Creating Meaningful Behavioral Change through Relationships

My friend Mark Fisher is the founder of Mark Fisher Fitness in NYC. The MFF Clubhouse (don’t call it a gym!) is a hotbed of evidence based training combined with the theatrics of a Broadway play. MFF’s tagline is “Ridiculous Humans, Serious Fitness.” Over the past few years, Mark has created a culture where clients feel comfortable being themselves while working toward their own personal health goals. When I visited MFF (as I waded through the glitter and unicorn props) I was awed by the way Mark has created a supportive, nurturing environment where the combination of top notch trainers and the quality of human connections allows their popular “Snatched in Six Weeks” programs to sell out in just minutes every year.

As Mark says, “My philosophy of training and nutrition is based on the Albert Einstein dictum, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not any simpler." I also believe business is about making the world a better place, and I'm as passionate about healthy business culture as I am about fitness.”

For this week’s Tuesday Tip, Mark has graciously allowed us to print excerpts from his recent talk at the SUNY Cortland Strength and Conditioning Symposium, where he spoke about giving people meaningful choice in their behaviors while making the process enjoyable, and curating opportunities to experience progress in the context of a supportive community. As we focus on building relationships with patients (people) this month, we thought you would like to hear from a master experience creator!

Here are Mark’s words:

DISCLAIMER: Everything useful I know is from the MFF team. The Grand Unicorn Experiment is the gift that keeps on giving. So if you think anything in here is super profound it's because of the blood, sweat, and tears (literally) they put into MFF every day. Anything that you think is off-mark can be attributed to me personally.

Many people know my entrance into fitness was fraught with awkwardness. The gym was ground zero for my preteen and teenage anxiety about being super thin and my shame about being so small. Over time, I fell in love with the gym, and it became the one steady thing in my life. I brought my weirdness to my serious fitness studies, and voila, Mark Fisher Fitness was born!

What not everyone knows is I actually think I sucked for a long time.

Don't get me wrong, I had great results when people did what I told them. And I totally knew my stuff. But if you're a trainer for a hot second, you realize pretty quickly the reason people struggle to succeed isn't because they lack mastery of carb cycling or IF. It's not because you didn't periodize their program appropriately, or you didn't take their HRV score. It's because it's hard to actually adopt new behaviors.

This is particularly true when it seems the entire world around you is conspiring to get you to eat more and work more. And particularly when there's messy feelings around your body and food and your athleticism (or lack thereof). And particularly when you've trained yourself that putting the needs of others before your own is a way of life (and it allows you to not dig into the aforementioned "messy feelings.")

So what the heck do we do?

Choice, Fun, and Community

I am not an expert in self-determination theory. But what I know of it makes a huge amount of sense to me intuitively and more importantly in how I've seen it work with actual human beings.

I am convinced that the key here is giving people meaningful choice in their behaviors. To make the process enjoyable and curate opportunities to experience progress. And to do so in the context of a community.


People don't like being told what to do. And it's not all that hard to let them make their own decisions. But it does require the coach drops being "an expert" and begin the relationship by genuinely listening. From there we can offer options. And clients can be genuinely free to decide what path to take.

The best I have EVER heard this is from Steven Michael Ledbetter: "Everything here is optional" AND "This is the way we do things around here." It's very hard to truly own the first part if you think your preferred strategy is "right." If you're trying to help your clients fix something that's broken.But if you can ruthlessly see them as perfect as they are, it gives them space to make a decision of their own accord.

"Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see..."

2) FUN!

Fun also matters. People don't like doing stuff that's not fun. You can be serious about the work, but also have fun.

Here's what I think is sometimes missed here: "getting 1% better" is fun. People don't like stuff they suck at. And they also don't like stuff that's too easy and boring. The job of a coach is to give clients the right level of challenge: at the edge of ability, but in the realm of possibility.

So yes, fun can be using comedy or silly costumes. But "engagement"/ "flow states" is a kind of fun. MFF wouldn't be what it is if we just ran around like naked weirdos. Our coaches are well trained, highly educated, and driven to be best in class. You've got to be, or I don't think training is as fun over the long haul. (NOTE: MFF has a ton of introverts that just baaarely tolerate the weirdness because they know they're getting a sophisticated training experience.)

Seeing progress over time, getting stronger, noticing you feel more stable and have more mobility, etc. And gamifying is fun too, just be sure to emphasize process over the outcomes of the body. You can control the inputs, but bodies are complex, so outcomes are not 100% predictable. Attendance and actually showing up (behaviors!) are in our locus of control.

3) None of us get by alone in this world. Community and social support is the secret sauce.

And how do you build community?

Well, I'm not sure you can actually directly build community any more than you can directly grow a garden. But similarly, you can make a space for it and water it and tend it.

Like growing a garden, community takes time. But ultimately real community is built by talking about shit that matters to people who care. You're looking to create a space where that type of "real talk" behavior is modeled and celebrated. You can't force people into that kind of interaction. And it's appropriate and generally necessary to allow for "ice breaking" time. But eventually you can create a space in person and/ or online where people are encouraged to bring their full, real self to the conversation. And you can embrace and support them for doing so. And over time, the "first movers" give others permission. And the more vulnerability and safety you allow for, the more real people get.

It's ok to say "I don't know." It's ok to say "I'm scared." It's ok to say "I'm sad." It's ok to say "I'm happy and grateful and hopeful." It's truly genuinely actually ok to be wherever the heck you are.

(NOTE: I think this was why MFF's Motivation and Movement Lab was such a success. Because people talked to each other about stuff that mattered to other people who cared. And because criss-crossing, meaningful dyads were made across the attendees, it became a true community in two days. It also seemed to be a particularly open-hearted crew of peeps; part of a garden is always the seeds, and different seeds will thrive in different garden conditions.)

My final thought:

4) Unconditional Positive Regard is the closest thing to magic I have ever seen in my life.

My favorite definition of mastery is "being with things as they are and as they aren't." UPR is a mindset that is comfortable giving people their autonomy and lets the coach truly be on the client's agenda. UPR is a powerful mindset for a coach to assist a client in "getting better" because there's no value judgement on where they are at in their progress (VERY important because your clients will struggle to not beat themselves up and will trend towards negativity bias while striving for mastery). And UPR is the ultimate safe space that allows people to be totally accepted and validated as a member of the community. They can be free to disclose and be vulnerable, because they know they're being held in UPR.

NOTE: I do not always master unconditional positive regard. I get my feelings hurt sometimes. I get impatient with stories I make up about other people. I am woefully imperfect. But I do know where my bullseye is: UPR. I take responsibility for my perspective and feelings. And I trust my team and friends to see the best in me, and give me a hand to pull me up to my highest aspirations for myself. But to be clear, I am painfully aware my shit smells. Like shit, not roses.

As a fit pro, it can be easy to fall into the trap of "fixing" a "broken" world. In my heart I don't think we need to "fix" anything. I think the world is just fine and beautiful and crazy and magical as it is. I think humans are AMAZING. For me, I just want to share my gifts as fully as I can to serve humanity and then die empty. Like going to bed after a long and satisfying day's work...

"You may saaay I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one! Come to 411 w. 39th St and meet my tribe we'll give you a group hug and yell BUHLEE like a bunch of idiots."

Thanks, Mark, for reminding us that patients are people, and that all people desire connection and a sense of belonging as they work to improve their health.

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Ann Wendel

Physical Therapist, Writer, Speaker, Consultant, Kettlebell Lover. Director of Brand Marketing for @strive_labs and @APTAtweets Media Spokesperson.