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Attribution Theory “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you place the blame”

This article discusses why it is so important for a Personal Trainerto find out what a client believes is the cause of their success or failure. It then shows you how you can use this knowledge to have happier more committed clients.


Attribution theory is a concept involved in sports psychology that investigates what people attribute their successes and failures to. Tiger Woods for example would attribute a tournament win to his ability, determination and mental toughness whereas a new gym member who has lead a very sedentary lifestyle and has very low self confidence might see any success they achieve as being lucky. By understanding how your clients attribute their success or failure, you can influence their thinking and emotions to ensure they continue to strive for their goals. Attribution theory can also help you to understand the consequences of both success and failure for you and your client.





Locus of Control




















Attribution theory looks at two areas: The Locus of Control and the Outcome.

Locus of control is broken in to two components and refers to how much individuals believe their result is due to an internal or external factor. An internal factor is an aspect that is within your control (e.g. Effort), whereas an external factor is an aspect outside of your control (the weather, someone else).

Outcome refers to the final result of the task; success and failure. When a client succeeds they can attribute it to either an internal or external locus of control. What they attribute their success to can alter the emotions that they feel and exhibit. When a client loses 5kg and attributes it to hard work and dedication on their part they will feel proud, have more confidence in their ability to achieve their long term goals and be satisfied with their gym experience. This will lead to increased adherence to their exercise programme and are more likely to renew their gym membership.

If that same client who lost 5kg attributed this result to luck or another external factor such as their personal trainer, they will feel thankful and show gratitude towards their trainer. Unfortunately they will still lack self belief and will still be expecting to fail at some point.

Looking at the other side of the coin, in failure clients follow the same process and attribute it to either an internal factor or an external one. We’ll take the same example of a client wanting to lose 5kg but after 8 weeks they have only achieved a weight loss of 2kg. They blame themselves. They feel guilty, that they’re incompetent and that no matter what they do they won’t achieve their goals. Alternatively if that client attributed their failure to an external force, such as their personal trainer who promised results, they will be surprised that it didn’t happen and could even feel anger that it didn’t occur.


The Fitness Environment

So when applying attribution theory to a fitness environment you can see that a client’s emotions are strongly influenced not only by success or failure, but also by what the client believes was the cause.

Straight away you can see how important it is to ensure your client achieves their goals. While that’s a fairly simple and obvious observation, you only have to look at the emotions that come with failure; guilt, shame, incompetence, and depression to see the damage that can be done.

If a client doesn’t achieve their goals and they decide that an external factor such as their trainer is to blame again you can see the damage that can be done to your reputation and business. So your client’s failure has ramifications for all involved.

If a client succeeds you can see pride, satisfaction, and improvements in confidence that will help drive them to keep exercising. If they attribute it to an external factor such as their trainer they will most likely stick with you and spread the word.

A note of warning here, no matter how good it feels for them to attribute their success to you, if you really want to make a difference to them, you need to make sure they attribute their success to themselves. This is particularly important if they have low self esteem and confidence levels due to years of trying and failing to achieve their goals.


Strategies to implement


So now I know what Attribution theory is how do I use it?

1. Internal Attribution Statements  

Continually motivate and encourage your client using statements that link their training to internal factors and explain why they have achieved. These are statements that tell them they are achieving their goals because they are putting the work in.

 Examples:    You really work hard in our sessions.

                       You are really sticking to the nutritional plan we devised.


2. Give feedback when they do things right

Continue to give feedback when clients are doing well. When instructing exercise many fitness professionals only communicate the negatives (technique correction) and go silent when the client is performing the exercise correctly.

 Example:       Your form looks really good on that exercise.


3. Try to link their efforts with success.

If a client has achieved their goals, emphasise the fact that it was of their own doing even when they believe you had a big hand in it or it was luck.


4. Attribute failure to external causes where necessary.

If a client fails, emphasise the external factors at work.


Work commitments caused the client to miss a few sessions so you need to make sure that the client is aware of this, discuss any planning issues and identify an intervention strategy or back up plan if this occurs again in the future.

This can really only apply to situtations where there really were external factors at play otherwise clients won’t take responsibility for the internal control they have.

If internal factors are the reason for failure, remain positive and implement strategies to overcome these factors.


A lack of effort could be due to being tired from previous sessions therefore the trainer needs to adjust the FITT principles or implement more effective support and monitoring activities to pick up on this problem earlier.


Attribution theory shows us two main things. 1) Making sure our clients are successful is vital. 2) We need to make sure our client takes ownership of their success. While it’s a great boost to the ego if they believe that you played a big role in their success, the true benefits come from making sure that the client attributes their success to themselves.


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