The Art and Science of Coaching High Performers

Logan Gelbrich tells us what it’s like transitioning from a San Diego Padres Professional Baseball Player to using his experience to create an eclectic gym focused on creating value for customers.

What’s it like coaching people who are already really high performers, and as opposed to ‘newbies?’ How does the mindset change between the two types, and what’s your philosophy in approaching them?

Given my background, I have the benefit of looking at coaching in the context of fitness, along with what I’d consider at least a balcony view overlooking other arenas. I may be generalizing, but I think a lot of people in my industry fail to make that leap. That’s a common mistake in many organizations as well as varying industries and businesses across the board. What we do know is that we need to put more emphasis on adaptation.

We don’t just “meet people where they are” because it’s a fitness catchphrase, we meet people where they are because that’s where they see the most effective (not to mention safest) experience of development. This is a beautiful framework because it’s universally relative. It’s 100% inclusive and it provides insight into not just physical performance, but also how you develop people, teams and organizations. A lot of this is understood in theory, and then gets muddied the moment you realize you’re dealing with emotional beings. Culturally or organizationally, we need to create some context for the hard work. Doing hard training in a gym, for example, is in context—it makes sense.

Once you set a context like that in a group of any kind—be it fitness, finance, or a municipal business—then we can get down to the development or growth (otherwise known as coaching) of people where they’re at. Until then, we’re just giving out blanket prescriptions to people on a larger scale, leaving some people over-matched and others not challenged enough—and that just doesn’t work.

We don’t just “meet people where they are” because it’s a fitness catchphrase, we meet people where they are because that’s where they see the most effective (not to mention safest) experience of development.

There is actually a philosophy behind that which basically requires a willingness to fail in front of people and to send out a flawed product, with the caveat that you take the feedback you receive and put it towards making new, better iterations. Unfortunately, what happens is a lot of ego comes into play. The “failed” product is shipped, but rather than take in the feedback, it’s excused or justified: “No, no, the customer is not thinking about it the right way;” “Oh, no, that’s not really what’s happening;” or, “Well, we were going to change that anyways.” It really requires a dialogue with your failure, or with admitting to that failure with your customers—otherwise the whole process breaks down.

It would be such a secret weapon for us all to see a failure, and then immediately point our fingers towards ourselves and take ownership in what part of that story is our responsibility. If we had a team of people dedicated to just doing that, then we could reframe failure almost like good news in some morbid way. At that point, we’re dealing with the potential of rich, helpful data. But, the moment you have a culture that impedes on that process—where feedback comes in, but rather than take ownership and responsibility, there comes up this need to explain how others might be wrong—then there’s a diffusion of responsibility, and that feedback loop is no longer useful. Its detrimental—to morale, and not only.

I think when we look at just the basic machinery of that, it becomes really obvious how important the willingness and almost the attraction is to negative feedback. If you have a positive relationship with what might feel like dissatisfaction between the reality of what you shipped and what you chose to design and what was on the whiteboard, you can use that dissatisfaction to drive the next effort—the next iteration of the product or service. Then, you’re on your way to a self-sustainabthe core perpetual improvement machine. That is where the most remarkable people, teams, organizations live, and that’s my almost sole interest at this point.

How did you get to that point? Given your baseball background—going through a top college program and then playing in the minors—what drove you and kept you there? I find one of the biggest problems facing excellent athletes is the feedback loop—at some point, they stop iterating or taking in negative feedback because they have such confidence they’ll always be the best no matter what. How did you make yourself a learner as you were coming up? Or did you?

Baseball is an insanely beautiful teacher of the things that we’ve been talking about. All high-performance sport comes down to what you do about the things that are inside of your control, and relinquishing the things that are outside of your control. However, the failure factor in baseball is so high, and we’ve heard this over and over again—a hall of fame effort looks like 70% failure, that kind of thing.

Now, the higher you go up in anything—whether it’s in sports or any context—the consequences get greater, the attention to detail goes up, and the margin for acceptable error goes down. It was really this cool educational arc for me to learn about this process in such a ruthless environment. To be frank, it’s easy to talk about baseball as the lesson and the failure.

It’s easy to say in an article or in an interview that if you fail 70% of the time, you’re doing great. But in professional baseball, you don’t realize you’re in an environment where any day in the locker room could be your last. Especially during spring training, you’re just in a bloodbath that is dictating your future. You have to swallow the fact that when you walk back to the dugout after popping out or striking out that it’s “cute” to fail 70% of the time. That’s the part we call having skin in the game. It’s the living inside of the consequences of sport, or business, or any other context that bring weightiness to the ideas that we’re talking about here.

If you have a positive relationship with what might feel like dissatisfaction between the reality of what you shipped and what you chose to design and what was on the whiteboard, you can use that dissatisfaction to drive the next effort—the next iteration of the product or service.

When did you realize there was an end? How did you deal with the ambiguity of the end and with resetting for a new dream? Many people get lost in that “reset” for a long time; sometimes even forever, especially in the case of a childhood dream. What made you come out on the other side with a new dream?

Often times, especially in sport, it’s at the end of the road and people can’t shake that transition. In my case, there were a couple things. I was fortunate enough to have played with my awareness turned on. I say this often, and it’s different from having a plan B. When you’re going to try to do something remarkable, it really doesn’t pay to spend a lot of time working on backup plans. You’re competing against people who are completely willing to devote 100% of their attention and effort to one specific thing. Once you start hedging that, then you’re not really playing the game anymore.

To answer your question, when I was released from the San Diego Padres, I could have signed another minor league contract with a couple of other teams. The decision I made not to re-sign was based on whether or not that signing of the contract would lead to a future catching job as a major league player. I determined that—based on the team and who I was at that point—it wouldn’t; it was to be a role player and serve as a small asset in the minor leagues. That wasn’t my goal, and realizing that made my decision easy.

For some players, the philosophy of “play until they rip the uniform off your back” is a good strategy to have, and it might be the best bet they have. But, I really felt prepared to apply what I’d learned in the sport of baseball to anything after baseball. And I was really at peace with the fact that I’d given everything I could have, so there was no regret in that way. For me, it wasn’t about telling people I played professional baseball or trotting out there at 7:05 PM for another game just because it was to play major league baseball. And if that didn’t feel like it was there for me, then it was an easy decision.

How did you reset after that? Even with sports as a background, what drove you to make the leap into a new discipline?

It was an interesting time, one I cherish as much as any in my life. Looking from a distance, you would think that I should have been very scared, and the uncertainty in my life had never been higher mathematically. I really went inwards; I learned a lot about myself. When you go down the athletic path, you have to play by a lot of other people’s rules and you have to be a chameleon in many aspects of the lifestyle. When that was all gone, I could go inwards. I spent a lot of time reading, writing, painting, and I was not worried at all.

I made a conscious decision to be an entrepreneur because that was where I could express and explore, and be in a feedback loop that would demand my best effort. I was sitting at home doing this internal process with a list of hypothetical businesses in my head. An idea that was at the top of my list for a long time was a fire protection company. It was completely arbitrary, but I thought we could bring value not only in residential but in commercial by selling more complete fire protection services. At the time, there was a really big brush fire down in San Diego and my buddy and former teammate, Nick McCoy, decided to give the idea a shot.

A bunch of ideas were floating around. It almost didn’t matter what I would go into because I really felt that being out in the “real world,” everything was easier than what I had just tried to do. I just felt very prepared. I felt uniquely prepared to go into any pursuit and have success because it was a hell of a lot easier than trying to hit 91 MPH sliders.

 This wasn’t a passion project because I was a diehard muscle and fitness magazine subscriber. My thought was just that I was going to just do this “value creation thing” better than anyone else.

You basically created a proof of concept that became what we call a minimally viable product. Can you take us through that journey—from building a gym when you didn’t have one, and experimenting with how to turn that into something that could make for a viable, thriving business?

I ended up building this fitness school where a large spectrum of people would go to a place and be coached at a high level to move and train like an athlete. I find in that industry, almost no one goes into it with a business mind first or a system view first. That’s how I went into it, and how I think in general. Luckily, I could achieve a certain level of mastery in coaching and understanding to where I wasn’t a poser but I wasn’t a meathead. That was a point of differentiation. This wasn’t a passion project because I was a diehard muscle and fitness magazine subscriber. My thought was just that I was going to just do this “value creation thing” better than anyone else.

That’s a great connection to draw to product development. Basically, we started in the park—and it was like the Beatles getting those early reps, playing night after night in the same venue. Sure, you could take out a loan or raise a bunch of money and open a state-of-the-art facility; then on day one hope the neighborhood shows up, and then hope you can bring value to match the facility that you just built. But, we were extremely passionate and extremely clear on our vision, and it just seemed way more appropriate to start with what we had, where we could, immediately. We wanted to show that we can bring value by telling the story that the training experience is valuable because of what you, the mover, do.

There are millions of people on a reoccurring swipe of the credit card paying some sort of fitness institution to literally do nothing. They are of the mindset that it is a valuable membership because of some kind of sauna they have, or because the floor is really clean, or the treadmills are new, or something like that. Meanwhile, they are less fit than they were last year. I don’t understand the value of that. If the value is in the movement, and the result, the adaptation of the athlete, then you can start to create value around what we do.

It’s 2018, and you can get all the workouts online for free that have ever been written with any intelligence. So, the value in training comes because most people are ignorant in terms of coaching and the work that they’re actually needing to do. Therefore, maybe we can save a couple million bucks on tile floors and cucumber water and whatnot, and we can just get down to business with changing people’s lives. We did that in the park. Now that I think about it, it really helps that bureaucracy is so brutal in granting permits for fitness businesses. There’s a lot of gnarly restrictions on what buildings you can lease and use for fitness purposes. Even if we had all the money in the world, we really couldn’t have opened a gym in Santa Monica or Venice at the time. Starting in the park was even outside of strategy, just the way it had to be, until we could find a suitable a building.

What got you through that proof of vision? How did you get through the early days and associated doubts, like maybe that nobody will show up?

I think a lot of those things are often only found at the end of long arduous pursuits. So, if you’re going to do something remarkable or difficult, you’ve got to be armed with things much more sturdy than motivation or passion or some emotional drive. All of those resources will be tapped, especially the harder it is, or the loftier the goal. We had such a strong purpose that it transcended any feelings about, say, “no one’s showing up.” We schlepped gear out to the park for over two years. Even in the last six months of that process, there were times when people wouldn’t show up.

We were tested through and through. I often talk about the “hiding hand” principle—that our own ignorance can actually help us in a startup context or in undertaking any long, arduous pursuit. We can never really whiteboard or imagine the totality of the effort required to get to where we’re trying to go—and the hiding hand principle tells us that we can actually use that lack of knowledge or predictability to our advantage.

We were beautifully ignorant and just committed beyond measure to this outcome and beyond—like I said—our emotions, our feelings about it. We can have our feelings about something, and we can look at a specific result and make some judgment of it, but it’s not really to our advantage to spend too much time there. It’s really just another data point to get back to the process. In the case of a class where nobody shows up, we can ask ourselves: What can we do now to make sure that someone shows up for the evening class? And the process goes on.

We wanted to show that we can bring value by telling the story that the training experience is valuable because of what you, the mover, do.

One thing that’s very interesting about your organization is the coaches you’ve brought on. How did you choose them? They’re all very different personalities, but at the same time they all hold a uniting value. How did you find that and cultivate it?

That’s a great question, because this is something that is behind the curtain and of the most importance to us. I cannot underscore that enough. I consult a lot of other gym owners and coach other leaders, and it’s a thing that folks often aren’t willing to do—to have a process of building a team. Our process is very specific. The details of that process aren’t necessarily universal, but the principles are—we have a very distinct rite of passage onto our team, which is coaches’ prep.

If you have a system where people are going through a rite of passage that is lengthy, and hard, and demands vulnerability—it acts like somewhat of a filter, and what you get on the other side is a smaller, more trusting, and more willing group of people who remain. It’s with these ingredients that you can get into a culture or organization built around truth. That’s what we are built around. I say ‘truth’ because when you have the best information, you can make the best decisions, and you can improve most specifically. That creates the environment where an eclectic group of people can be their whole self and salute the same flag. It’s an advantage that I would never ever consider giving up. It will evolve and morph, but the principles behind it are our greatest asset.

Born in Santa Monica, Logan is an entrepreneur and author with a background in collegiate (University of San Diego) and professional (San Diego Padres) baseball. Logan is used to high performance, heavy workloads, and accountability to forever be a “student of the game”.
As the founder of the DEUCE Gym brand with three locations in the Los Angeles area and as a collaborator with the Canadian shoe maker, STR/KE MOVEMENT, Logan uses business as a context to explore leadership and group dynamics. He currently travels the world coaching the Hold the Standard Summit to teach those principles. 

Keep up with Logan on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Illustration by Wlada Jurczanka