Managing Expectations – Leanness and Life

One of the biggest challenges I face: managing expectations.

Not just clients, either, mind you, but managing my own expectations has turned out to be quite an enormous pain in the ass. Allow me to illustrate this in typical if-it-ain’t-broke-Jonny-will-break-it fashion:

Jay Ashman, of Ashman Strength Systems, was busting my balls the other day about this photograph: “You look bloated,” he said jokingly, but a point was made that is worth elaborating on

Photo Credit: Chris Bartlett

First, some background about said photograph…

The original photoshoot plan was for me to diet down with Vanessa for her show on June 30th, with a photoshoot to be held either directly before or after. Of course, in accordance with Murphy’s law, this didn’t happen due to a scheduling snafu with the original photographer. Thankfully, our friend Chris Bartlett was willing to do it, but there was a catch: he was only available the weekend of July 16th. Considering we had just dieted over 20 weeks for her prep, this would have placed us at over 22 weeks of dieting. I had already dropped from 235 to 185 and Vanessa, well, had just done a bodybuilding show. The only logical response to the question of dieting a further 15 days:

“Fuck No.”

So we didn’t. I made a concerted effort to hold it together for a few stretches at t time, but for the most part, we just wanted to live.

We wanted Italian food. And Donuts. And Cheescake. AND A SLICE OF PIZZA! WE LIVE IN BROOKLYN FOR FUCKS SAKE!

So, am I bloated here? Yep. A bit. Scroll back up and have a look. This is a candid shot and the image is raw. We are both just standing their naturally, not sucking in or optimizing angles. This shot is just us.

I sure am, but this look as also sustainable for me. I could hold this. Am I shredded? Nah, probably about 4-6 weeks of HARD dieting away from that, but I can look like this AND enjoy cheap champagne as the sun rises at 5:36am.


A lot of times, clients come to us with unrealistic goals…

As such, managing expectations falls into our laps. Many new coaches don’t realize this, and even those of us with experience can struggle here…I’m not going to lie.

During Vanessa’s prep, she happened to be doing cardio one morning, naked, on an eliptical in the living room (there are perks, people…PERKS). This was close to her competition, and I started to see straitions on her glutes, a telltale sign of being shredded to a stupid level.

I walked by like: “I think I want to diet down to straited glutes.”

And she was like:

“No you fucking don’t. You’re not doing a show. You’ve been this lean before. Why would you do this to yourself if you aren’y getting on stage? You don’t REALLY want to make yourself this miserable; you KNOW how much this sucks.”

She was right, of course. Later I’ll talk about “difficult coaching conversations”, so remember this moment.

Moving on:

I’m not a stranger to this process. Striated glutes…for a simple photo shoot? No way, man. If you have ever gotten that lean, you know what I’m talking about. You need a really good “why” for having a level of leanness that extreme, and “just for the hell of it” isn’t good enough. Those of you who have been there are reading this and nodding your heads.

What we sometimes fail to realize, as coaches and leaders, is that our clients may not actually be aware of this. Look, we are inundated with images of ripped and lean people all day long. The sheer volume of content we see could easily lead one to believe that extreme levels of leanness are commonplace and easy to attain. This is one of the main reasons why most people abandon quests for leanness and health: they assume that something is wrong with them when they can’t reach the goal. They get depressed and lose motivation based on an ideal that isn’t sustainable in the first place.

This isn’t their fault, you know.

As members of the fitness industry, it may damn well OUR faults.

I’ll take that responsiblity on. We all should. In fact, reach out to me if you are interested in perhaps changing this…enough of that..

I try my best to keep everything realistic for people.


And yet still…

I often find myself holding on to this crazy ideal and creating unrealistic goals for myself!

Yup. I can get dysmorphic, too. I can get unrealistic. I can take a look at my goals, decide I want to get bigger, then proceed to think I can do that while keeping sharp abs (or any abs at all). That I know better and still engage in this type of behavior is a testament to how pervasive it is and the power our own brains will exert over us when we have a bias…or simply want to be told what we want to hear, at the expense of the cold-hard reality.

Knowing what I know about psych/nutrition/programming, it’s amazing to see how I can fall victim to justifying just about anything I want to based off of bullshit rationalizations and cherry-picking. This, and I’m supposed to be a role model. This irony is almost enough to make me laugh.

Truly. Can we help people if we are stuck in the box of our lens? I suppose I have in spite of myself, but I’m not sure if there is anything positive to be gleaned from this on a personal level. If people are better because of me, then I suppose that’s all that matters and eventually I will figure myself out.

Or I won’t.

There’s always that, too.


So what’s a coach to do?

Frankly, being honest and upfront with people is key, here. Yeah, I know that this requires having numerous “difficult coaching conversations”, but managing expectations from the get-go is only going to help adherance. Properly managed expectations mean realistically set goals. As I have talked about in the Flow article, setting goals that are optimal within the context of one’s abilities vs. the difficulty of said goals is critical in staying in the coveted “State of Flow”. When a client (or us for that matter) thinks that they are going to attain a cover-model look and sustain that indefinitely, we may be setting them up for failure by not bringing them down to Earth, educating them on what goes into extreme leanness, and being frank about their ability to reach that level based on their genetics, the time they are willing to commit, and other obligation/stressors they may currently have.

Difficult coaching conversations are just that – difficult. However, taking a moment to “rip the bandaid”off, so to speak, can pave the way for better adherance, better achievement, and ultimately, a better relationship.

And what do we do about ourselves?

Man, this one is a bit more tricky. I’d say awareness is key, but I’d caution that an outside eye is also needed. Introspection can be a sonofabitch, and bias is a rotten bastard. It’s all so exhausting, really. In the last few months, life changes have caused me to be uber-selective of the company I keep, and I try to maintain a close-knit group of people who are trustworthy while not being “yes-men” It has served me well.

Fail a Lot

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A client got me thinking about the way we view failure. As both an athlete and a coach, I fail a lot, and that’s not a bad thing…

The best thing about coaching, or any form of leadership, it that there is much that can be learned simply by doing it. You know, hands-on. Unfortunately, this is also the worst thing about coaching. Doing things hands-on on means that there are going to be moments when you fail, and fail a lot.

Fail a lot
Trust me…I Fail a Lot

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In a multitude of ways, this is similar to being a trainee: you can READ an awful lot about how to hinge, for example, but until you actually grab hold of a barbell/kettlebell/trap bar and DO it, you just don’t have all of the pieces of the puzzle.

Formal education has tremendous importance, don’t get me misconstrued. There is a wealth of quality information out there that you can (and should) be consuming, but there are things that one can only learn by doing. Whether it is teaching you how to hinge, or teaching someone how to teach you how to hinge, there are practical aspects of this art that you just can’t read about in books. This is true in most areas of life, by the way.

This means you are going to fail. You are going to fail a lot. At least, you are if you want to learn, and grow, and improve.

But this is only bad if you frame it that way.

Recently, a client who is planning on being in the New York area remarked that she thought about cancelling her trip because she has had some dietary hiccups and felt as though she “failed me”.

This got me wondering about ME, and if I had failed HER as a coach.  If she thought that I would view a mistake as an abject failure and chastise her for it, clearly I was not communicating my expectations well. Although I talk often about my Ego Oriented past, education and experience has transformed me into a very process and Mastery oriented person, and I approach my coaching the same way.

Failure is part of the overall process. Failure leads to success, and is often inevitable.

For example, on the Neurology side of the house, it is said that motor learning happens through failure. This makes perfect sense if you have had the opportunity to watch a child learn to walk. Does a child simply stand up and saunter into the living room out of the blue? Of course not. The act of learning to walk is an entire process that starts out with tasks as mundane as learning to breathe, brace, and roll over. Through numerous failures, mistakes, and self- correction, we eventually learn to do!

The fact that I did not make it clear to my client that failure was not just acceptable, but expected was a failure on MY part. Yes, it sucks. Yes, my feelings were hurt. However, the real failure would be if I hadn’t developed the ability to fail a lot and adjust my coaching in order to not repeat the same mistakes with someone else.

Too often, as coaches or athletes, we want to be perfect. As a coach, I want to see my clients grow and succeed…that’s how it goes when you really care about people.

However, it is critical that we learn to separate ourselves from the goals and outcomes that our clients seek.

I am a facilitator.

I do nothing.

The client does the work and I merely provide oversight.

They are not “my” athletes. They allow me the honor of training them.

Being afraid of failure is, at its core, a very Ego Oriented thing. It stems from a fear of looking bad in front of others, an environment where looking better than peers was stressed over improvement, and a social structure that stressed winning over mastery. This may seem benign, but allowing an Ego Orientation to control us can push us towards Failure Avoidance.

Failure avoidance means:

  • Castastophizing
  • Negative self-talk
  • Self-handicapping
  • Choosing inferior competition (to guarantee winning)
  • Selecting goals that are too easy (ensures successful completion…but no growth)
  • Selecting goals that are impossibly hard (provides an excuse for not reaching the goal)
  • And so on, and so on…

This all leads us down the wrong path. True mastery involves learning, overcoming, and flow. Flow can only be obtained when we are selecting goals that are appropriately challenging for our current skills, which means that an appropriate goal will always be within our reach, yet always carry with it a small risk of failure.

This is ok!

The real “failure” isn’t in making mistakes, but rather in not learning from the mistakes we make, dusting ourselves off, and moving forward.

So fail, fail a lot…

And IMPROVE!

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