| | A Different Type Of Couples Therapy

Author / John Durrett

7 - 20 minutes read

Years ago, I was at a coaching seminar. The speaker was fielding a Q+A and someone asked who they thought were the hardest clients to coach. The presenter thought for a moment before answering that it would have to be family members. Then, jokingly, he added, “No wait, spouses! That would be the worst!” This was met with general laughter from the group. He continued, “Seriously, does anyone here coach their significant other?” I raised my hand and he pointed at me and said, “What? Really? How do you manage that?” Grinning, I replied: “Very carefully.”

I’ve been coaching my wife since before we were married, but during our dating, it was more of a consulting thing. We met when I was a collegiate strength and conditioning coach, and she was going back to school for an additional degree to begin work as a Physical Therapy Assistant. She worked out regularly, would send me her workouts and ask for some feedback, but I was mostly hands off and let her do her own thing. As a former collegiate rower, she’s always been in shape and spent time doing coaching of her own. Years later when I took a head coaching job at a gym where I’d been training martial arts, she started coming to my classes. Before too long she was doing my workouts as her only form of exercise. That was nearly four years ago, and I have learned a lot over that time, as a coach and as a partner.

It’s Not About You

When coaching athletes, it’s very easy to get mentally lost about who’s in the spotlight. Coaches often find themselves “wanting it more” than their clients do, setting goals for their competitors, giving feedback on what we think is realistic, and pushing our athletes to succeed. This is all well and good in most coach/athlete interactions, but one place it won’t stand is with your significant other. When I coach my wife, I’m careful to let her be the one steering the ship, while I man the oars and watch for rocks. If she’s not feeling motivated to get to the gym, I don’t push her to attend class. Instead I gently encourage her to come to the gym for the early mornings before she goes to work. If she’s in a period where she’s really excited about things, I don’t overly celebrate it. I need her to know that nothing will be lost or gained in our relationship if she decides to hit the brakes. This has helped me immensely in coaching others as well. When I have an athlete who I see has a lot of potential, I don’t pick their road for them. We schedule a time to sit down and go over their goals, what I see as their potential end result, but ultimately it’s up to them to decide if it’s something that they want to push towards. I’ve also brought this outlook to other areas of our relationship, finding that giving my wife full autonomy, combined with relentless support, is often the best path towards both of us being happy and fulfilled. For instance, if she wants to apply for a new job, I stand behind her choices and bring as much support to the table as I can without trying to direct her decisions.

Better Together

When I notice my wife doing a movement wrong, I’ll cue her up just like any other athlete I’m working with. However, when she gets confused, I’ve found that it’s helpful to take a video and involve her in the coaching process. She’s something of a movement specialist herself, and so it is helpful for her to see what I see, and she enjoys learning about what makes the movements better or more effective. She’s very smart and detail-oriented, so these interactions also force me to elevate my coaching. 

This has helped drive home an age-old coaching rule: all your athletes like to be communicated with a little differently.

Before doing this with my wife, I relied on using verbal, visual, or tactile cues with my athletes, but now I find myself engaging some athletes in the actual coaching and corrective process. This leads to more buy-in from them as well as a deeper understanding of the “why” behind what we’re doing. Not every athlete needs this touch, but it’s a great help with the ones who do.

I’ve also enjoyed having my wife in my classes because she’ll notice when my programming is lacking. I’ll get a text or a comment at home that “we haven’t done Russian Twists in a while” or “I miss doing those Active Foot Isometrics”. This feedback helps me do my job better and causes me to rethink my processes. Why haven’t we done Hanging Leg Raises in so long? Is it still a movement I believe in, or have I found a better way? 

I used to keep the programming in my own head exclusively, but rethinking like this allowed me to work in feedback from many of my other athletes as well. I’ll often reach out to people who I know have a high compliance rate with the program and ask how they feel. What kind of lifts do they most enjoy? Are they feeling like they’re missing out on something? This drives additional buy-in with my athletes and helps me know what programming they like. If they like the programming, they’re more likely to do it and execute it better, which increases program compliance and effectiveness of the training.

Incidentally, programming can be the hardest part of all of this. If I program something especially difficult, I even get to hear about it at home! If you want to take the guesswork out of things, or just want to defer the blame from a particularly nasty leg workout, remember that Power Athlete offers a program to fit every athlete and lifestyle.

This is an ad. Please consider our shameless self promotion.

Use Your Inside Voice

One night my wife and I were having a debate. I don’t remember what it was about or even what I said, but I’ll never forget her reaction. She was growing increasingly irate and suddenly said “Stop. You’re using your coaching voice.” She was right, my voice had fallen into a similar cadence that I often reserve for teaching. Embarrassed, I apologized, and made sure to never do it again.

The trickiest part of coaching those who are close to us is that we operate in many different roles with them. My wife is way more than just a client I work with, and it can be very tricky to separate those different parts that I need to play with her. It’s very important for me to remember that context is everything. Telling her to hustle up when she needs to get her equipment away so we can move on to the next part of class is just fine, but I better not be doing anything like that at home. 

Similarly, while we’re equals at home, I must be willing to be completely in charge in the class setting. Most important of all, we both do a really great job of resolving conflict everywhere in our lives together. This helps us ensure that we don’t bring baggage from the gym to our home, or baggage from our home lives into the gym. Like all of my other members, she wants the gym to be a happy place where she can take a break from what’s going on outside.

I’ll Always Love You

Time to get to the mushy stuff. Like anyone, my wife goes through seasons of her life. My own training has changed over the years, and there are blog posts on here that detail some of that. My wife won’t always want to be hard charging in the gym. 

Right now, she comes to class 2 or 3 days a week, sometimes more. She’s been really into swimming, so she adds that in once or twice a week, and occasionally supplements with some rowing workouts at home.

Before it was swimming, it was yoga, or rock climbing, or running. As I said earlier, I don’t direct her, I encourage her to choose healthy habits and to make movement a core part of her life. We go on long walks or hikes often, supplementing our time in the gym and enjoying the outdoors.

No matter what she decides to do, I’ll always love her. I’ll support any direction she decides to take, as long as she’s being healthy, because I won’t willingly let anyone sabotage the health of the person who is most important to me. 

Every interaction we have, whether as coach and client or husband and wife, is always layered on a base of unconditional love. That’s been working for us for nearly a decade, and she’s not complaining about the free meal prep service she gets by living with me, either!

Podcast: PA Radio Episode 308: Conscious Coaching with Brett Bartholomew
Blog: Your Cert Didn’t Prepare You For Real Life Coaching by Cheyne Zeller
Podcast: PA Radio Episode 369: The Language of Coaching with Nick Winkelman
Blog: Coaching Knows No Bounds by Andy Holmes
Podcast: PA Radio Episode 580:When Good Athletes Meet Good Coaching with Jim Davis

Share this article



John Durrett

John is a Coach at Underdog Mixed Martial Arts in West Hartford, CT, where he teaches both martial arts and strength & conditioning. For over a decade, Underdog has built several professional fighters, even sending some to the UFC and Bellator. John began training martial arts at a traditional Karate dojo at the age of 6 years old. This was the start of a lifelong journey which has seen him log countless hours in a myriad of styles, including Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, Kali, Eskrima, and Jeet Kune Do. In addition, John has spent over a decade working as a professional strength and conditioning coach, coaching at the High School and D-III Collegiate Level. Along with over a dozen other certifications, he holds the distinction of being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA and is honored to be counted as a Power Athlete Block One Coach. He is intensely passionate about empowering athletes to find their max potential and explore their body’s unique capacity for the martial arts.

Leave a Comment


Never miss out on an epic blog post or podcast, drop your email below and we’ll stay in-touch.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.