A Flexible Approach to Communication Cultivates a Positive Coaching Environment

If you know me, have read some of my blog posts over the past several months, or follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you know I’m a big fan of psychologically flexibility and building and developing skills to support the ability to adapt to any situation or context in which we encounter.

Being psychologically flexible is associated with resiliency (e.g., Bryan, Ray-Sannerud, & Heron, 2015). As a performance psychology coach trained in behavioral science, I help people create supportive environments in which they live, work, and play. I also help people become more aware of their internal experiences (thoughts feelings, emotions, urges) and how these experiences influence the moment-to-moment choices they make.

We know from behavioral science that what we say and what we do (our behavior) influences those with whom we interact and that the same words and actions can affect others differently. For example, giving the same compliment to two different people might elicit different emotions or feeling (e.g., embarrassment vs. happiness) or evoke different verbal reactions (e.g., “Thank you” or “Really? Are you kidding?!”).

Within the context of any coaching relationship, there is an exchange of communication between two individuals. In the workplace, this exchange may be between a manager and employee; in the health, sports, and fitness industry, an exchange happens between a coach and their client. Effective coaches are able to successfully adapt their coaching “style” to fit the needs of those they coach. The way in which a coach communicates with others, both verbally and nonverbally, can help or hinder the success of the overall coaching process and desired outcomes.

As I was re-reading Gary Chapman’s, The 5 Love Languages, I considered how the concepts he described within the context of one’s more personal, romantic relationships fit into the coach-client relationship. From a behavior-analytic perspective, Chapman’s work aligns well with a phrase I commonly use – “different strokes for different folks” – when teaching students, leaders, and coaches about how the same consequence can both be perceived differently and affect individuals differently.

To create a positive work/coaching environment, it is essential to first identify and then effectively provide positive reinforcers (i.e., those things that people want/like) (insert citation/link) contingent on desired behavior. Positive reinforcers that are dependent on and involve interaction (direct or indirect) with another individual are referred to as programmed reinforcers. These types of reinforcers might be social (e.g., attention, verbal affirmation, smiles, hugs, encouraging words, positive feedback) or tangible (e.g., gift certificates, t-shirts, prizes, monetary incentives) in nature.

NOTE: I’ve discussed the importance and role of “intrinsic” or natural reinforcers in a previous post. These types of reinforcers are intentionally not discussed in the current post because they are not mediated by another individual within an interpersonal exchange.

If used correctly, positive reinforcement will result in an increase in the desired action and is an appropriate way to show appreciation and support within the context of a coaching relationship. The catch is that we, humans, express and feel appreciation for another differently; thus, understanding and assessing these differences in individual preferences is crucial for creating a positive coaching environment. The only way to know for sure that something is a positive reinforcer for another individual (i.e., it’s something they like/want) is to look at what happens to the frequency of that same behavior afterward (in the future) within a similar context.

Chapman’s five “love” languages essentially act as labels for a set of related behaviors that can be used to express affection. Below are five categories that make up the five “love languages” with a brief description:

  • Words of Affirmation: Expressed verbally, through spoken praise or appreciation
  • Quality Time: Expressed through undivided, undistracted attention
  • Acts of Service: Expressed nonverbally, through demonstrated actions
  • Receiving Gifts: Expressed via tangible gifts
  • Physical Touch: Expressed through physical touch (not necessarily sexual)

One can quickly sort these five categories into social versus tangible forms of reinforcers, noting that “receiving gifts” is the only exclusively tangible category. Below I share with you some of the ways in which you, as a coach, can apply the principles of behavioral science and use the “love languages” to improve or foster a positive coaching-client relationship:

Words of Affirmation: Words of affirmation can reflect the use of brief, verbal praise (e.g., “thank you for showing up to the gym early enough to make sure we can start your training session on time!”), as well as the use of more in-depth positive feedback that communicate to another individual that we both notice and acknowledge their behavior or an accomplishment, as well as appreciate what they have done. In either case, words of affirmation can be given through spoken OR written words (e.g., face-to-face, over the phone/video, in a handwritten note, or through email).

Choosing the words you say should be done mindfully and delivered in a sincere manner. An abundance of research on effective characteristics of feedback exists, including some of my own (see references listed at the end of this post)! Research has demonstrated repeatedly that feedback is more effective when it is specific, frequent, evaluative (in reference to a goal), objective (based on data), and accurate (for reviews of performance feedback, see Alvero, Bucklin, & Austin, 2001; Balcazar, Hopkins, & Suarez, 1986; Ilgen, Fisher, & Taylor, 1979).

One of my favorite ways to show appreciation for my clients is to send cards with handwritten notes via snail mail! I asked my friend Ali (Owner & Designer at PontoMountainPaper) to create the customized note cards shown below:

There is a tendency for clients to put more focus on the behaviors that they want to decrease or on what they don’t want to do, and similarly, there is a tendency for coaches to provide negative feedback and comments more frequently than positive feedback and comments. Research on characteristics of healthy relationships exists to support the importance of the words we use (e.g., Gottman’s research), and behavioral scientists have suggested that using a 4:1 (Daniels & Bailey, 2014) ratio of positive to negative comments is helpful to ensure that we shift our focus to noticing and encouraging desired behavior more frequently and, as a result, provide a higher ratio of positive vs. negative feedback.

Quality Time: Quality time is expressed verbally and nonverbally through our undivided and undistracted attention with another individual during a social exchange. Spoken words of affirmation (which focus on WHAT we are saying) are often integrated into quality time in a coach-client interaction, but it’s also possible that words of affirmation are given without focused attention during a coaching session. In this case, I would argue that the words of affirmation (verbal, spoken praise) are more likely perceived as insincere, and therefore may ‘backfire’ if intended as a positive reinforcer. As a coach, quality time within the context of conversation will focus on HOW you listen and HOW you respond to what your client shares with you. The goal is to create an environment in which your client feels safe and able to share their accomplishments and struggles with you; therefore, you will want to pay attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues. You will want to maintain eye contact, listen without interrupting or attempting to multi-task (e.g., checking email, texts), and ask questions that demonstrate understanding.

Outside of quality conversation, appropriate acts of quality time might include inviting clients to attend group social events. I know several coaches who host holiday parties, grill-outs, trips to sporting events, post-run coffee or meal gatherings, special seminars, etc.

Acts of Service: Acts of service are actions intended to show appreciation and are often labeled as helping behaviors. Individuals who find acts of service from others reinforcing are typically those who feel “actions speak louder than words”. Have you ever voluntarily offered to help someone out or do a favor for someone without them requesting your assistance? The voluntary nature and appropriateness of acts of service are important. In thinking about how to apply this to the coach-client relationship within the realm of health, sports, and fitness, I’ll share a personal example. As a Performance Psychology Coach who works with clients across the country, I often meet with clients remotely via phone or video. It’s rare that I can physically do things in-person to assist my clients, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t offer my support in other ways to demonstrate my appreciation for them as a client. Coaching sessions are scheduled in advance, but I know that life happens and things come up; therefore, if I notice via conversation with a client that things have changed with their schedule, I will offer them the option to reschedule their session for a time that works better for them. Additionally, if I notice via between-session communication that a client is struggling, I will offer them the opportunity to move their session earlier.

If you coach clients in person, you might find other appropriate and creative ways to provide acts of service. One thought might be to offer to re-rack weights or put away gym equipment at the end of a training session for a client for whom you know took the time out of a very tight schedule to keep their commitment to that day’s session; in doing so, you are showing appreciation and giving them an extra few minutes to get out of the gym and to their next appointment.

Receiving Gifts: Giving gifts, as I mentioned above, represents those things that are tangible in nature. Many times, in discussions surrounding “motivation” in the workplace or within the health, sports, and fitness industry, there is a lot of reluctance from managers and coaches toward the use of “extrinsic rewards”. However, like any other programmed reinforcer (including verbal praise, handwritten notes, feedback), tangible rewards can be used effectively to acknowledge and show appreciation for desired behavior for individuals who like to receive tangible rewards. A couple of important notes…First, “gifts” are often thought of as physical objects (gift certificates, t-shirts, referral incentives, set of resistance bands, water bottle, meal prep gadgets, coffee mugs, etc.), but they can also include access to activities or privileges (a complimentary training session, opportunity to try out fitness classes for free for a week, weekend get-away). Second, tangible reinforcers should always be accompanied by a social reinforcer to communicate why the gift is given to an individual (e.g., “thank you for your referral”).

Physical Touch: Physical touch, as the name implies, is expressed through physical, nonverbal touch. Within the context of a coach-client relationship, I will focus my discussion on nonsexual forms of physical interaction and will also urge you to proceed more cautiously when considering the use of physical touch as a positive reinforcer. Forms of physical touch that are typically considered appropriate outside of a romantic relationship and are commonly observed in work and other social settings include: handshakes, high fives, pats on the back, hand on a shoulder, and hugs. Within the context of coaching in sports and fitness, the appropriate use of physical guidance to assist clients while teaching movements or ‘spotting’ a lift should also be considered.

As an alternative to physical guidance, I highly recommend checking out the use of TAG Teaching (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance). There are endless opportunities for sports and fitness coaches to incorporate TAG Teaching as a tool when coaching clients who are new to weight training of any type or when helping athletes learn new or advanced skills.

The rule of thumb regarding physical touch of any kind is to ask permission first. This is especially if you are working with a new client and are unaware of their preferences or previous history. Personally speaking, I am a hugger and grew up in a “huggie” family; therefore, I am inclined to give hugs to others, especially after a more personal conversation or interaction (e.g., a client shares details of a personal tragedy). I have learned, however, that some people are not as excited about receiving hugs, so I now ask those for which I am unsure of their preferences.


Consider keeping a “client interaction log” to monitor the frequency, type of potential reinforcer related to the five “languages”, along with any notes about your clients’ reactions responses (or lack thereof). For example, you might track the frequency of positive and negative feedback comments.

This simple act of self-monitoring can provide you with valuable insights about how your verbal and nonverbal coaching behavior influences clients’ behaviors, as well as help you better understand how YOU can be more flexible in the way you communicate to your clients and adapt your behavior to positively influence and support client goals.

Monitoring your coaching behavior and the effects on your clients will also help you gain insight about what is important to your clients within and outside the coaching environment. Each us are unique and carry with us a different story of life experiences. As a coach, I hope you have a better idea of how you can use the concepts of the five “love languages” to build and improve communication within the coach-client relationship, making your ability to work with clients easier.


Did you know? As a performance psychology coach trained in behavioral science, I help people create supportive environments in which they live, work, and play. I also help people become more aware of their internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, emotions, urges) and how these experiences influence the moment-to-moment choices they make.

2018 is going to be an exciting year as I continue to pursue my goal to use behavioral science to make an impact in the area of health, sports, and fitness. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work in collaboration with the coaches of Elite Athlete Development!

Cited References & Other Related Resources

Alvero, A. M., Bucklin, B. R., & Austin, J. (2001). An objective review of the effectiveness and essential characteristics of performance feedback in organizational settings. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 21, 3–29. https://doi.org/10.1300/J075v21n01_02

Balcazar, F., Hopkins, B. L., & Suarez, Y. (1986). A critical, objective review of performance feedback. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 7(3/4), 65-89. https://doi.org/10.1300/J075v07n03_05

Bryan, C. J., Ray-Sannerud, B., & Heron, E. A. (2015). Psychological flexibility as a dimension of resilience for posttraumatic stress, depression, and risk for suicidal ideation among Air Force personnel. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 4(4), 263-268. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcbs.2015.10.002

Bond, F. W., Hayes, S. C., Baer, R. A., Carpenter, K. M., Guenole, N., Orcutt, H. K., & Zettle, R. D. (2011). Preliminary psychometric properties of the Acceptance and Action Questionnaire—II: A revised measure of psychological inflexibility and experiential avoidance. Behavior Therapy, 42(4), 676-688. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2011.03.007

Daniels, A. C., & Bailey, J. S. (2014). Performance management: Changing behavior that drives organizational effectiveness (5th ed.). Atlanta, GA: Performance Management Publications. ISBN: 978-0-937100-25-7

Ilgen, D. R., Fisher, C. D., & Taylor, S. M. (1979). Consequences of individual feedback on behavior in organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 64, 349-371. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.64.4.349

Martin, G. L., & Pear, J. J. (2015). Behavior modification: What is it and how to do it (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall.

Slowiak, J. M., Dickinson, A. M., & Huitema, B. E. (2011). Self-solicited feedback: Effects of hourly pay and individual monetary incentive pay. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 31(1), 3-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/01608061.2011.541816

Slowiak, J. M. & Nuetzman, A. (2014). The impact of goals and pay on feedback-seeking behaviors. The Psychological Record, 64(2), 217-232. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40732-014-0031-1