Motivating Through Strength Based Coaching

“How do I motivate my clients to keep on training?” This is by far one of the most common questions martial art business owners ask me.

Retention is important to any martial art business owner. Keep your clients happy and they will keep coming back—and your business will be well on the road to financial success. Get client motivation wrong, however, and you will quickly begin to lose the clients required to run a successful martial art business.

Psychologist Joseph Nuttin defined motivation: “not as an inner psychological state that forces a person to act in a certain way, but rather as a relationship between an internal need and an objective in the external world that satisfies that particular need.”
With this definition in mind, you could begin by identifying your clients’ specific needs and then focus on helping them to achieve success in those areas. This should always be your first motivational strategy with a new client.

Even if you focus training on your clients’ needs, you need a strategy to achieve continued success with them. Gregory Bateson, an influential anthropologist and psychologist, and a founder of systems thinking, noted that  “change is happening all of the time; our role is to identify useful change and amplify it.”

Tactical Tip

Stop focusing on what clients do wrong or cannot get right in training. Instead, manage around their trouble areas, and focus on what they are getting right. Amplify their strengths, as Bateson suggested. I call this a “strength-based approach to coaching martial arts”—something I have always advocated.


Strength-Based Approach

A strengths-based approach to coaching martial arts is a client-centered experience, where you as the coach focus your client’s attention on:

Solutions, not problems;

  • Discovering and building on the client’s strengths, not weaknesses; and
  • What is going well in the client’s training experiences with you, rather than what is going wrong.
  • Simply put, the strength-based approach to coaching martial arts is about  amplifying useful change, instead of promoting the outworn idea that in order to solve a problem, it should be analyzed, reacted to, and talked about.

In strength-based coaching, there is always a solution to every obstacle and every frustration. This is the core message of the strength-based approach to coaching martial arts.

Practitioners of Positive Psychology have learned that trying to fix people’s problems is not very successful. Clients come into your gym with various  psychological motivators. They may say they want to lose weight, get in shape, manage stress, or simply feel more confident about defending themselves—all of these needs are motivated by psycho-emotional states that formed over thousands of hours in their lifetime. For example, if someone is overweight and wants to shed a few pounds, there is often an underlying emotional obstacle holding them back from achieving that goal. You can try to be the proverbial drill sergeant in the gym, forcing them to work hard on their fitness training, but the emotional obstacle is likely to remain. No amount of exercise is likely to change the emotional obstacle that keeps them searching for comfort food.

In reality, there is little you can do directly. You cannot make someone change something they don’t want to change, but you can help them focus on the things they do well. Furthermore, by focusing on what someone does well, you positively affect other parts of their lives they may have been struggling to change.

Most people get bogged down in life when they focus on what they do wrong. Conventional approaches to teaching martial arts often use the same “weakness-based” approach, and this is why the outcome is often unsuccessful.

Many traditional forms of teaching martial arts focus on a person’s shortcomings and relentlessly try to overcome weaknesses. It’s no surprise that this strategy doesn’t work: for example, a relentless focus on how out of shape someone is, and highlighting the exercises they fail at, simply reinforces their weight issues.  This approach often results in a client who is not consistent in their training, makes numerous excuses about why they didn’t show up for class or they simply quit training altogether.

When so much time  is spent discussing what people are doing wrong (whether in martial arts or in life), people never get to focus on what they can actually do well.

Most martial arts instructors focus on what a client cannot do or get right. As a result, martial arts is often treated as a system for fixing problems rather than finding solutions.

In strength-based coaching, by contrast,  the coach focuses on helping clients develop their inner game, while building a strong relationship with them.  This relationship is centered on trust, cooperation, and a solutions-focused attitude. The strength-based coaching approach is about encouraging clients to focus on possibilities and guiding them through their frustrations and expectations by helping them reframe deficit-based thinking toward a more positive attitude that focuses on potential, instead of allowing clients to become entrenched in what they simply cannot get right.

Imagine what a strength-based approach could do for your relationship with your students?


The G.A.M.E. Approach


Following are four steps you can take to help your clients focus on their strengths. I call this formula for strengths-based coaching the G.A.M.E.

Ground your clients in what has previously worked for them in training. Use the memory of past great performances to spark confidence in the present. Now focus your client on what is currently working for him in the current training session, and then simply repeat it.

If, in a coaching session, a client does something really well, don’t be afraid to work on that specific topic for the rest of the lesson. It is far more beneficial for you to have your client leave a training session feeling empowered over one thing they did exceptionally well, than leaving the session thinking about the several things they could not get right.

Attitude—How your clients feel in their current training session, along with past experiences that have shaped their overall attitude to training, are strong predictors of who they can and will become through your coaching. Allowing clients to see their past successes by asking questions or creating discussions will help them become strength-focused—paying attention to what is required of them now in your coaching session. If your client has succeeded even in a small way in a previous session, using that as reminder sets the stage for achieving what is possible.

Mindful Motivation—A strength-based coaching approach recognizes that clients have the ability to do more than they ever thought they would be capable of. However, clients are often simply not aware of this. Making your client mindful of their ability to stretch and to achieve small goals is very important for their future performance development.

A client can be motivated to move into a solution-focused mindset by the coach asking questions and by using language that highlights solutions to problems. Whether we direct them at ourselves or our clients, asking the right questions helps to create a sense of hope and possibility where there may have been none. According to  Marilee Goldberg (1998):

Questions are the primary means by which doing, having, accomplishing, and growing are catalyzed-—and often even made manifest—in our lives. Because questions are intrinsically related to action, they spark and direct attention, perception, energy, and effort, and so are at the evolving forms that our lives assume.

Execute—Conduct the entire training session by focusing on what works for your client. If something does not work, then do not repeat it and, instead, try something else. Trying to do the same thing over and over, even when the client clearly is unable to get it right, is the definition of insanity.



The basic premise of strength-based coaching is that by focusing on what a student does well, you champion their efforts, and they will want to be around you more. Being around you more is good for them, leading to consistent training, and achieving their goals. Strength-based coaching is about taking the direct route towards a solution. What can be more motivating than that?

As a trainer or coach, I have always focused on my clients’ strengths as a way to motivate them and to build up their confidence. If you also adopt and integrate the G.A.M.E. approach when working with your clients, I think you will find that this is an effective way to improve both their physical and their mental game. And that’s the best way to keep your clients coming back for more.


Goldberg, M.G (1998) The Art of the Question: A Guide to Short-Term Question-Centered Therapy. New York: John Wiley and Sons


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  1. This is very true…..having adopted this with my clientele for some time now , not only do my clients achieve their respective goals but love each and every minute of their training.

    If you are not using Strength Based Coaching do so asap its the only way to go 🙂

    CM Australia

  2. One of the most positive moments are when you have challenged your self and completed a session that was difficult. Often we have to practise skills or abilities that are hard for us to practise – We like to do things that we are good at, but we need to find satisfaction on completing tough sessions.

  3. Great article Rodney, what you say is very true – for myself it is very hard to break out of feeling the need to fix things for my clients but I’m sure they will feel much better about themselves and the session, and get better results, if we can work around the issues that we all come up against by focusing on their strengths and what they’re doing right, rather than what isn’t working at the moment. Thanks for the great advice, I will definitely be implementing your suggestions 🙂

  4. This is a really great article. This approach is so different than what is typically seen that it could be called revolutionary.


  5. This is a really interesting article.

    Most people are of the belief that you are only as good as your weakest link. This position assumes an attacker (in a self defence situation) knows your strengths and weaknesses but they won’t. For sport fighting this is more important but even then if your strengths are really good, it won’t matter.

    I can also see how the strength based focus would be better for student retention.



  6. Well, you introduced “the” fundamental of fundamentals of assisting people make adaptive decisions and actions on the road to unlearning. Imagine–capitalize on strengths. Maybe same with you but a vast majority of people initial responses to my keen interest in being very clear about a patient’s strengths were confusion and trying to determine the relevance. Little did they know that the reason things got done was because I arranged for them to capitalize on a strength to achieve a relative weakness. In fact, it isn’t uncommon to be able to cut them loose so they can create a life that itself is the medicine as soon as they are involved in some sport or musical instrument or whatever their gifts are. “Show them their strengths and the rest will be added unto ye (and them). Dark humor