The Client-Coach Relationship: Obedience for Adherence

Ask any fitness coach and they can attest that a harmonious client-coach relationship is critical to progress in the client’s fitness journey. More often than not, a client will remember the coach’s attributes in terms of communication, understanding, rapport and approachability, sometimes even more than the results they have seen. This can be true for the opposite situation as well; if the client-coach relationship isn’t well developed, a client may not view the coach in a positive light even if the results have been great.

Like it is true for all relationships in life, the client-coach relationship also works both ways. To develop a certain level of understanding between each other, efforts and openness are required from both sides. However; in this case, the onus is slightly more on the coach. This is because they are somewhat in the position of a guide, mentor or an inspirational figure. Since, the coach is in this position, he/she can design his approach according to the client’s specific behaviour and expectations.

One of the most common and pertinent challenges that coaches face is lack of adherence to
plans by their clients. Like they say, you can take the horse to the pond but can’t make him drink the water. In behavioral psychology, observation and analysis of obedience, conformity and compliance behaviour is a common practice. In fact, it is used in many other fields such as education, advertising, retail etc. When it comes to Fitness Coaching, Obedience Behaviour is specially important, mostly because it directly relates to adherence. Let us try to understand this better.


Obedience, in human behaviour, is a form of social influence in which a person yields to explicit instructions or orders from an authority figure”. [1] It is the response to an order made by someone considered to be an authoritative figure. Understanding obedience behaviour involves observation of the alteration of behaviour because someone in authority has told you to do so.

The study of Obedience was pioneered by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1950s. He
became curious about the Nazi camps where millions were killed. He believed that not all
people were killed single-handedly by Hitler and wondered what made people follow his orders blindly.

Adolf Eichmann was executed in 1962 for his part in organizing the Holocaust. Eichmann was a logistical genius who efficiently organised the seamless process of collecting, transporting and even exterminating the ones that were to be killed. During his trial in 1961, Eichmann was surprised at being hated by Jewish people, and repeatedly said that he was simply obeying orders.

In his jail diary Eichmann wrote ‘The orders were, for me, the highest thing in my life and I had to obey them without question’ (extract quoted in The Guardian, 12 August, 1999, p. 13). Upon careful analysis by six psychiatrists, he was declared mentally stable and was an average person with a normal family life. This led many psychologists to question what caused this behaviour and various investigations to study the phenomenon of human obedience were carried out.

Milgram set out to test the research question ‘are Germans different?’, but instead, he found that humans are surprisingly obedient to people in authority. In his most renowned experiment, Milgram (1963-74) found that most participants would give a helpless victim fatal electric shocks when they were ordered to by a figure of authority.

Obedience and Fitness

As a fit person, society deems you a certain status. Your level of fitness provides you the
‘social power’ as fitness is considered to be a socially acceptable and favourable aspect
of life. More often than not, you will be looked upon as a role model and this will help you
acquire a ‘higher status’ than your client. For your diet and training programs to work,
cooperation and honesty in terms of obedience is necessary. In many cases, and of
course, the successful ones, this cooperation happens organically. A highly motivated
client will not need much effort from your end to stick to your guidance.

However; more often than not, you will come across a client who has a tendency to sway
away from the plans. You will find a pattern of excuses and non-committal behaviour. In
a worst case scenario, the client may start complaining and find faults in your methods
because due to non-adherence, they will not be able to see results. This situation can
hamper your growth as a coach and also cause unnecessary stress.

Remember, you are a role-model and so unknowingly, you have social power. With
power, comes great responsibility. Now, there is a certain decorum to be maintained by
fitness coaches to be considered as someone who their clients would respect enough to
simply trust their guidance and follow it to the T. Once, the initial ice is broken, your
primary goal must be to earn trust and respect by putting forward your most professional
self. Think of the most memorable or inspiring teachers you have known and been
impacted by. Can you find a pattern in their most admirable qualities? You will see that
rather than ‘demanding’ respect and adherence, their demeanor will most likely
‘command’ it. Most inspiring role-models never directly ask for something to be done but
rather have a way to work with their students that causes them to follow their teachings.
They always practice what they preach and are approachable but never cross the line.

To develop a successful work ethic that elicits adherence from their clients, coaches can
follow a few guidelines to help their clients stay disciplined.

  1. You are their coach, not their friend. You may have an understanding and rapport.
    However; it should always remain clear that you share a professional relationship
    where your guidance (plans or suggestions) are made for their best interest.
    Adherence to these is necessary. Make sure that your communication is always
    professional, your language friendly yet firm. Also, keep your personal life and
    personal problems away from your client conversations. If they initiate a conversation
    that is too personal, listen to them but avoid giving too many suggestions. Suggest
    them to seek advice from family and friends.
  2. Talk to them in-depth about their goals, apprehensions, limitations and once you have
    done so, set realistic targets. Make your expectations very clear. Rather than saying, ‘you
    can give me updates once a week’, tell them the date, time and adhere to it yourself too.
  3. Build trust with them. They will respect you more if they are aware that your knowledge
    is backed by science. If they find you to be worthy of their trust and respect, you will receive it. Keep your knowledge updated. This will automatically give you a certain edge to keep them on track.
  4. If you notice patterns of indiscipline, communicate your observations. How you respond
    to their deviations is critical. Of course, being harsh or too strict will not work but there are subtle ways to express your disappointment.
  5. Lastly, make sure you practice what you preach. Maintain high standards of adherence
    and discipline so that your clients can follow the lead.

Let us also acknowledge that you may do all of the above mentioned things and still find
it difficult to make your client stick to the plans. There may be many reasons for this.
Give them the benefit of the doubt but probe into this problem. They may require a
different approach altogether. There could be persons going through highly stressful
situations at home or in their personal lives. They could also have lack of support for
pursuing a healthy lifestyle in their family. They could be undergoing some mental health
issues too. In such cases, you may have to rethink your methods and open
communication channels to understand them better. Though this will be challenging,
coming out of it successfully will be highly rewarding.

About the Author : Saakshi, A psychologist by education and a fitness enthusiast by choice, she dreams to combine these worlds. Content writing and social media management is a passion that keeps her in the constant learner mode.


  1. Colman, Andrew (2009). A Dictionary of Psychology. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199534067.
  2. McLeod, S. A. (2007, October 24). Obedience to authority. Simply Psychology.

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