Seth Munsey - The Client Centered Coach

Seth owns and coaches out of Iron Republic in Monterey California. His main focus as a coach is to guide clients to better results through the power of empathy and positive behavior change. He is also the proud father of two amazing young girls.

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 – Seth, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to spend time with you at two, out of three, of the Motivate Summits put on by Habitry so far and have learned a ton while listening to your experiences. For the fitness professionals out there who haven’t come across your work yet can you give us a bit of a background on how you got into the fitness space?

Seth – Sure. I’ve always been in the profession of helping others. When I graduated high school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I decided to join the military. In the Coast Guard I did search and rescue so this all was very much focused on helping others. After I got out I worked in ambulances for six years which was yet another profession focused on helping people in need. While working on the ambulance I started to gain a lot of weight. The hours were crazy and I eventually weighed over 200 pounds after starting the job around 165. This weight gain was not even close to being all muscle. I decided that I needed to lose weight so I could try to get hired as a firefighter. So, I ended up working hard and lost a bunch of weight. In the process of doing so a friend that worked at a 24 Hour Fitness recommended that I fill out an application to become a personal trainer. I looked at it and realized that training was a helping profession just like the jobs I’d had before. I would get to work closely with people and help them reach their goals. It was right down my alley. I did that and never expected it to become a thing. Once I did it I fell in love with it and never looked back. I ended up going to college to get my BS in Kinesiology and just worked my way up from there to opening my own place, Iron Republic in Monterey, two years ago. Before opening my own place I did an internship for a sports team and got exposed to working with athletes. I really liked it, but ultimately I decided that I wanted to work with the general public instead. The individuals who are trying to become the best version of themselves.

Matt – Your personal blog, which represents your take on coaching, is titled The Client-Centered Coach (link at the bottom). Can you talk about the motivation behind creating this particular brand in the fitness industry?

Seth – Definitely. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who is very focused on the client experience. Two weeks after my 18th birthday I joined the military and was stationed in San Francisco. Two days after I moved there I pulled my first bridge jumper out of the water. So, from a very young age I was faced with situations where I had to remove myself from what was happening on the other side and just worry about the job I had to do. Every time we had to go out to a new situation or if I had to pull another person out of the water, for example, I always had a blank face. We didn’t think about the experience of the people we were focused on. We just thought about our job. I took this same approach to when I moved on to working in an ambulance in Laguna Beach. I spent a few years in the back of the ambulance picking people up and thinking about things like when I would be getting off or if I had any hot food back at the station. That’s just what happens. You never take the time to think about what the people you’re helping are going through. Well, one day I got a call that we needed to take someone from the hospital in Laguna Beach back to her house. I was in the back of the ambulance for that call. The nurse introduced me to the lady who’s name was Kathy. The nurse said that Kathy was 51 and that she had stage 4 bone cancer all throughout her body. I said ok and asked what the address was. To follow up on that I asked how much longer she had. The nurse told me that Kathy had less than a day and that she knew this. So, I met Kathy. She was very alert and talkative, but she couldn’t stand up. Her bones were riddled with cancer so we had to have her on a gurney the entire time. On the way to her house I’m trying to get all the paperwork done before the end of the call and check all the necessary boxes. I’m saying, “Hi Kathy. We’re taking you home. What’s your date of birth? What’s your medical history?” and medical questions like that. We pull up to her house and she looked at me and said, “Seth, I know this is the last time that I’m going to be able to see this view. Could we pause here for a second?” All of a sudden it was just like wow. I looked out at this view she was looking at and you could see the water with kids playing on the beach. The sound of the seagulls which was normally annoying was all of a sudden a beautiful sound to us. It just really hit me. This was it for her and I’ve been treating this whole interaction and experience like it was just a job. So, we take here into the house and Kathy says, “Seth, I know this is the last time that I’m going to be able to see my house. Before you put me in bed can you push me around the house?” I said absolutely. We pushed her into the living room and she looked at the pictures of her kids and family. We took her into the kitchen and she told us about making meals for her kids there and about experiencing the Laguna fires. It was just a very real experience for me. I was just hit with wave after wave of emotion. I was working really hard to hold it back. So, we took her to her room, put her into the bed, said goodbye, and she passed away later that day. I could never looked at my job the same way ever again after that. When we were taking her home I was asking her for her date of birth the day she was going to die. How petty is that? I’m sitting here asking Kathy for her medical history and she’s thinking about how this is her last day on Earth. That’s the conversation she’s having inside. This situation was very common for us at work. When we picked someone up in the ambulance to take them to the hospital our job was to follow certain protocols to ensure safety, but in our head we are thinking about getting off soon. In their mind they are thinking about if they are going to be ok or not. “Am I going to die? Am I going to be able to see my kids again?” It’s a very scary experience for them. So, from Kathy on I put my clipboard down, because I could do it all later, and focused on talking with the patients we would encounter. Pre-Kathy and post-Kathy I got the same job done. The patient would still get to the hospital and all the paperwork would be done, but post-Kathy my mind was always focused on the experience they were having. So, know with owning a gym and coaching clients I think a lot about the experience they are having. For example, when someone is clicking on my website they may be thinking they are looking for fat loss or for a gym in Monterey. Most likely they are looking to see if there’s people at Iron Republic that look like them. They’re concerned if this is something they can actually do. When they drive to our gym for the first time they aren’t thinking about how many calories they are going to lose that night. They are thinking about whether it will be painful for several days after, whether they will look like a fool, or if they will be able to do the movements I guide them through. The more we can get into our clients heads and be aware of what they are thinking about the more we can work towards giving them the experience they are looking for. If we, as coaches, can do this then it’s going to increase the odds that our clients will continue working with us for the long-term.

Matt – You touched on this a little bit, but for a lot of people going to a gym is a very scary experience and extremely overwhelming. Can you break this down further and talk about what it’s like for a client to come to Iron Republic for the first time. The main focus for every gym owner and coach out there when first meeting a client is to get a second session, but it’s much easier said than done. How does your team work on accomplishing this?

Seth – You’re right. It’s very scary for new clients. I tend to financial analogies when discussing this because the topic of finance is also scary for a lot of people. Me and you, we go to the gym and we know what to expect. It’s not scary for us. If you asked a group of people if they thought that financial planning was a good thing they would all say yes. They would probably say the same about exercising regularly. If you asked the group that if they were to go to a financial planner 3x a week for a year if they believed that they would be in a much better position one year from now they would also say yes. Do you want better finances? Yes, absolutely. We all do. Well, most of us don’t have financial planners because they are going to make us do things we don’t feel comfortable doing or that we aren’t mentally prepared to do.

What we do at Iron Republic is try to make the environment very autonomous. We work on the soft skills of communication and reading body language. Most trainers can coach someone through a pushup, but that’s not why people will stay or leave. Your communication, your active listening, your body language – these are the things that a client wants when they walk through our door. They are thinking about how they are greeted and welcomed into the new space. They are paying attention to our smile and how we turn our body towards them. That’s how someone knows they are in comfortable place. A place they want to spend more time in.

Matt – Two weeks ago I watched you give an amazing presentation at Motivate Oakland on the topic of promoting client autonomy in your gym. Why is this something that gym owners, training managers, and personal trainers should be thinking about involving in their coaching practices and services?

Seth – Autonomy is the feeling of being self-directed. My choices are my choices and no one elses. Our clients often live in a very controlling environment and it takes a toll on them. There’s two guys named Ed Deci and Richard Ryan who created something called the self-determination theory. The theory says that the three things that people need to feel self-motivated is autonomy, relatedness, and competence. So, to touch on it again, autonomy is the feeling of being self-directed. Our clients feel controlled. They can feel this way because of finances, work, bosses, family pressures, what were supposed to do in life, relationships, etc. Everything kind of weighs down on us during the day, but the feeling of autonomy is a very good feeling. Someone might feel controlled all day at work, but now they come into the gym and have an autonomous environment waiting for them. The gym might be one of the only places they have for this. So, how we create that ideal experience is by giving our clients choice. I feel that giving people choice really makes a big difference in their enjoyment, their wanting to stay consistent, in their results, and more. We provide them choice in their workout sessions, for example. Most of the workouts at Iron Republic are done in a group focused on strength training. We won’t provide them the power to choose the exercises they do, but we will give them the power to choose how they are doing them. Say we have squats on the board they can grab a kettlebell, a sandbag, whatever they prefer. Autonomy is not letting people do whatever they want. It’s giving them some guidance and limits, but giving clients choice inside within those limits. My clients aren’t coming to the gym because they are looking for something performance-based. There’s no one there who’s looking to compete at a very high level of something exercise related. They are looking to come to my gym to have fun, move better, and have a supportive community. Providing them autonomy makes a big difference. So, the Iron Republic community has the power to choose their tools. Is there a ton of science that says whether a sandbag or a kettlebell makes a difference in the results? I really don’t think that the exercise science discussion on this topic is important. It’s much more important to me to have my clients listen to their internal feelings about whether they like using sandbags over kettlebells or vise versa. They have ownership of that. We also give our clients autonomy by giving them rep ranges. I’ll tell them to shoot for something between 8-12 reps. This is important because if I told a client to do 12 reps and they got hurt on the 12th rep they are going to blame it on me for making them do 12. The client now has the flexibility to choose the rep number that matches with how they are feeling for that day. As a coach it doesn’t make that much of difference for me whether they do 8 or 12 reps. It’s interesting that even with this choice most of our clients will all complete 12 reps when we give them this rep range. The coaches our Iron Republic even go as far to give the clients autonomy with the weight they will do a movement with. I’ll say, “Pick a kettlebell that you can do 10 times and do 8” or “that you can do 12 times and do 10.” Sometimes there will be days where people pick up lighter weight than they can actually do, but there could be so many other things going on in their life that I don’t know about. Issues/challenges in work, relationships, low sleep, etc. The important thing is that they are there. That’s all that matters to me. Them wanting to come to a place that’s comfortable and wanting to be consistent is much more important to long-term results than them using a 24 kg kettlebell to swing vs a 20 kg bell.

Matt – Ed Deci and Richard Ryan talked about in their self-determination theory about creating an environment where people will feel comfortable enough to motivate themselves. Autonomy is clearly one of the most important parts of that. What else do you focus on with your coaches to create that safe space that clients want to keep coming back to so they can make progress with their goals?

Seth – We are constantly trying to improve the community because another part of the self-determination theory is relatedness. Great things happen when you’re surrounded by a supportive community. One of the things we say is that people that come to Iron Republic want to move better, feel better, and reach their goals safely while surrounded by friends. When you are surrounded by a bunch of people that you know and like being around you’re going to want to be around them more often. If that location where you are able to be around these friends the most often is Iron Republic than that’s a great thing. That’s going to keep our clients consistent. A lot of people will quit when trying a new gym because there’s no relatedness. I always say that if you decided one day that you were going to learn how to kick a soccer ball and went to a field to do so that’s your choice. You’re being autonomous. If you start kicking it around and getting really good at soccer you’ll feel good. However, if you’re the only one ever out there and no one comes to join you you’re going to eventually quit. It would suck after a while to kick a ball by yourself. We all want to be a part of something.

We, the coaches at Iron Republic, have to set up the environment so that our clients get to know each other and that allows them to talk. I have everyone foam roll for the first five minutes of our sessions. I know that coaches have various opinions on whether foam rolling is worth it or not, but it’s absolutely worth it for us. I realized by looking at Crossfit that the one thing they do well is the community aspect. Why is that? Well one small part of it is that when people do a Crossfit class the entire group is on the ground mobilizing. That gives them time to talk and get to know each other. Then they do the workout and after they spend the time on the ground stretching or mobilising once again. It’s another great opportunity to talk and learn from each person there. So, once we added this at Iron Republic we immediately say that it was huge for the community. People started to get to know each other and the coaches would direct the conversation to help this happen even more. If one of my coaches is talking to someone and they hear something about a movie that they know another person in the class say recently they will bring that up. That’s an opening for the coach to connect two people further. “Oh, you saw that movie? Didn’t you see that movie?” and they will look at the other person. We try to guide those conversations along to get people talking. Relatedness is huge. Back in the day I really was in the mindset that people came to the gym to workout. People come to the gym to chat. Chatting keeps them there longer.

Matt – Let’s switch over to the challenges that you had when first becoming a fitness professional. You’ve done a lot of personal research beyond exercise science that have lead to your own unique value proposition within the fitness space. What were your weak points in the beginning and what did you do to fix them?

Seth – After Kathy I continued to think about the client experience and made sure to bring it into my approach as a trainer and coach. I realized that there was more to than the pushups or the squats. Obviously the exercise science has a very important role, but it’s not as important when you don’t consider yourself to be in the fitness industry. I consider myself to be in the customer service industry. The service just happens to take place in a gym. So, I started studying psychology, business, communities and more. I just read read as many books as possible and listened to whatever I could about achieving success. “The Compound Effect” by Darren Hardy left a big impression on me. I figured early on that I could know everything there is to know about fitness, but if I couldn’t get anyone to show up or to enjoy themselves than none of it mattered. I really took to heart the desire, and importance,  of learning about the customer, customer services, and soft skills. I think the stat thrown around is that the average trainer quits after 18 months. That’s not because they can’t teach someone to do a pushup. It’s usually because they lack the understanding it takes to keep a client around for more than a few sessions. Yes, as a coach part of what I do is to teach people how to do squats and pushups, but there’s a whole other realm to coaching. I could go to a financial planner and he might be the best financial planner in the world. If he’s pressuring me, getting on my case, not letting me be autonomous at all I’m not going to go. We all remember the people that gave us great customer service. That’s what I try to put into everything we do at Iron Republic.

Matt – If you could go back in time to when you just started as a fitness professional what business-related advice would you give yourself to avoid becoming a “starving artist”?

Seth – I was listening to a podcast that had Alwyn Cosgrove on it back when I was studying Kinesiology at Cal State Fullerton. He said that he realized that he could read another fitness book this month but how much of a better trainer would it make him? Maybe 5% or less than that. With that knowledge, how many more clients could he serve? Not very many. If I read a business book how much better of a business person would that make me? How many more clients could I help and work with as a result of that? Probably a lot more. The E-Myth was another huge book for me and I would recommend it to any coach that’s getting into the industry. For other coaches out there, I would advise them to think about the experience of your clients instead of just focusing on being a savvy business person. Just knowing how businesses work doesn’t help. If you put the person first, and handle the business stuff as it comes up, then you’re going to be much more successful. Make decisions because you’re a human and you’re working with other humans. You need to treat and work with them they way that you would want to be treated or worked with. There’s so much more to being a gym owner than just being able to teach someone how to deadlift and squat. No one comes to Iron Republic for that. Our motto is Live Life Strong and the motto is located underneath Iron Republic in the logo. If it was the reverse our clients wouldn’t get the message I want to send. The logo says Iron Republic is here to help you live lift strong. You do what you need to do in here to do what you want to do outside the gym. So, think about the customer experience and build a business around that instead of the other way around.

Matt – So you’ve worked at big box gyms before you opened the Iron Republic where you offer group and semi-private training. Over the past few years it’s become clear that this is one of the most scaleable models in the fitness industry. In this industry there’s also a tremendous amount of opportunity for growth on the professional side. Can you talk about where you see this client-focused business model going over the next few years?

Seth – I think it’s going to have a huge impact on the industry. We just started calling ourselves a physical culture studio. We’re still Iron Republic, but instead of calling ourselves a gym we know use the term physical culture studio. I saw this at a gym I was teaching a course at in San Francisco and was just blown away. It gets people asking more questions. When you remember that the general population doesn’t like going to gyms it makes sense to reposition yourself. People that come to Iron Republic will are searching for a community with an intimate setting. We provide that. They want to feel like they are doing the right things with good technique. We have great coaching that helps them feel this sense of competence and accomplishment. So, being able to offer this client-focused model has a huge potential for growth because the general population has already shown that it will not go to a gym. It’s just going to explode.

One thing I really think hard about is that my clients aren’t going to want to do the same five exercises over and over for the rest of their life. When I switched from private to a group coaching I realized this. Part of the experience is not doing the same thing over and over again. Dan John always says “make it the same but different.”  A very important part of being a coach is realizing that the experience I create for my clients can’t be what I want it to be. It has to be what the clients want. When I first opened I considered Iron Republic to be a gym based around kettlebells. It was what I wanted and not what my customers wanted. The faster I realized that the faster my business grew because I was open to making the adjustment. It wasn’t about me. I mentioned this at the Motivate Summit. I thought about how a lot of people don’t like going to gyms, but we sell it as doctors office for physical therapy. Once again, to me we are in the customer service industry, not the fitness industry. We sell ourselves, as coaches, as prescriptions. You’re going to come to my gym and follow what I say. Well people don’t like going to doctors or getting physical therapy. It’s very controlling and they don’t want to do the work. We sell fitness businesses the same way and it’s crazy. You’re going to come here and I’m the expert and you have no say. To go back to financial planners, people who see one get great results but I still don’t go to one myself. I’m not ready for that. I don’t like the thought of buying coffee and having a financial planner voice in my head asking if that’s something I really need. At Iron Republic clients can choose which sessions they come into, but I don’t want them coming more than three times a week. I want it to be a part of my clients life, but not their life. I want them to be able to enjoy themselves and get outside to explore the beautiful Monterey Bay on weekends. Go hiking. Go to the beach. Go somewhere with your kids. I try my best to promote this to our clients as well.

Matt – Last question for you. What are you working to improve for yourself and as a gym owner?

Seth – To improve myself I just read a book this weekend that blew me away called “The One Thing” by Gary Keller. I think it’s an important book for gym owners especially because many of us aren’t at the point to hire a ton of staff members which leads to a lot of multitasking. There are going to be a lot of should-do’s and could-do’s on our list when really there’s usually one thing that if we did it would make everything else easier or irrelevant. So, following the practices in the book I’m walking up and working on figuring out exactly what that is so I can accomplish it. I’m looking to get away from multi-tasking and utilize others so I can focus on what I need to. That’s going to allow me to focus more on the client experience and doing other projects I’d like to start working on. So, I highly recommend that book. I’m also doing something new on Instagram called the #15secFitTip. I feel that a lot of people in the general public want to improve and all it would usually take is small little things for them to find some improvement. They don’t need a ten minute video on squats that has ten different things for you to work on. So, I started this #15secFitTip and am going to put out a video every week. It’s going to be 1-2 cues on something and touch on nutrition and mindset as well. I’m just going to put it out there and tell people they don’t have to get overwhelmed with everything. Just work on this one thing over the next few days instead of trying to learn 30 things at once. Coaches want to tell people how much they know about fitness when usually clients need only 1-2 things to work on right now.

We’re working on some cool things at the Iron Republic to focus on consistency with our clients. I want to acknowledge people for being consistent and continually coming to the gym. One of these tests that I’m doing is using a baseball pitch count clicker with clients to keep them consistent and show results. It’s an acknowledgement system, not a reward system, based on them doing a click for each time they come in. If they can see that over the last year they’ve come in 150 times than that’s 150 workouts. That’s really cool. Consistency is more important to us than anything else.

Matt – Thanks so much for sharing your time and story with us Seth. We might have to do this again soon.

If you’re interested in getting connected with Seth and learning more from him check out the links below:

Seth’s personal website – The Client Centered Coach
Disc Golf Strong
Seth’s FB Page