5 May 2020

The Coach-Client Relationship in an Online Setting

by Chrissy Dask 0

*** This article was written by JPS Education Leader Chrissy Dask. Chrissy has established herself as one of Australia’s leading fitness professionals and strength coaches for females. She is not only a highly sought out coach, but an elite level powerlifter. To learn more about Chrissy check out her website HERE. *** The world of…


This article was written by JPS Education Leader Chrissy Dask. Chrissy has established herself as one of Australia's leading fitness professionals and strength coaches for females. She is not only a highly sought out coach, but an elite level powerlifter. To learn more about Chrissy check out her website HERE.


The world of online coaching has exploded in the past few years – and for good reason. Online coaching opens up an array of benefits for athletes, the most obvious being that athletes can access a coach from anywhere in the world. This means that athletes have a much larger pool of coaches to choose from and are not limited to the coaches who are local to them. Not only are athletes afforded the luxury of choosing the coach who possesses the appropriate and/or specialised knowledge and skills to help them, but can choose someone who is right for them.

Thus, online coaching is a highly beneficial mode of coaching for athletes as it creates a more accessible and clearer pathway for them to obtain the guidance and support they need to achieve the outcomes they desire.

There are however some disadvantages to online coaching, which should be acknowledged and addressed – particularly the coach-client relationship.

The coach-client relationship is dramatically different in an online setting than it is in traditional in-person coaching. In order to combat many of the challenges coaches and clients face when working together online, a deeper dive into this topic is required. 

I have been fortunate enough to be on both sides of the online coach-client relationship and hope to share my experiences and insights with you all to help you make the most of your digital coaching experience no matter which side of the screen you occupy.

First I will explore the key differences between in-person coaching and remote coaching and then discuss the challenges coaches and athletes face when working via correspondence as it relates to communication and outline what you can do to to enhance the online coaching experience as a coach or athlete.

In-Person Coaching 

When fitness professionals coach out of a facility, they generally spend hours on the gym floor each week training their clients. Oftentimes, they’ll even spend more time with clients than they do with their significant other! This time spent in a close proximity to one another often means a deep bond is formed. 

When training face to face, you can capitalise on this face-to-face experience and communicate in a way that allows you to observe the primary methods of communication – namely words, the tone of voice, and body language. 

You cannot only hear the verbal communication (the words a person uses and their tone), but see non-verbal communication via body language (body posture, movement, position, and relationship to other objects and surroundings) and facial expressions and eye movement. When coaching in-person, you can witness what they think, feel and how they are interpreting/responding to the message being delivered. 

This physical interaction improves your ability to interact and ultimately build a relationship that forms a bond strong enough to weather the challenges that lie ahead in the coaching process.

Online training can make communicating and thus forming the bond necessary between coach-client a little harder. And that’s okay, it just means a little more ‘know how’ and work is required on both ends of the relationship. 

This is why communication is key when it comes to online coaching and the first step in ensuring your communication is at a level that allows for a relationship to be developed is to discuss expectations.

Expectations in online coaching 

At the beginning of the online-coaching process, it is important to make sure you’re on the same page with one-another. Knowing the expectations of the coach and of the athlete is central to ensuring you can work together towards a common goal.

What an online coach may expect of clients

If you are a client who is signing up for online coaching, here are some of the things that may be asked of you (or expected) by your coach:

  • Filing in sheets for your program or nutrition (or both)
  • Filming your exercises
  • Sending through progress photos
  • Checking in
  • Staying up to date with announcements

Just like training itself, these things require an investment of time and effort, and you as the client need to be able to make that investment. 

What clients may expect of an online coach Just as a coach has certain expectations which they may deem necessary for the coaching process, clients also have expectations. So, don’t worry – the coach has responsibilities too. When looking for and working with a coach, it is reasonable for you to expect to work with someone who:

  • Actively listens and answers your questions
  • Consistently educates themselves
  • Gives timely and appropriate feedback to your training and nutrition
  • Makes you feel comfortable and supported
  • Gives appropriate direction but doesn’t their their own personal agenda decide your goals
  • Encourages you and knows when to push you a bit harde

Bridging the communication gap in an online setting 

Once basic expectations have been set, made known to each party and agreed upon, the real work begins. Arguably the most important part of the online coaching relationship is communication. It’s a two way street which means effort is required from both the coach and the client. What many fail to realise is that when working in an online setting, attention and effort towards communication is absolutely essential given the constraints imposed by working with someone via correspondence.

Here I’ll break down how to best communicate from both perspectives.

Enhancing communication as a coach:

  1. Set the ground rules, early.

As I outlined previously, being specific about your expectations of the client and stating them explicitly when onboarding a new client goes a long way in facilitating future communications. Setting some of these in the initial consultation with the client is a good idea, as well as as soon as they sign up. A document describing how to check in, send videos and so on can be super helpful in creating a seamless transition and efficient communication.

2. Find common ground with your client. 

Perhaps you both have a dog, or both love cooking. That gives you things to chat about outside of training, and can help you create a harmonious relationship where you feel comfortable sharing things with one another.

3. Empathise with different situations. 

Remember – your clients aren’t you, there you can’t expect what you do, from them. Be understanding when they hit roadblocks or are going through personal issues. Furthermore, know when to push them, and when to pull back. Sometimes there are things that can be fixed or they might just need a good old kick up the butt; however, occasionally the situation will run deeper and require empathy. Most people won’t work with a coach unless they want to achieve something, so if you notice that’s lacking, it may be somewhat out of their control.

4. Respond in a timely manner.

It sounds very straight forward and it is, however responding to emails, check ins, calls etc within a reasonable time (preferably a time-frame established when setting expectations) goes a long way.  Similarly, update and deliver their programs and diets to them on time. It sounds obvious but these are fundamental parts of why the client has hired you.

5. Build a community where your clients feel supported and motivated. 

Good coaches will have a niche, and therefore their clients will have a lot of similarities. Bringing them together to support one another is so valuable for the client, particularly for the longevity of their training. Don’t be afraid to explore avenues such as team meet ups, Zoom group chats and getting to know you posts in your online team group.

6. Stay in touch with clients.

If you haven’t heard from your client, reach out. They might be going through a hard time or struggling to talk about something that is affecting their training. From personal experience as both a coach and an athlete, a phone call goes a really long way for that client to feel supported and valued.

Enhancing communication as a client:

  1. Follow the protocols your coach has set you. 

That means checking in on time, trimming videos and so on. These are set in place to make things super efficient for your coach, which often means quicker response times for you. Remember that everything your coach is doing for you, they’re doing for other people, too.

2. Reach out if you have questions, an issue or something isn’t right. 

Coaches aren’t mind readers and issues are fixed in a more timely manner if you reach out right away. Similarly, bring something up if it isn’t working for you. Perhaps it’s an exercise that feels weird or the check in system is hard to manage with your work schedule. There is probably a way your coach can work around it to make it work better for you, or rectify/work on something that may not realise isn’t working – it might help other clients in the future, too

3. Try your best to implement the coaches advice.

Implement feedback and make a concerted effort to put the suggestions your coach has given you into practice. Ultimately, this is why you pay the coach. You may feel unsure about some things, but going forward with the suggestions is how you can build trust with your coach. 

4. Ask for explanations if you don’t understand something. 

Don’t be shy. Your coach is here to help and will generally much prefer you ask for further explanations if it means it will help you get better outcomes. This can help ensure you have a better idea of not just how to do what is asked, but why you’re doing it. When you understand the ‘why’, you will be far more inclined to implement it, or try it.

You’re not a burden. Your coach is there to help you and that means wirth your goals, but that also means answering questions, helping you understand why you’re doing certain things, helping you learn and educate yourself and supporting you. When you email or message them to ask a question, you don’t need to apologise! It’s their job. 

5. Aim to build a connection

With some people, finding common ground and clicking happens instantly. However, if it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean the coach isn’t right for you. Trust in a coach-client relationship is important, but it takes time to create and which is why you need to trust the #process.

It might be that you need to take the coach’s suggestions, put them in place and see if they work. It might be that you contact them and they give you a timely, well thought out response. Or perhaps you ask them a question that they can’t quite answer, and they research it for you.

You need to give it that little bit more time for online coaching, but around the 8 week mark of working with a new coach, you should know whether you’ve got that connection with them.

Bonus communication tips for coaches and clients 

Attention and availability

Everyone is different when it comes to the level of attention and availability they need from their coach. More advanced athletes will be more self-sufficient and be really looking to improve their lifting and for feedback to implement, whereas the general population and newer lifters may seek more support, community vibes and need a little more special care. It’s useful to detect this as a coach, or mention this as a client in order to maintain a happy, working relationship.

Basic communication

Grammar, punctuation and context are so important to online coaching, because a lot of the interchange is via email. More so, general politeness can be extremely overlooked – don’t underestimate how far a “hello, how are you?” goes. Be sure to read over the emails or messages you exchange and ensure you are greeting the person, and that they make sense! Remember, both parties are human and we never know for sure what the person on the other end of the screen is dealing with. 

Be polite, use your manners and always aim to make the person on the receiving end feel like you value them and their time.


Key Takeaways for coaches:

  1. Stay in touch with your client and show them you care
  2. Provide the client with everything you promise

Key Takeaways for clients:

  1. Be assertive and reach out when an issue needs addressing
  2. Implement the recommendations from your coach – this is how you will achieve the goal you set out

The coach-client relationship is like any other – it requires work, trust and honesty from both parties. There is a higher susceptibility to miscommunication due to the way we interact with online coaching, which can be rectified with appropriate protocols and effort on behalf of both the coach and the client. I hope this article has helped you with your current coach-client relationship or ways you can approach communicating in the future!

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