/ Interviews

Harold Gibbons - Steward of Strength

Harold Gibbons believes in you.  HE BELIEVES IN YOU! His purpose as a coach is share opportunities to create the best life possible.  That mindset has led Harold from the physical education classroom to Mark Fisher Fitness, where exercise has been elevated as an empowering tool to enrich the quality of our lives.
Note from Matt This interview was recorded from a phone call and then transcribed by me. Some parts may be edited slightly for an easier read.

Matt: How did you first get involved with fitness? What led to you choosing to pursue a career as a fitness professional?

Harold: I first started exercising as a junior in high school. My Phys Ed class had a fitness version of the class available and it seemed more fun to me than only playing football or volleyball every day. That’s what I first started lifting weights at high school and continued over the next two years to prepare for lacrosse. While I was doing that I was also spending a lot of time in the music practice room to prepare for auditions. Somewhere along the way lifting and practicing music became more fun for me than being on the lacrosse field. So, I ended up going to music school and playing percussion. I wasn’t the best and I wasn’t the most into it compared to other students there. The gym became a solace for me. It was a safe place to get away from the xylophone, the symphony, and the drum set for a few hours each day. I realized that music education wasn’t going to be a true passion for me compared to actually playing the instrument itself. At the same time my Dad’s health went from controlled diabetes to a slow decline. I saw my Dad getting sicker and sicker and wanted to combine my true love of education with fitness. Health and fitness is a nightmare for a lot of people. I wanted to put my energy into working on helping people in that area. So, I ended up going back to school for Health and Phys Ed. It was sort of ironic because my Mom was a Phys Ed teacher. I learned so much from her, but I ended up being less interested in teaching sports compared to thinking about ways how we, as fitness professionals, could help people learn things and be active. I finished my degree in three years because I knew it was the right path for me. Watching my teachers during that time I realized I had a ton of respect for them, but I wanted to be outside of the school system so I could do the same work faster and quicker. I still consider myself an educator and a teacher, but now I get to do it with adults who can learn and implement these things a lot faster. I graduated from Adelphi University in Long Island I started working at a facility called Superior Athletics. Around the same time I started going to Perform Better, which I’m ironically driving to as we speak (laughing). This will be my eighth time there.

Matt: When you were starting your career as a personal trainer and working with clients for the first time what challenges did you have?

Harold: In the beginning I really struggled to find that people weren’t particularly invested in the exercises or programs I was teaching. As a new and young trainer who was really excited to teach everything I’d learned from Mike Boyle, Eric Cressey, and others this was surprising. These kids didn’t care. In hindsight, my struggle was probably communicating the importance of the movements in a way that meant the most to each athlete I was working with. I struggled to get my athletes to care because I naively thought they would see the same importance in the movements as I did.

Matt: What challenges did you have from a business-perspective as a novice personal trainer?

Harold: There’s a lot of uncertainty in the cash-flow for trainers when they get started. When I first got into this career I didn’t have the business experience required to do my job effectively or an understanding of how the business structure of the gyms I was a part of really worked. I spent so much of my time and energy being the person who wanted to know so much about the training side of things. You know, talking about the four muscles in the rotator cuff, but I didn’t understand how cash-flow worked at all (laughing). One of my challenges was that I felt like I had the ability to change anyone’s life, but I didn’t have business acumen to ensure that I felt comfortable. It’s really hard to change someone else’s life if you’re not feeling positive that you are in control of your own. One of the things I learned at Mark Fisher Fitness is how a successful gym is structured. I’ve learned how to take care of my own finances. I’ve learned how to build my own projects within MFF that are good for the business and myself. It’s a little ironic that I’ve learned these skillsets at a facility where we are very well taken care of. I haven’t had the struggle of trying to implement a lot of these things on my own, but when I was starting it was a huge knowledge gap for me. Just like any novice trainer, I struggled with getting clients to show up and respect my time as much as I respected their own.

Matt: So you were a few years into your career and you met this crazy group of people from New York at Perform Better. What was that first like when you met Mark Fisher and the crew? How did you eventually become a part of the Ninja Squad?

Harold: I’m fascinated by the story myself because in hindsight it was like the perfect storm of everything that lead to me working here. Basically I met them at Perform Better. They were the loudest people I had ever seen or heard at the event. Now that I’ve known them for three years it’s the quietest that any of those three guys have been in their lives (laughing). I joke with Brian Patrick Murphy about it all the time. Thomas Plummer would say something and Brian would actually respond out loud like, “HELL YEAH!” In hindsight, Brian was just talking to himself, but it seemed like he was screaming responses which was incredible. I was there with my current boss at the time, Billy Rom, who owned Superior Athletics in Long Island. Billy noticed on Mike Boyle’s StrengthCoach.com that these guys posted a call for trainer applicants. I had seen it because I had been perusing Mark’s personal site. I was really looking at it to see what there technical take on training was. What was their approach to programming was, you know? The tagline they used was Ridiculous Humans, Serious Fitness. When I met them I was mostly interested in the Serious Fitness side of things. Billy called me into his office one day while we were sitting around at Superior Athletics, and he asked me if I had seen the job post. He showed a post by Kyle and it seemed serious enough fitness-wise since it was on StrengthCoach.com. Billy told me that he thought I would be interested in and at first it felt really insulting to me. I initially thought he was saying that Superior Fitness wasn’t a good fit for me. In hindsight, what he was saying was that this place could be a better place for me and might fit better for what I believe. I think some of that was due to the environment at Superior Fitness. We had youth athletes who were trying to become some of the most elite baseball players at every level. They were so excited to excel at this sport and deep down that didn’t really resonate with me. I initially got into fitness because it was enjoyable for me and because I wanted to help people who were having health issues. Going from sick to healthy to empowered has always felt better for me than performing well to performing better. I absolutely love high-performance, but I love when people are healthy and not sick even more. So, I went in for an interview at Mark Fisher Fitness which was one of the hilarious interviews I’d ever been on. It was super casual and they asked more about my training philosophy rather than the nitty gritty of coaching certain exercises. I went out to dinner with a friend in New York and while we were at dinner Mark called to ask if I could come back to sign a contract and get started.

Matt: Where was Mark Fisher Fitness at as a gym back then? Was the team still figuring some things out or had things really started to click at that point?

Harold: I think that MFF goes in waves of figuring out some things on the technical side of fitness and then figuring out things more on the communication, business, or community side. It’s been an absolutely magical journey. When I got to team we had, and still have, some of the most incredibly passionate people in the world, but a lot of them were new to fitness. Kyle and Mark probably had the most fitness education and when I got there I pretty quickly realized I had the most technical background. I was the first to have a degree in exercise science or in fitness. I was the first person to have a CSCS certification. It was a little bit of shock to me that the team cared so little about the certifications because my entire career I thought that was how you got educated and improved as a trainer. But the community we have as a staff and as a team is very much one where we try to share as much as possible with each other. So much of our education is happening in house. Someone may go to a conference and then they will come back and teach the rest of us what they learned. So, I got there and we were sharing book reports, lessons learned from Perform better, or from a RKC workshop. It was an incredibly organic teaching environment where we were all sharing ideas at about the same rate. I really think it is a great culture to have as a gym. I think that a lot of gyms could benefit from doing this rather than having a manager lead meetings about program design or other topics. Since I first started the team has really gelled a lot. Mark hired most of the team in the first two years and since then we’ve only added about 4-5 team members. That slow growth has made it easier for us to share information with each other. When we were growing really really fast most of our conversations were about trying to get everyone on the same page. Now we’re almost on the same page about everything. It’s a lot easier for inter-personal communication on the team and ensuring that give high-quality service to the Ninjas (our gym members). It’s important that when Ninjas work with different coaches we use the same cues for a movement instead of confusing our members with multiple approaches. Probably 50-75% of our team education now is looking at the soft skills of coaching. Are we using verbiage in our conversations that is the most emotionally supportive of our Ninjas? For me this is just as important as having the technical knowledge about fitness to be a good coach. Soft skills will probably be the differentiating factor between what is a good coach and a great coach.

Matt: If someone new was going to come on to the Mark Fisher Fitness team what would be the top 1-2 topics you would teach them to be as effective as possible?

Harold: The gut reaction that I have to that is humility. I think it’s the most important part of being a coach. Not when we’re talking about the technical parts of being a coach. You don’t need humility when we’re talking about shoulder mechanics, for example. That’s mostly factual. But I’ve learned a lot about humility when working with our team and with the Ninjas. There are many times when you have to sit back and say, “Hey I might not know everything and I’m looking to you to share some of your knowledge with me.” I also think it’s incredibly important to have vision as a coach, but also have the ability to rapidly adapt and modify your vision. My biggest struggle when I first got to MFF was that I thought that this was how it “should be”. I was a coaching idealist and if something didn’t align with my vision I really struggled to make changes. Adaptability and humility go hand and hand, right? If you are humble and can work with other coaches it makes it much easier to serve the person in front of you instead of the getting held up by the scenario you envisioned in your head.

Matt: I love that. So how would you describe your current role at Mark Fisher Fitness? What’s the day-to-day like for you?

Harold: In fitness industry technical terms, I’m a coach. I teach semi-private training at Mark Fisher Fitness where I’m working with up to three people during a session as well as teaching classes where we can have anywhere from 8-15 Ninjas in a group exercise setting. I’m also the Manager of our Program Design team which is writing workouts for what I believe is now over 200 people who are doing our semi-private training. Lastly, I’m a part of the Class Designers for the over 650 Ninjas who participate in our group classes. So that’s the technical definition for what I do. My official title at Mark Fisher Fitness is The Steward of Strength. We can’t normally put that on 401k sheets, so I just write down strength coach (laughing). The emotional role that I fill is to make sure that we are creating programs, for the classes and semi-private training, where there is a good balance between making the Ninjas feel like they are having a new/novel experience each time but that is also done in a way that is emotionally supportive for the trainers. We want EVERYONE to have a good experience. I want you to feel good as a coach and I want you, as a client, to feel comfortable in learning something that is a new challenge for you. I also want the Ninjas to feel like we are regularly pushing their knowledge forward and trying to create the best possible experience for them. My day-to-day is that I’ll train someone in-person anywhere between 3 and 6 hours of on the floor hands-on coaching. The remainder of my MFF time for the day will be program design, interpersonal communication with the team, or communicating with the Ninjas about their experiences to see what we can improve upon. As I think about it, very little of that is about technical program design. There are very few times where I think about whether 3 or 4 sets of a certain exercise is better. The majority of the time the guiding factor is whether the Ninja will feel good doing this movement.

Matt: I talked a little about the onboarding flow for Ninjas with Mark in our earlier interview, but can you tell me about the transition between the group classes and the semi-private training at MFF? How do MFF coaches ensure a high-level training service in a semi-private environment?

Harold: It’s really interesting to me how we transition Ninjas between the two training services. It was probably the biggest change for me as a coach when I came here because I went from teaching strictly 1on1 private training and very large strength and conditioning groups of 30-45 people at a time. Mark Fisher Fitness has a great size for the training services we offer. Up to three people at a time with a coach for semi-private and anywhere between 8-15 people for the group classes. Even with 15 people the group is still small enough that you can give each person individualized attention. The group is also large enough where Ninjas have the flexibility to choose classes that match their own schedule. At first I really struggled with teaching classes because of my fear of being able to give super specific feedback to 15 people at time. One thing that really helps MFF coaches maintain a high-level of coaching for both of these training services is that we have very specific terminology we use as a team to communicate with Ninjas. It helps unify our coaching. So, if I teach a class and two days later a Ninja has a class with another coach it’s very important that we use the same words to cue exercises. This allows us to not have to re-explain the movements over and over. The language and the linguistics are similar. In the classroom experience there is a little more of a focus on being able to coach during a set and then, when there is 30-60 second break, a coach has to be able to concisely give instruction that can be put into action during the next set. In the Dragon Lair, for semi-private training, we absolutely have the time to make sure we can focus on the exercises in finer detail, but one of the important things to keep in mind is that might be training three people with completely different programs. One of the Ninjas might be brand new to lifting weights and should be focusing on nailing the basics. In the same small group I might have another Ninja who is a superhuman performer, an amazing dancer, and does eight Broadway shows a week. We will need to provide a challenging enough experience to push each Ninja and keep them interested. Differentiated instruction is probably the technical term for this. The question that our coaches focus on is whether they can provide three unique, adequate, and focused challenges to three different people within a semi-private session. In our group settings we want to create that experience where everyone gets amped up and excited while sneaking in the serious fitness cues that we aspire to teach everyone when they walk in the door.

Matt: One of the things I really appreciate while looking at Mark Fisher Fitness from the outside is how much the team cares about their personal education. Can you tell me a little bit about the motivation behind this learning culture MFF curates and what type of investment everyone puts in?

Harold: Yes. So I’ll go big picture as a company and then break it down for the team and individuals. As a team we probably do a book report every 2-3 months. Those are almost always focused on interpersonal communication or organizational culture. We tend to go back and forth between those two things. For example, the last book that we read as an entire company was a book called “The Speed of Trust.” We talked about the technical side of how to get things done. Can I, as an individual, build a rapport with my colleagues? Can I build confidence in my ability to do my job well? How do these two things go together? That’s useful for everybody, right? Say I’m working with someone on the membership team to figure out a membership option to serve the Ninjas time constraints and fitness goals. Can I have that conversation in a way where that Ninja and membership team member both feel important? As a training team we have about 12 and half people (including the part-time coaches who can’t be here the same amount of time but are still emotionally invested) we’re actually pretty loosey goosey. We all aspire to do one in-person lecture event and one in-person hands-on event throughout the course of the year. For example, this weekend I’m going to Perform Better and I’m counting it as my hands-on event. Sidenote- I highly recommend that everyone goes to Perform Better to experience it. It’s a magical event. Going back to your question, one of the things that we really care about at MFF is whether you are learning things that are meaningful to you and actionable. As an educational leader at MFF I care deeply about each member of the team choosing the events that are useful and meaningful to where they are at on their personal journeys. As an example, Matt Wilson (one of our trainers) recently went to an event at Rutgers University that was an international symposium on play as a scientific study. It doesn’t seem like it’s 100% connected to fitness, but Matt went to it asking what could we learn from play researchers that will better improve the experience of MFF Ninjas. If we could instruct our classes in a way so it seems more like play instead of work to do than it’s a super valuable learning experience. We really run the gamut in terms of our education. Steve “Coach Fury” Holiner is one of our highest level instructors for the RKC and is in Australia teaching at the moment. We have Coach Staci Jackson who is in the middle of a life coaching certification so she can better communicate with Ninjas on their emotional and personal experiences as they go through their fitness journey. So we’ve got everything from the super technical side of fitness to the soft skills of fitness. The best part about this is that everyone comes back and shares what they learned. It’s a melting pot of trainer education. We sometimes sit down and listen to one person or teach other coaches while we are on the floor or it can even be at a weekend picnic. It’s very organic. This has really helped our team become successful together.

Matt: For the gym owners and fitness professionals out there what would you want to pass along about the journey of growing a fitness business?

Harold: I’ll share something about my personal journey and that I think it important to everybody. This is kind of a theme in many conversations I’ve been having lately and the topic is emotional immersion. If you are starting a facility or if you’re joining an absolutely massive team being able to allow yourself to really take emotional ownership over what you’re doing seems to be the most important thing. I know that at my highest points of pride and love for the MFF team is when I’ve really allowed myself to feel that I’m creating and contributing to something bigger than just my own abilities and imagination. The times where I’ve felt less excited about the MFF team is when I’ve allowed myself to feel less emotionally invested. I think that’s a trick for a lot of people because in the fitness industry we become soooo emotionally invested in our work. Sometimes that emotional investment can come with a side order of pride or arrogance that doesn’t best serve our long-term success. When we have that openness to say that this means a lot to us on a personal level and take ownership of that emotional investment it allows us to really contribute individually and as part of a bigger group. That’s been a very fascinating learning experience for us, especially when it comes to watching members of our team work on their own projects. It’s been so illuminating to me because I can see the confidence that it builds. Steph Wilberding, who is one of our trainers, is absolutely brilliant and is working on a coaching program (look for the hashtag #cookwithsteph). She’s really passionate about the emotional and psychological connection we have with food and how it is a great lens to look at our health journey. She’s really excited about getting people into the kitchen and making sure they feel comfortable with the food they are making. So I see her working on #cookwithSteph and I think that the more emotionally invested she becomes into the project the more she will bring that energy back into MFF’s classes and to our team. It’s such an honor to see that ownership. So, my advice for everyone, no matter where you are in the fitness industry or where you are at in your career, is that I think emotional ownership is the most important thing to focus on.

Matt: One of the things I’m really excited about for Mark Fisher Fitness is that it gives a blueprint for more small to medium sized gyms to recruit and educate trainers for long-term career success. There is an insanely high turnover for young trainers in our industry and as more and more SMB gyms take ownership of the onboarding and education for trainers it can drastically change our industry.

Last question for you. What are you excited for with Mark Fisher Fitness and the industry as a whole over the next few years?

Harold: One of the things that I am personally the most passionate about is being able to give anyone I work with the skillset that I have professionally so they can do it on their own. I saw this beautiful quote that someone posted on Facebook the other day. In the Zen tradition the Zen Master doesn’t have any students because he has taught his students to be their own teachers. If you’re a true Zen Master your students are not only teaching themselves, but are also teaching others how to teach themselves as well. That’s my highest aspiration. I want to teach my clients and my co-workers to teach themselves. My personal project in the the MFF world right now is the Motivation and Movement Lab which is our entry into the fitness education space. One of the things that I’m most excited about is bringing the excellent education that our friends are sharing and teaching it in a personal and actionable way. For what’s to come for our MFF team, we are about to open our second facility in Manhattan which is incredible. Now we have five years of experience in boutique fitness we know how to drive that forward. We are learning so much as a team that I feel that we can really move forward as educators and aspire to help as many people as possible. The Motivation and Movement lab allows us to help other coaches help their clients so it contributes to that ultimate goal. We’ve done two events so far and are planning two more. I’m very excited to see how it grows. We’re looking at the soft skills of coaching and the personal interactions between coaches and clients to see how we can deliver the technical knowledge required to create long-term change.

Matt: Big thank you to Harold for sharing his story with us. If you’d like to connect with him check out the links below:

Harold’s Personal Website – LINK
Twitter Handle – @Harold_Gibbons
Mark Fisher Fitness Website – LINK

Matt McGunagle

Matt McGunagle

CEO & Founder of StrengthPortal. Working hard to help you in between deadlifts and jiu-jitsu!

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