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Is Jillian Michaels Really A Life Coach?

Exercise regimeThere has been a very interesting conversation this last week on my Facebook page, one that provoked very strong opinions both in agreement with what I said, and against it.

Today I wanted to expand that debate for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I want to clarify and share my thoughts in one place rather than fractured across numerous conversations on two separate Facebook pages.

Secondly, I’d like your take.

As I said, some people thought I was out of line to ‘attack’ a public figure and that I should have made my point without naming names.

I’ll explain why I think that would have been an ineffective approach, even if it would have been taking the higher moral ground and as one person noted, acting in a more enlightened manner.

And thirdly, I badly want to get the message out there of what Life Coaching really is and what Life Coaches do, because there are more misunderstandings amongst the general public than if a blind guy was trying to explain to a deaf one the way out of the maze.

The Biggest Loser

I’m not a fan of the Biggest Loser, even the title, clever though it is, turns me off. I’ve seen maybe 4 or 5 episodes and couldn’t stomach the way the contestants were humiliated and belittled for TV ratings so I haven’t watched it in some while.

One of the people on The Biggest Loser who most irritated me was Jillian Michaels. If you don’t know who she is and would like to you can check out the video at the bottom.

It seemed to me her only tactic was to bully, cajole and harass the contestants in her team to lose weight and didn’t give a damn about any psychological impact the ritual humiliation she was dishing out on national TV may incur.

Now let me make one thing abundantly clear, I could be wrong. It may all be for show and that once the cameras stop rolling she turns into a empathetic sweetie pie who lovingly guides her team toward their goals.

I doubt it, but stranger things have been true I guess.

I’m sure the approach she takes may succeed with certain types of people when working on physical fitness, after all it appears to be successful for the Army.

Any job like the armed forces or endurance sports requires people to push, push and then push some more if they are to succeed.

It wouldn’t really work to tell a new recruit to go and have a lie down if he gets tired or an athlete to take the week off and pig out on burgers because discipline is needed and that is what Jillian Michaels delivers.

So maybe this approach is akin to creating a mini Stockholm Syndrome response in which people become so beaten down, humiliated and exhausted they eventually take a subservient role and start to form a strong bond with the person who is ‘in charge’ of them.

At this point you maybe wondering why I’m whining if I accept that this kind of approach can work with some people?

Surely if the contestants have signed all the disclaimers and are up for the treatment, then it should be down to them whether they want to be treated in such a manner, right?

Absolutely it should. I have no issue with that whatsoever, even if it’s not an approach I care for.

When Is A Life Coach Not A Life Coach?

My concern is that Michaels claims on her website to be a Life Coach.

She has perfect right to do so because as an unregulated industry literally any person drawing breath can claim to be a Life Coach.

However, professional Life Coaches don’t act like Michaels does on The Biggest Loser.

During the discussion on Facebook somebody said that they thought it was just about different styles of coaching, but it’s not even that.

There is no model of Life Coaching that calls for humiliation, verbal abuse and/or a lot of shouting. And do you know why that’s the case?

Because it rarely works in establishing long-term and positive behavioral changes.

There has been enough research done in the last ten years for us to understand without any doubt that the brain learns the quickest when it makes it’s own mistakes and also its own discoveries.

It’s obvious when you think about it. If that weren’t the case each generation would get progressively smarter and make fewer mistakes. All we’d have to do to better ourselves would be to ask for advice or read a few books.

Yet I have had several clients who have read more self development books than I have (and that’s a lot by the way), but haven’t quite been able to implement that information.

That’s where a good coach can be indispensable.

Don’t Hire A Life Coach To Provide You With Information

You shouldn’t hire a Life Coach just to fill knowledge gaps, you can buy a book or search the Internet for that.

You should hire one to help you sweep away all the mental clutter (in all its many guises) that can hold you back from fulfilling your potential.

Yet a knowledge gap can be exactly why somebody may hire a fitness coach. They may want specific personal advice on nutrition, or the best way to work out to see the desired results for their body type.

And of course they may simply want the ass kicking accountability a one-to-one fitness coach can offer.

Again I have no issue with that and I have worked with numerous fitness coaches.

The best by some margin though were two guys who never ever raised their voice, but exuded a quiet confidence.

They got my buy-in by explaining the benefits of what they were showing me and encouraging me rather than telling me to just do it. Pete Swaile and Ron Betta take a bow.

Every now and then I’ll meet somebody who on hearing I’m a Life Coach will respond with something along the lines of:

“I’d never pay somebody to tell me what to do with my life”

I always reply in the same manner. “Neither would I, so it’s fortunate that’s not what Life Coaches do then, eh?”

I have no right to tell my clients what to do, that’s a huge misconception. It’s my job to ask the right questions that will help a client shift their thinking so that they can find the answers inside of themselves.

In other words, coaching is about creating clarity.

Of course that doesn’t mean if a client wants to know more about a certain topic I won’t suggest a book I may have read, but I wouldn’t say, “You must read this book, you should start your own business, or even you need to start standing up for yourself more”

The client needs to come to their own realizations because that is when lasting change is going to be made.

I have seen plenty of websites with the owner claiming to be a Life Coach when they obviously have no clue as to what coaching is. In such cases I may shake my head or roll my eyes, but I’ll move on knowing in all likelihood they won’t be around for long.

Jillian Michaels however, has 1.4 million followers on Facebook and almost a million more on Twitter.

We Are Sending Mixed Messages About Life Coaching

She has massive reach all the way across the country. Each person who follows her and reads her website will be told she’s a Life Coach.

They will then think (presuming they don’t know any differently) that Life Coaches operate like she does, or at least her persona on TV.

Maybe she is a certified Life Coach. Maybe she has gone through training and worked with hundreds of clients over several year well out of the public eye, but I seriously doubt it.

And supposing that is the case, doesn’t she have a duty of care to her profession to stress the differences and not let people jump to inaccurate conclusions, even if that’s not intentional?

There has been a massive explosion of new Life Coaches launching businesses over the last couple of years and if the e-mail requests for help I get every week are anything to go by, that’s speeding up.

No doubt a small percentage that don’t get training will think the JM approach is ok because hey, look how successful she is, so it must work and they if they can just copy the in-your-face approach they too will be TV stars.

What About Adopting The Medical Approach of ‘First Do no Harm’?

However, they will not just crash and burn if they try and coach like that, but they have the potential to do harm to their clients.

I’ll give you a very stark and disturbing example of that.

One time I was working with a client who had been raped many years prior. I’m grateful I got the chance to work with her because her previous ‘Coach’ had told her to pull herself together and get over it.

And I say I was grateful because few people would have ever hired a coach again based on that experience. They’d think coaching sucks and who would blame them? So I had an opportunity  to show her a different side to coaching.

My issue isn’t with Jillian Michaels as a person or as a fitness trainer. She’s incredibly successful and I’m sure that isn’t just down to blind luck.

My issue is, she is at best confusing people about the role of a Life Coach and at worst turning them off from ever hiring a coach.

I suppose there is also a third option and that is people who follow her then hire a Life Coach expecting to be shouted at and humiliated and are accordingly disappointed.

As I said at the beginning I’d like your take. A few people disagreed with me on Facebook and I have no issue with that, I just wanted to explain in more detail why if I hadn’t used such a high profile example the whole point would have been massively diluted.

By the way if you’d like to know more about Life Coaching can you can download my free ebook on this page.

17 comments to Is Jillian Michaels Really A Life Coach?

  • Hi Tim,

    Greta article! This one caught my attention so I had to comment.

    I understand what you’re saying but I also disagree with you.

    I feel as though today the term ‘Life Coaching’ is so broad that you can not put it into ‘one practice’ or process. Life coaching can be about many things… it’s up to the client to decide what they want to get out of it.

    Ultimately, life coaching is about getting results. Everyone has different styles and preferences to deal with different people. Jillian gets results. There is no doubt about that. In fact, she is so effective at getting results that people will pay huge money to get ‘life coaching’ from her.

    I feel there is traditional life coaching which is where you have you standard courses and educational system for becoming a life coach. And then you have ‘real-life’ life coaching, from people who have ‘been there and done that’. These individuals all have powerful and unique styles and is why they have been successful and why people want to learn from them.

    I’m all for the ‘real-life’ life coaches. However, I don’t really call them ‘life coaches’ as to your point, I think it confuses the industry. I call them performance or results coaches.



    • I’m curious to know Brendan how you know she gets better results more than any other coach. It’s almost impossible to know that unless you canvas her clients

      As for people paying huge sums and getting results that will in large part be BECAUSE they paid huge sums. If you pay $50k to somebody your belief system is already through the roof and you will treat them like God.

      Richard Bandler used this approach and admitted that the client had done the work before they actually came to see him by agreeing to pay so much. They believed he could perform miracles and therefore he did.

      And you’re right, Life Coaching is about getting results and we also know beyond any doubt that you get better results adopting a co-active approach than a ‘tell’ approach. There’s no doubt about that, scientifically speaking anyway.

  • Unfortunately there is no official definition of Life Coach and Life Coaching, therefore this lady (whom I have never watched) may call herself whatever she likes. It is important to educate the public to the different ‘schools’ of coaching and let them choose the approach that suits them: some will like being bullied, possibly, others will expect a NLP coach to ‘fix’ them, others will want a co-active coaching relationhip where they are in control.

    • Some may indeed want to be bullied OG, but I’d suggest they need a therapist and not a coach.

      And I’m only partly joking.

      Add that to the fact that bullying gains short-term results but rarely results in long-term behavioral change and I doubt people would opt for that approach, unless they didn’t realize there were others.

      BTW, no ethical NLP Practitioner would fail to point out to a prospective client if asked to fix them, that we don’t do that. One of NLP’s presuppositions is “nobody is broken’

  • Line

    Actually, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there is an official definition (although it sucks!). I agree with you Tim. It takes away from those of us that have spent PLENTY of time and money on good coach training as well as constantly furthering our education. Yes, there are those that I know that call themselves a life coach without the formal training who do kick ass when it comes to helping people but those are few and far between. Since it is unregulated, what can we do except speak out like you did! Bravo!

  • Rob

    Reasonably intelligent people already realise that different coaches have different coaching styles (and differing levels of effectiveness).

    No-one looks at Gordon Ramsey and thinks he’s representative of chefs in general. I doubt very much that anyone would look at Jillian and think she is representative of most life coaches.

    I can see why you’re concerned. But, being devil’s advocate, her aggressive style does make amusing TV! “You’re not getting off here UNLESS YOU DIE!” – PMSL!!!

    • Not in my experience they don’t mate. A good proportion of the people who come to me aren’t even sure know what I do and part of the consult is explaining what Life Coaching is.

      The Ramsey analogy is a bit misleading. The fact is, Ramsey is a brilliant chef and has Michelin stars to prove it.

      Not only that but he’s not that untypical. I know a number of chefs and also worked as one myself way back when. I also worked in my sisters restaurant for many years and let me tell you they are a breed part!

      The really good ones are often eccentric and abusive to their staff.

      Anyway, he’s a great chef and she may be a great personal trainer, but she aint a great Life Coach.

      I’m pretty easy to make laugh, but I do struggle when it’s laughing at somebody because of their short-comings. I have too many myself to take that approach ;-)

      • Rob

        Like you, I don’t find public humiliation particularly funny (though the contestants knew what they were signing up for).

        What I do find funny is ridiculously over-the-top rants like the one I quoted above. Jillian is a caricature of a trainer, created for TV entertainment purposes. And that’s why she can’t (and shouldn’t) be taken seriously.

        Have you ever compared the US and UK versions of “Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares”? The US versions are ridiculously over-the-top by comparison. The bad language and aggression are clearly ramped up to silly levels, all in the name of entertainment.

        You raised concerns about psychological damage done by Jillian. Yet you don’t hold the same concerns for Ramsey’s victims – why?

        You might not like Jillian’s methods, but at least she (appears) to get the job done.

        Perhaps Jillian’s goal is NOT to create long-lasting change for the contestants, but simply to get them to lose as much weight as possible within the time constraints of the show. It would be reasonable to argue that she’s extremely effective in that case.

        I take your point that lots of people don’t really know what a life coach does, but my point still stands that there will always be a huge variety in coaching styles, in the same way as Nigella Lawson’s TV style is a million miles away from Gordon Ramsey’s.

        To sum up: horses for courses.

        • Have you ever noticed Ramsey ends up all pallsy and hugging his ‘victims’?

          Never seen that from Michaels, she genuinely appears to gain enjoyment from the humiliation she’s dishing out

          And I’m really not sure why we’re comparing cooking with coaching!

  • Rob

    Here’s my own rough definition of life coach:
    Someone who helps their clients to determine and then achieve their goals (broadly defined).

    By that definition, Jillian can call herself a coach if she likes, although she clearly specialises in extreme fitness/diet coaching (as opposed to any kind of subtle psychology, NLP etc).

    You say that there is no model of life coaching that includes humiliation and shouting. There is also no model of cookery that includes using bizarre chemicals to create amazing Frankenstein foods – yet that’s exactly what Heston Blumenthal does.

    I suppose there is a danger that if Jillian was the ONLY life coach that a member of the public had any experience of, then a very off-kilter stereotype may be formed. But it only takes a tiny bit of Googling to realise Jillian’s not representative of all coaches.

    Every field will have its “out-there” TV personalities, wackos and charlatans… just look at TV doctors, radio presenters, probably even laywers.

    I doubt very much that the respectable members of those professions lose too much sleep over the antics of the more extreme members of their group.

    OK, I’m gonna shut up now :)

  • I doubt they do either because they are established professions, Life Coaching isn’t established at all and there’s big difference. People are wary of coaching mate, and see it as flat out weird so people like JM don’t help that.

    And you may want to check out molecular gastronomy mate. There have been people pissing about with chemicals in cooking for ages, some chefs even specialize in it.

    Go and take a look at some of the stuff Ferran Adrià was creating at El Bulli.

    Now stop with the cooking metaphors and analogies.

  • I love your blog and I love the Biggest Loser.

    I would suggest you watch a full season of the biggest loser. She is tough, but she is usually really good about getting to know her team and finding out whats really holding them back….Plus she relates to them…she used to be overweight growing up.

    Why not use “Army” tactics? The men do it all the time and get results from it. Why not Julian?

  • Freddy

    Hi Tim,

    I agree with your point, such an approach is likely to turn people away from life coaching.
    I think it’s a pitty because it’s powerful and much more likely to bring up a genuine and long lasting revelation to take a gentle “Be kind to yourself” approach to help people realize that many of their problems are caused by their mental clutter, that they already have everything they need within themselves to live fully and that deep down they are and always have been a wonderful person. They don’t really need to be pushed, but rather kindly guided.

  • I have seen Jillian in action and she is not a life coach, she is a personal trainer. As a certified Life Coach, I agree that the term is very broad, but the principles of life coaching should be about positive motivation, guidance and the promotion of self-discovery. You can put the word coach behind anything, (fitness coach, culinary coach, etc) but it doesn’t mean that the person has completed overall “life coach” training. I think it’s the word coach that creates confusion. It will really be up to the individual seeking a coach to check on training and credentials.

  • I am a personal and business life coach, based in North London. I have been coaching individual and executive clients for about ten years. In addition to working one-on-one with clients, I hold introductory training workshops , give presentations and provide expert input to PR firms on client campaigns on a variety of coaching related topics and write and contribute to features in numerous newspapers and magazines . I have also appeared on a number or TV programmes and been interviewed on countless radio stations. In addition to running my own private and corporate coaching practice, I am also the former UK and European Faculty Head of the Behavioral Coaching Institute. I have a doctorate in psychology and over two decades of experience in individual and organisational change and development. My training and background in this field have led me to believe that effective coaching needs to take into account the whole person and their life in context, not just focus on isolated behaviours. The way I see it, successful coaching means helping people to understand themselves better, to sort out what’s worrying them or holding them back, to identify ways forward with clarity and confidence and to remove real (or perceived) barriers to progress. The rest of the website explains a lot more about me and my approach to life coaching as well as gives more details about the various strands to my work. If you would like to discuss working together, I very much look forward to hearing from you .