Health coaching doesn’t work. Or does it? (Part III of III)

by | Jun 25, 2018

In Part I, we learned how traditional health coaching isn’t really helping many members get healthier. In Part II, we shared our recommendations for what to improve so coaching can finally achieve that important objective. Now, this third and final post introduces you to Katy O’Farrell, our Health Coach Manager – sharing her perspective on what makes our approach to coaching effectively different.

As a company, one of our greatest differentiators is delivering a personal touch – making the wellness program relevant and interesting for members of all shapes, sizes, ages, and job titles. We apply that same philosophy to our coaching program – striving for each conversation between coach and member to be empowering, inspiring, and productive. To achieve that, we prioritize the member’s personal goals (whether that’s losing weight, getting better sleep, or another admirable objective) over the wants of the company (ROI or health-care reductions, usually). And that’s what sets our coaching style apart from the rest.

To give you a little more insight into who’s responsible for delivering that unique, personal touch, we sat down with our Health Coach Manager, Katy O’Farrell, to see how she keeps things relevant and personal for all members, to hear about her proudest (and most-difficult) coaching moments, and to learn how health coaching is actually a lot like training dolphins…

Katy’s Career in Coaching

“Here at Sonic Boom, I’m getting back to my coaching roots.”

How long have you been in the health-coaching industry? What kinds of roles have you had?

I’ve been working within the wellness coaching industry for exactly ten years! My educational background is in psychology (specifically behavior modification), and becoming a coach was a nice transition playing to my strengths and expertise. I started off as a health coach, moved to one of the top coaches in the company, then to a supervisor role, and finally a managerial/director role. Throughout my different roles, coaching has remained – first it was coaching members, and then coaching coaches, and then coaching leaders. Here at Sonic Boom, I came to bring coaching in-house for the very first time! I am not just in charge of the program as a whole – I’m getting back to my coaching roots and coaching individual members. I wear all the hats while leading the coaching department!

So, what drew you to start fresh at Sonic Boom? What do you see about the program that will help you personally improve how coaching is done?

What drew me to Sonic Boom was Danna’s and Bryan’s vision of making corporate wellness fun and engaging, and their understanding that each individual’s journey is very different. Unfortunately, I’ve had years of firsthand experience with ineffective coaching. And let me make this clear, it wasn’t the coach that was ineffective – it was the constraints and demands of putting a very subjective art into a very objective, one-size-fits-all box. To think that you could change someone’s life-long bad habits in an eight-minutes-or-less phone call (and within four sessions) – that’s crazy! You’d be a billionaire if you could do that. And not to mention they required us to ask all of these questions to satisfy their investors, even though the questions pertained nothing to the member’s specific journey. I was sick of it, and sick to my stomach that coaches had all the tools but not the freedom to use them. It’s like a golfer, you have a bag of clubs, but sorry, you can only use the driver for all of your shots. Putting with a driver? No way! Why should coaching be that way?!

“To think that you could change someone’s life-long bad habits in an eight-minutes-or-less phone call – that’s crazy!”

At Sonic Boom, I saw a fresh start – removing those frustrations of satisfying your investors more than your members, and removing the constraints of a one-size-fits-all program. I’ve always believed in coaching and the power it has to help individuals change their lives by providing an open, one-on-one, non-judgmental space that’s totally focused on the individual member. It’s meeting them where they are in their journey, understanding their environment, supporting them to get them where they want to be, and helping to provide an open dialogue to explore their successes, motivations, fears, barriers, and unexpected happenings in life! The goal was to truly make an engaging and habit-forming coaching program – so of course I was in!

Sonic Boom has allowed a truly unique coaching program experience by giving time back to the member and leaving the coach to do their thing! Our initial sessions are 40 minutes long, which allow us to really dive deep into the member’s health goals and motivations, with follow up sessions that last as long as 20 minutes to really discover their plan to be successful. We have excellent in-between support – from goal-tracking to messaging your coach at any time, to awarding points to a member for a successful week – at Sonic Boom, your coach is always watching!

Here, I love the idea that, “Wow, I get to start coaching from scratch,” and I’m using all the failures and successes from my 10 years of experience to make a new great program. We don’t have to go through all those errors and growing pains. Instead, we can focus on leading and growing a team to be successful right away!

You’ve got 10 years of coaching under your belt. In what ways have you seen health coaching stray from its original intent of helping members, employers, and coaches achieve their goals?

Coaching, from my experience, was initially much more like what we’re doing now. But because employers started seeking out ROI – for instance, a guarantee that their members would lose 10% of their weight, or they get half their coaching money back – it became more and more restrictive. But that doesn’t work because you cannot simply change people – they have to want to change themselves!

A good coach first goes in wanting to help people and support them to be successful. But when a computer can ask those kinds of “check-the-box” questions, it takes away the value of a coach. The coach doesn’t feel like they’re helping because they want to explore all these opportunities, but they can’t! And the member sees it as being asked the same questions over and over again. It’s a bad member experience, and it’s a bad coaching experience. And that leads to burnout on both sides because you don’t have the freedom to organically see where the conversation goes.

Personal Triumphs and Challenges

Speaking of, burnout is common in the health-coaching space … how have you avoided it over the years?

It’s definitely a top priority! I’ve learned it’s important to keep a balance so it’s not all work. Taking five minutes, doing deep breathing, listening to music – it’s about making sure that they’re things you like to do. And that you actually do those things by putting them in your calendar or setting reminders on your phone.

For me personally, when I get in every morning, I’ve been doing a stretching routine to work off the drive to work. Then I do little stretches here and there, and go on little mini-walks between calls, even if it’s like a quick loop. Or I just get up and get water, or say “hi” to people!

It’s about asking, “Is this going to make my day better? Are these two minutes, even though I have things to do, going to be helpful in the long run?”

Also, I do my best to leave work at work – I have a “work hard, play hard” mentality. When I get home, that time is for me and all the wonderful things life has to offer. You can usually catch me spending time with my family, friends, and puppies, or out on some new adventure or project!

As a manager, how do you prevent members of your team from burnout?

A coach’s calendar is basically back-to-back-to-back calls – you maybe only have time for a three-minute break between calls instead of a twenty-minute one! So as a manager, it’s almost like giving permission to a coach or employee by saying, “Yes, please go take your break!” even if it’s just standing up or stretching.

If one of my coaches has a really stressful call (and hopefully those don’t happen too often), it can be a lot of stress to take on. My job then becomes about making sure their energy is renewed by rescheduling or even cancelling their next call. Because members are very much energy-takers, and when you’re a coach, you’re not talking about yourself, so your energy isn’t being replenished.

“Here, I’m not just a coach – I’m leading the charge in training and leading other coaches to be successful.”

What do you like most about the managerial side of coaching?

There’s more of an opportunity to be a leader, and not “just” a coach! At Sonic Boom, I’m not just a coach – I’m leading the charge in training and leading other coaches to be successful.

And the most fun part is that as a coaching manager, I’m coaching them! But it’s different than when I’m coaching members; it’s more “business coaching.” I use a lot of the same techniques that our other managers use, like open-ended questions – “What are your goals here? What do you want to accomplish? What does your career path look like?”

I’m not necessarily concerned with nutrition or exercise with my coaches. It’s more around growth – “How do you want to be a better coach? What are your barriers? What do you feel you’re doing well? When are you most uncomfortable with a member over the phone?” It’s about being a manager and sitting down and having those conversations with my associates. That’s what I bring here!

I always like to say – “A great coach can coach on anything.” I’m coaching my coaches to be even better coaches! I’m making sure they’re happy and achieving that balance of wellbeing and work, because wellbeing isn’t just nutrition, exercise, et cetera. You have to be happy at work. If you’re not happy at work, the other things aren’t necessarily going to fall in line.

“Those conversations where a member doesn’t give up on themselves – I think those are the best moments as a coach.”

What have been some of your proudest moments as a coach? Do any stand out above the rest?

It’s so tough to pinpoint just one! But I guess it’d be when a member is empowered and they realize – and own – their journey. Their mind-shift changes. A lot of what we talk about in coaching is physical, like “I drink my water, I exercise, I quit smoking” – but that’s just half of changing a lifestyle. You have to change it physically, and you have to change it mentally. That mental shift will allow what we call “transformative change,” which shows they’ve truly changed their lifestyle, not just for these months that they’re working with me. I know that in one year or five years, they’re still going to be sticking with their habits.

Those conversations where a member is no longer adopting an all-or-nothing way of thinking, and they see they’re going to have success and failures, and don’t give up on themselves – I think those are the best moments as a coach. I see their mental-shift to an “I can do this” attitude, and I realize they’re going to be okay.

Those moments are sprinkled throughout my ten-year career – which is nice! I’m kind of reminded that, “Okay, this is why I do this.” I’ve had many – it lets me know I’m doing a good job even amid those tougher calls.

Closing Thoughts

“Never, never, never give up!”

Do you have any advice for your current members who may be on their own healthy journeys? Or those struggling to get a handle on their health?

Three pieces of advice…

  1. Start your journey now!!! Even if it’s a small step, even if it seems ridiculous, like you’re going to walk for only five minutes a week – it’s a step; it’s a start. No matter how big or small, you can allow momentum to take over. Your “start” doesn’t even have to be an action, it could be you signing up for coaching – that’s a great first step! A year from now you will thank yourself!
  2. Believe in yourself! Buy your own personal stock! Sometimes the hardest battle is the mental one – all the self-doubt that builds up and tells you “you can’t.” Tell yourself you can! Every day! Take steps to prove yourself wrong, celebrate your small wins, and envision the steps to be your healthy best by building that self-efficacy! You MUST believe in yourself!
  3. Lastly, Winston Churchill said it best: “Never, never, never give up.” Good health isn’t just one day or one year – it’s a lifelong journey that you must keep as your top priority. We are human, we make mistakes, we fail, we really mess up – but the most important thing is that you don’t give up! There is not a finish line to health – you must keep going, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and do your thing!

Any convincing words for the skeptics?

Give it a try!! I mean, really give it a try! Let yourself be open to change. Even if you are perfect (good luck with that!) maybe there is one small thing you feel like you could do a little better– and a coach can help! Even coaches have coaches! People who are skeptical of coaching often ask, “What can you do for me?” And to them I say, “Well, what can I do for YOU?”

With that said, I think it’s okay to say that coaching isn’t for everybody. It takes a certain kind of person to be vulnerable to a complete stranger – not to mention through a company-sponsored program – and get into the nitty-gritty of what it’ll take to achieve success. Not everyone is open to digging and getting real with themselves. It can be very hard to look in the mirror, look at an unflattering picture, review your lab results, step on the scale … and a coach can be like that by bringing all those things you’ve been ignoring to light. A coach is a mirror, and some people are not ready to look at themselves yet.

As coaches, we DO attempt to empathize and engage with each member, and if they’re still reluctant, that’s okay! They may have other means of support, or can keep themselves accountable, and that’s great – they don’t need a coach because they can coach themselves. But for people who can’t – for those who do need some help – that’s where we come in.

It’s like you said, they have to want to change.

Yeah. And then they feel validated after that conversation. They feel good that they don’t need a coach. The idea is still to make them feel empowered. We’re not trying to put anyone down because they don’t need us. They can say, “I’ve got this!” And to that we say, “We believe in you, and we’ll be here if you change your mind!”

This last one was more to satisfy my own curiosity … your “Meet Our Crew” bio page says you used to train dolphins and sea lions. How did that gig come about?

As a kid, when they ask you what you want to be when you grow up, my answer was always a dolphin trainer (and sometimes a professional soccer player)! I was lucky enough to fulfill my childhood dream and complete a four-month internship after graduating college. It was a pretty cool gig – I spent forty hours a week hanging out with dolphins and sea lions in Point Loma, California! My psychology degree fed right into my dolphin-training career – it was all about behavior change, stimulus response, and Pavlovian principles. Oh, and while I didn’t get to play in the World Cup, I still do play a mean game of indoor and outdoor soccer twice a week, and have seen the Women’s USA team play several times.

So how did those dolphin-training lessons translate into what you do now?

Let’s just say dolphins are MUCH easier to train than adults! A dolphin will do anything for fish! Dolphins can’t go through the drive-thru and buy their own food!

Fantastic, Katy. Thanks for taking the time to share your expert insight and fascinating career history!

If you want additional details about how we do coaching differently, you can reach out to us via email or call us at 1-877-766-4208.

Eric Seal

Flippant Writer Extraordinaire

Questions/comments (or want to learn more)?