:

“I just can’t get motivated to do my homework.”

I respond:

“That’s not my job.”

She never came back. I don’t blame her.

Success and Motivation

I was tired, I was angry at my situation, and I was wrong:

Motivation is my job. And your job.

Motivation is our job more than coaching exercise is our job. If you can get people to show up, almost any exercise program will work. If you can get people to stick to it, almost any diet will work.

When I lost that client, I became a student of human behavior. So in this series, I’m sharing the secrets that have really made my gym, Catalyst, successful—the secrets that keep clients around for eight to 10 years instead of seven or eight months.

Here’s the first secret:

You must be successful before you’re motivated.

In the first post in this series, I shared a personal story about doing a really hard workout when I didn’t feel like it. I was already tired; the day’s training had already been successful. But the Strava app made me do one more hard interval when I was completely unmotivated. Not by reminding me of my progress and not by showing me a PR but by telling me, “You’re already winning.”

Your clients need to feel as if they’re successful before they start your main program.

The Steps to Creating Wins for Clients

How to do it right:

  • Start clients with a free No Sweat Intro—a consultation with you.
  • Find something they’re already doing right.
  • Build their program with their win at the center.


If Javi is already going outside to walk his dog, add some push-ups and squats to that habit.

If Javi’s partner does the grocery shopping, bring the partner into the nutrition prescription.

If Javi has a gym membership elsewhere, sign him up for personal training at your gym and give him homework to do at the other gym.

Find a win. Neuroscience proves that clients have to feel successful before they’ll feel motivated to take the next step. Our brains respond best to the feelings of novelty and victory. When you supply these feelings, your clients will focus on you. Read my long post about how our brains work here.

This is why people get hooked on video games and heroin—but we’re going to use this knowledge for the power of good.

We work with service businesses in other industries than fitness. Here are some of their “early win” strategies:

Some martial arts gyms run an “online onramp” that prospects can do at home. Over a week, a potential client learns to plan, to squat and to do maybe one technical move. They do three short workouts then book their first session with a coach at the gym. The first session isn’t a sales pitch; it’s just the next step in a series. And the client has already won the first few steps.

One accountant offers an intensive “self-audit” for expenses that saves her clients, on average, $200 per month. Prospective clients can sign up for free; then, after completing the self-audit, they can take the next step by investing the $200 per month in her service.

One local music teacher provides a session where he teaches every client to play one simple song. For me, it was “Smoke on the Water”—very simple chords, but I felt like I was an inch away from rock stardom. Signing up for the next lesson was a no-brainer. More and more music teachers do this online now.

The question to ask yourself: “How can I give prospective clients a win before they begin my service?”

Mistakes to Avoid

How I’ve screwed this up:

Two ways:

1. “Functional movement screening” at intake.

I thought, “If I can show people how poorly they actually move, they’ll see how important my service really is!”

What really happened: Clients felt like they “failed” on the first day. I literally overheard one say “I’m not good enough to start at this gym” after I gave her a functional movement test. An opportunity to change a life was lost.

2. Free trials.

Giving your clients a win doesn’t mean “try this and see what happens.”

Free trials of your service don’t convert people to membership very well, they have poor long-term retention, they don’t attract the people you want as clients, and they might backfire.

You and I loved it when our first HIIT workout made us want to puke, right? But most people hate that. It’s their greatest workout fear.

What should happen: Clients come in for a private talk. You break down their goals into small steps (I’ll take you through that process in the next post). Then you say, “We can actually take the first step right now!” Walk them into the gym, teach them something really quickly and have them perform it back. Put them on a pedestal, give them a high-five, and take them back to the office to hear the price.

The bottom line:

Your clients must win at your service right away. If they can win before they even meet you, they’ll already be eager to take the next step. Align your service with the way our brains are wired and motivation will be easy.

Other Media in This Series

How to Motivate People
How to Motivate People Through “The Dip”
Motivation: The Dark Secret


One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.