4 min read

Why 'Drill Sergeants' Don't Work

It comes up nearly every week, someone comes in to see me not particularly well rested, perhaps they had manipulated their typical approach to eating before exercising, or they just weren’t in a great state of mind to exercise at a high level of intensity.

Now for anyone used to having someone around to crack the whip, my approach will seem odd.

Most people, in their experiences with coaches or old teachers, think that someone should be around to tell them to focus, suck it up, get with the program or get to work. 

If you have experience, then you may be expecting me to say that I pushed someone hard and got a great workout from them.

If you’re unfamiliar with my philosophy or approach, you may believe that I should be doing something, or saying something to help ‘motivate’ a person to work their bag off, under these circumstances.

After-all, it’s what your manager will often do when you’re having a bad day and not carrying your weight at work.

It’s what your spouse will say when they come home and there is a mess to be cleaned up, even if you’ve had a bad day. You may even think that it’s what people pay me to do.

Not so.

For me, I question whether or not this approach has actually led to the degradation of appreciation for receiving coaching, mentorship and guidance from others.

In my opinion, this approach is a misnomer in fitness or weight-loss too, so let’s put it to rest.

That strategy only works in the military, because in the military, it’s life or death. Very few professions have a similar consequence, and the gym is no different.

Even in these life or death consequence professions, I see the beginning of a transition in approach.

How do you feel when you manager tries to externally motivate you towards doing something, when you are not particularly in the right frame of mind to do?

More or less productive?

Happy or miserable?

How about when your spouse shouts orders at you?

Feel satisfied or pissed off?

Do you find your focus, get down to business or do you sink deeper into a trance of misery?

The point is, that if I have to force you to do something, I’m not doing you a great service.

My job is actually to help you you develop true motivation and establish consistency, and I can’t do that by barking orders or trying to motivate you.

I can only guide you in the right direction for self-discovery, you operate from your own base of thought.

This means aiming to inspire you, not ‘motivate’ you. It means aiming to put you in the right frame of mind, more consistently.

9 times out of 10, the strategy of trying to motivate someone who is working from a low-state of mind, actually hurts our working relationship.

Maybe not immediately, but after prolonged, repetitive use, one of two things happen with a drill sergeant approach to coaching:

When You Pay A Trainer to Be a Drill Sergeant:

A) You become reliant on me barking orders at you and motivating you to succeed. Taking the ownership of succeeding off of you, and placing it on me.

B) You end up feeling some sort of resentment for my lack of empathy towards you, especially during times of need.

Be honest with yourself, no one wants to be told they aren’t working hard enough, or aren’t focusing enough or aren’t doing enough.

No one wants to be forced into something, we all want a little autonomy.

If you find yourself not wanting this, it is a psychological attempt to sub-contract the job of thinking critically about whatever it is you are doing in that moment.

A way for you to zone-out, and be less mindful of what you’re doing.

The question becomes: Is zoning out and not being consciously aware of what you’re doing, really productive?

Encouragement, on the other hand, is good, but only if you as a coach are operating at an optimal level of mental functioning in the first place, and only when done in a positive fashion.

I can’t stand watching coaches belittle the people they work with. It becomes a question of knowing when to push yourself and others.

The answer?

Learn to push when your in-the-zone, not zoned out.

As a coach, I wish it were possible to just say or do something and lift someone out of a low state of mind in the hour or so I have with them. Trying to force people to behave or act, in accordance to how we would like at a given moment, is a pointless endeavour, and is synonymous with back-seat driving.

The reality is, that all I can do is point out the current state of mind, remind them who is driving the car, then hope they realize where they are and what they can do, to make an appropriate adjustment themselves.

Everybody comes in at some point and doesn’t really feel great, they don’t want to work out, they are stressed about something else, they ate something that didn’t sit well with them, they didn’t sleep much, or whatever the cause may be.

At least you showed up and you’re doing something!

Sometimes we inadequately prepare, so what?

Look for positives, and stop dwelling on negatives.

Accept where you are, move on and at least participate is the solution. Participate at the level you are willing to give to the activity though at the moment in time.

You will not always hit a personal best at the gym, but what you do in this moment of weakness, can and will set you up to perform better next time, no matter what.

Life, nutrition and training will always be in flux like this.

The flip-side to this coin is, for every ‘bad’ or ‘awful’ kind of workout you think you have, there will be a yin to your yang. When you feel great, you’ll more than make up for the bad workouts.

Go with the flow on those days, do more than your program tells you to do. Go for extra sets, or extra weight on these days. Rock out.

Just know not every workout will be the same, gauge where you’re at, and adjust accordingly. Even if your tired, or injured you can still do something worthwhile.

Only if you find yourself operating from a low state of mind for multiple workouts, do you need to get help, talk to a coach, a mentor or a friend.

Once in a while is normal though, even for top performers.