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Neuroception – Creating a Client-Centred Environment

Personal Training

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Neuroception: the nervous systems capacity to distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening. 

(Stephen Porges – The Polyvagal Theory)

The decision to begin an independent freelance service through IFT came with a host of challenges. One of the most pertinent being the self-imposed reliance on the ability to obtain, and retain, a client base willing to refer through word of mouth.

It’s this change in circumstance and situation that highlighted the importance of understanding clients idiosyncrasies, the environment created within sessions, and the interactions we have as client and coach.

This change has driven me personally, and IFT as a business model and training approach, greatly towards trying to understand further what it is to create an environment that enables clients to engage within the process of training.

For this, the understanding of neuroception has become a cornerstone.

First and foremost, neuroception is subconscious. Occurring in regions of the brain such as the limbic system, for which we have very little conscious control. It’s the evaluation we have of an environment or a person that establishes whether we’re safe, in danger or in a life threatening situation.

Think of the first time we walk into an interview for a new job. Surrounded by new people and unfamiliar surroundings.

Some of us are adept at seeing these types of environments as non-threatening, we can maintain calm, casual, flowing conversation without skipping a beat. We’re fully engaged and have good control of the imposed stress response.

Others can disengage from the environment, and revert back to primitive, reflexive behaviours. We become anti-social, even aggressive (verbal/physical), when we feel under attack.

Others simply freeze. Mouths dry up and words fail us.

In both of the latter cases, though we know the situation isn’t actually “life threatening”, our perceived response is as such.

In spite of the numerous daily examples of stress that take place within our lives, from family life, a lack of sleep, to the physical stress we impose through training, our bodies display a fairly predictable response.

How does this apply to what we do at IFT?

Our aim is to create an environment that keeps an individual engaged.

We need a level of arousal that means we can perform the workout at hand optimally, but that doesn’t cause us to disengage, become disinterested or fall back on more primitive responses by becoming overly stimulated and over aroused.

Those in the profession will have experienced occasions when clients, or possibly even ourselves as the client, have come in for a session after 3-4 hours sleep, maybe after a row with a spouse, and lacked all motivation at the prospect of any type of physical training, in spite of attempts to the contrary.

The key here is understanding actual vs perceived threat, of both the environment and our interaction as a coach with the client.

In terms of the environment, a lot can depend upon the individuals previous experience of this type of environment, a gym or training facilities. Some will walk in bold as brass without a second thought. Perception and reality are in sync as they display comfort in the non-threatening idea of the environment they’re in.

When perceived and actual threat perception are mismatched, a stress response is likely to follow.

The gym may be loud, intimidating, the workout inappropriate, the client themselves may feel out of place due to their own self-image believing that they “don’t belong in a gym”.

This fundamentally impacts how we work with a client in the early stages and throughout.

A new client needs to stay connected within the session for obvious reasons. A lot of this is completely new in terms of terminology, movement patterns, and client-coach expectations of the session itself.

If they lose focus and become distracted, higher brain centres disengage and we resort back to that primitive limbic system and work on reflex, often through fight or flight responses and patterns of extension. This is no way to move or learn long term.

The key therefore is to create an environment for the client based around consistency and security. Not only of the physical surroundings, but of the interactions between client and coach.

This process starts even before a session begins.

Is the environment client-friendly? Possibly away from larger groups that may distract or cause disengagement??… Is the session pre-planned and ready to go? Has the clients training diary checked? Equipment ready?

This allows the client to enter the session repeatedly knowing that nothing intimidating or unthreatening is about to occur that may cause panic and change the neuroceptive perception of the session before it has even begun.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

In our interaction with clients, we’re also striving for a level of consistency. Some may need repeated praise and reassuring eye contact throughout, others may need to start the session venting about completely irrelevant events, others thrive from constructive criticism and cuing to restore focus and minimise the internal noise that may be preventing engagement.

Yet the key here remains in developing that low-level perceived threat environment.

Furthermore, we must also consider that by bringing our own negative neuroception  into the session itself as a coach, we are setting up the client to also fail. We’ve lost consistency, they no longer have security.

The concept of security builds upon the aforementioned need for a synchronisation between perceived and actual threat. We need a client to feel secure and safe enough in the environment they are in that they are willing to induce a high-level sympathetic response through actual physical exertion, without losing the perspective of actual vs perceived.

One of the most useful tools we find for this is the use of Heart Rate Monitoring. This provides a strong visual through the use of both numerical and colour coding of how a client is physically reacting at a cardiovascular level to the imposed stressor.

It keeps the perceived in balance with the actual.

So if we’re performing a simple bodyweight exercise at a low level of exertion as part of a warm up, yet the clients heart rate is inappropriately high in response, we’ve lost that balance.

Can we regain control through respiration and tap into a more parasympathetic response more appropriate for the situation?

That’s a pretty good place to start.

Clients that maintain balance and have consistency and security, are those that we see the biggest capacity for performance in. They have the capability for self-actualisation.

The deeper we delve into the understanding of how we as human perceive stress, physical, social or emotional and how we can create environments that support the client, the greater I hope the full training experience becomes both for the client, and myself as a coach.

If you’re interested in learning more about the topic of neuroception and the stress response, I couldn’t recommend the following resources more highly…

Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers – Robert Sapolsky

The Polyvagal Theory – Stephen Porges


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