Motivating Clients for Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists

You will never get people to reach their potential until they are motivated to do so. Everyone knows that motivation has peaks and valleys. However, it is your responsibility to stimulate motivation in patients/clients, so they can reach their desired goal.

The main way to do this is to ASK each patient/client what goal he (or she) has in mind. Then explain exactly how that goal can be reached.

Patients/clients who have suffered a life changing injury, may have to go through the stages of grief before accepting a hard fact…such as they will never walk again. If the goal is totally unreasonable, tactfully direct the person to a realistic goal. For example: if a person with a severed spinal cord says, “My goal is to walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding next month.” I suggest you tactfully tell him that it is not a realistic goal. But offer an option that IS doable. Something like, “Let’s concentrate on building up your strength so you will be able to attend the wedding and the reception.”

Remember what the patient/client wants and make sure goals meet the SMART criteria. A SMART goal is:

  • Specific
  • Measurable (you will be able to walk X number of feet)
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timed (by July you will be…)


Written goals are more concrete; they motivate people. The person can see exactly where he (or she) is going. I’ve had success motivating people by telling stories or showing them pictures of other s who have overcome the same obstacles…or worse. It is hard for a person to wallow in self- pity because of an arm injury after hearing about a soldier who lost both of his arms in an active combat scenario. And when they learn that the ex-soldier now shovels the snow off his walk…it blows away excuses for NOT doing more. A person can hardly feel sorry for himself after hearing something like that. The person learns that no one is hopeless.


One patient became despondent after his leg was mangled. He wasn’t even trying to improve. I brought in a journal article that included a before and after picture of someone who had an even worse injury. He said, “You mean my leg can actually look almost normal and move again?” Whenever a person learns that something is possible, he (or she) is more likely to work towards a goal that seemed impossible before.

When I worked in one Rehabilitation Hospital, most of my patients were quadriplegics, paraplegics, and hemiplegics. The doctors and therapists asked our “old” patients to come back to talk to the newly traumatized ones. It gave encouragement to the newly injured. The newbies asked the “old pros” things they would never ask a professional. Issues like: catheters, bowel function, and sex were discussed candidly. Seeing people who were working, going to college, dating, and raising families while in a wheelchair, inspired them. It motivated them to do more than they had been doing. It gave them new hope. Even if life would never be “normal” again…they understood that life was still worth living. Eventually, they developed a new normal.

That’s where you come in. Show the patients/ clients what their new normal will look like. Then show them how to achieve it. Motivate people by showing them what they will get from all their hard work. Nothing is more frustrating than failing at something when you are trying your best. Yet that is exactly what happens when someone is recovering. So encourage people to keep trying. Be sure to break the goals down into manageable tasks and praise all efforts. It will be your job to routinely review the goals and the progress. Remind people they can reach their goals IF they continue to work at it. Then do your best to keep your patient/client moving forward.