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Motivation—a Psychological Take

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Motivation is always a hot topic when it comes to exercise. It is a topic that has been well-studied and well-researched by psychologists and still, as a fitness professional and a psychologist myself, I struggle to teach my clients these important life skills.

The greatest distinction which has been made in the field of psychology as it pertains to motivation is the idea of “locus of control”—that being internal versus external (Rotter, 1965). Our clients often have both, so what’s the difference? Simply stated, with an internal locus of control, one believes that they control their own actions and with an external locus of control, one believes that outside forces determine their actions. An internal locus of control is the one in which more committed patterns of behavior can emerge and grow. As instructors, when it comes to fitness routines, personal wellness and weight loss, we want to instill the power in our clients to believe that they chart their own course for success. Thus, the focus of our coaching should be on developing and constantly enhancing/encouraging factors that contribute to a client’s development of their internal locus of control.

Motivating via Locus of Control in Spinning® Class
Coaching phrases that include the client’s actual work linked to successful achievements will encourage a belief in oneself.  Telling your client “you can make it up this seven-minute hill because your legs are strong” reinforces the idea that it is within the client’s power to conquer and succeed. On the other hand, while a phrase such as “you can go faster because we’re riding downhill and gravity is working in your favor” does use the word “you,” it also has a strong external component (going downhill and the force of gravity) attributing to success to more than just the client’s hard work. Notice the difference? While both are encouraging, one emphasizes the pure effort of the individual, while the other does not.

Of course, we all have clients that are able to complete a seven-minute steep hill climb at first. But, what if someone doesn’t complete it? Are they then to leave shame-faced because they apparently “failed?” Of course not! A good coach is one who takes the time to introduce her/himself to the class, takes a quick moment to meet new people to the Spinning program and instructs them about working at their own pace to start. And, applaud them for taking those first steps by themselves into the Spinning room—no small feat for many, given the “intense” Spinning reputation amongst gyms nationwide!

Motivating via Locus of Control for Accountability in Clients
There’s no question that with the increasing obesity epidemic in the United States, weight loss is of grave concern for many. It is incredibly easy to take an external locus of control view when it comes to why weight loss is so challenging. “Oh, but look at all the ads on television for amazing chocolates, hamburgers and tacos!” This only reinforces the idea that we are not able to control our eating habits because something else out there—the media—is tempting us all the time. And I will have to agree that those ads are well-designed to catch my eye and make me crave the items. So how does one override the external and think about food consumption as it pertains to our ability to control what we eat? How does an instructor coach anyone on healthier eating habits? Instructors are not in a place where we generally give nutritional or dietary advice, especially as many of us do not hold medical certifications allowing us to do so. What we are able to do is encourage personal responsibility and accountability for actions and it is with this encouragement, the hope is that clients incorporate this into all areas of life.

In Spinning class, we can teach our clients to focus on their own strength and power with phrases like, “You are the person who came to class today and you’re going to get your heart rate up, be stronger and be in charge of your fitness!” Remind clients that they themselves took the initiative, that no one forced them there and that their success is a result of their own actions.

Granted, for some, the first time they come to a Spinning class might be due to something external—a friend “dragged” them along, they paid that exorbitant fee to the gym whilst making their New Year’s resolution, someone bought them that sexy lululemon outfit they felt obligated to use at least one time to work out, etc. But, the goal for instructors is to re-shape this external into an internal locus of control whereby the Spinning client knows she/he is in charge of getting themselves to class and can take active control of their health.

Motivating through Concreteness
Along with the words that you use to coach and motivate a client in the beginning to take ownership and feel empowered in their ride to success, some individuals are going to need you to be concrete about things that they need to do. It may be that a client approaches you to ask how often they should work out, how much protein they should be eating, or what sneakers/cycling shoes are best. Being concrete and detailed is always best, if you are knowledgeable in the area. If you are not, however, it is always wiser to defer to an expert.

If they are new to exercising, discuss how their first Spinning class went and discuss with them the number of times per week you would recommend they attend class. If they have approached you, odds are they liked your style, so advise them on times you teach, but encourage them to try other instructors too. Be concrete about which other instructors have similar styles to you, as well as those who are dissimilar, so a student can make a good informed choice about their second class. Walk the student over to a fitness class calendar and point out the classes, tell them you will look for them at your next class—again, starting with the external, then with gradual encouragement into their internal locus of control as they start coming regularly and begin to realize they are not coming because you said you would see them soon, but rather because they love their new-found routine.

In your Spinning certification, it is likely you discussed words and phrases to use as a means of encouraging those you teach.  It is important to be mindful of how you motivate those and ways in which you can encourage clients to think about themselves as taking charge of their fitness. To start with external factors is great—taking those first steps into a fitness facility are never easy for “newbies.” But as instructors, your role will become empowering through positive, motivational coaching that inspires ownership of one’s goals and achievements.


Anderson, C., John, O.P., and Keltner, D. (2012). The personal sense of power. Journal of Personality, 80(2), 313-344.

Pierce, R.M. Schauble, P.G. and Farkas, A. (1970). Teaching internalization behavior to clients.  Psychotherapy: Theory, research and practice, 7(4), 217-220.

Rotter, J.B. and Mulry, R.C. (1965).  Internal versus external control of reinforcement and decision time.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2(4), 598-604.

Rotter, J.B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement.  Psychological monographs: General and applied, 80(1), 1-28.

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