• Misbah Haque

The Art Of Coaching w/ James Fitzgerald

James Fitzgerald, founder/director of OPEX Fitness, has over 20+ years of experience when it comes to coaching. This episode is special to me because we talk about the craft itself with a lens that really illuminates what it means to be a coach. I wanted to understand how he organizes his thoughts, views the integration of systems, and structures high-level thinking. If you’re a coach, you do not want to miss this episode. If you’re an athlete, you’ll walk away with a whole new appreciation for the level of depth that goes into coaching.

Show Notes:

  • (6:00) - Before Opex was founded in 1999

  • (9:12) - Making an impact on fitness

  • (10:31) - Becoming an original artist

  • (13:45) - Drive, patience, introversion, execution at the right time

  • (15:06) - Technician to Craftsman to Master

  • (18:02) - Becoming knowledgeable about the integration of everything

  • (21:08) - True depth & influence of coaches

  • (24:09) - Why do individuals need fitness coaching

  • (33:07) - How James organizes his mind and views systems

  • (36:30) - Using writing to organize your thoughts

  • (37:15) - Thoughts

  • (42:06) - Note-taking on your phone

  • (46:35) - Awareness

  • (48:33) - Relationship between a coach and client

  • (53:50) - Fitness delivery vs science education

  • (56:03) - Plus, minus, equal learning theory

  • (1:00:08) - How does the OPEX model work

  • (1:02:16) - Business systems

  • (1:07:26) - Start with why

  • (1:15:30) - Providing value -- what does it mean?

  • (1:17:20) - Defining your priorities

  • (1:21:18) - Inner narrator

  • (1:23:18) - Intuition

  • (1:24:18) - Functional bodybuilding

Resources we may have talked about:

  • Episode w/ CJ Martin

  • Episode w/ Marcus Filly

  • Bernie Novokowsky

  • Start With Why

  • Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

  • The Way of The Superior Man

  • The Values Factor

How you can connect with James:

  • http://opexfit.com

  • Instagram: @jfitzopex

  • Facebook


Hey everyone. This is James and you're listening to the airborne mind show.


Hey guys, Misbah Haque here, thank you so much for joining me today, and welcome back to another episode of the airborne mind show. Before we get started. There are two places that I would love to point you to. Number one is the home base, the airborne mind.com check out some of the free tools and free sample programs, training videos, and things like that. If you're somebody who is struggling with strict, pull-up strict handstand, pushups pistol squats, and things of that nature, check out some of the free resources. And if it's relevant to you, give it a shot and let me know what you think I would love to hear from you. Number two, if you have three minutes and you've been enjoying the episodes that I've been putting out and you would love to hear more of this, it would make my day and mean the world to me.


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And you can get that there along with a list of all the previous books that guests have recommended on the show. So once again, that is airborne, mind.com forward slash reading list. So today my guest is James Fitzgerald, who is the founder of OPEX and James, I don't even know where to begin with this conversation because I was so ecstatic for it because when you look back at the top coaches that you admire, like people who have been on the show like CJ, Martin, Marcus filly, Jared moon, a lot of who they point to and who their influences were, you know, links back to James or an OPEX in some way. So when I'm choosing who to learn from next, I'm somebody who likes to follow the links. And that led me to discover the OPEX CCP level one, which I'm currently a part of and having a great time with I really resonate with, you know, the training philosophy, you know, of OPEX and the education that they're putting out.


It's phenomenal. And so in this episode, we talk about the mastery and the art and the craft of coaching. We talk about providing value, what that means and how to communicate your message. And something interesting to note is that James gets into how he organizes his thoughts and processes information. You know, we talk about providing value. We talk about setting your priorities and touch on such a variety of subjects. I think that if you are a coach, you are absolutely in for a treat. And if you are an athlete, I believe that you're going to walk away with a new level of appreciation for your coach and the level of depth that goes into, you know, the craft of coaching. I mean, so I want to read you, you know, his bio off the OPEC site because I think it sums it up really well, but let me get into it.


The guy that paints the picture, James is the founder of OPEX, formerly opt and the international center of, for fitness when not coaching, he's a full-time husband, father, and fitness athlete who has 20 plus years of experience and service as a strength coach and technician tireless practice on refining energy system work, nutritional and lifestyle balancing techniques and training of other coaches has made OPEX a sought after method of bringing fitness to a higher order. James has found a desire and passion to understanding fitness through assessment, testing, research programming, and more. He has had many years of experience as an athlete from early childhood into adulthood from playing top-level soccer, short and long-distance running to CrossFit where he was crowned the fittest on earth winner of the 2007 CrossFit games, this episode. And this conversation was such an honor and such a pleasure. I had so much fun with it. And so I hope you enjoy this episode. And more importantly, I hope you take something away from it, James, welcome to the show. Hey, it's going to be here. Yeah. I want to start by kind of rewinding a little bit, you know, OPEX formerly known as OTT was founded in 1999. Could you tell me what you are up to before then and what kind of led you up to starting OPEX?


Yeah, for sure. I was a young kid who was an athlete who would look out the window every day is that the teacher was talking about some crap on Canadian geography or social studies and just, just flying by my head, you know and not catching any outfit and just thinking about like playing street hockey or, you know, can't wait till badminton practice or to go for a run for cross country. So my mind was deeply steeped in athleticism and just physical literacy really for my whole life. And then as a young adult, I had to figure out, you know, really what I wanted to specialize in that area. So I got deeply into really soccer and hockey on a deeper level. And I had an injury with soccer which led me to then saying, well, what am I going to do with my life and how am I going to really figure out what I just fell in love with, which was training and conditioning. And so then I just got into university education to study physical literacy and the science behind it and everything about physical education. And right after that, it led me to the 1999 date which is really when I you know, as a business we started, which was just me. Before that period of time, just before it, I was still coaching. And at the university level.


So back then, did you have a vision that, you know, what you have accomplished today would kind of come about, or where you just kind of operating at the level of, you know, we're a gym, we're just doing our thing and then over time, this all kind of came about.


Yeah, I think at the time I had started my journey on fitness or in the education of that really, which was like in 92 in late 92, really. When I started doing some resistance and like really figuring out what the heck's going on here, no, I was just completely unconscious, you know, it was like, I just knew like right now at this period of time I loved fitness. I loved exercising. I loved something about the sporting involvement and the connection to those things. And I didn't see, I think just based upon biology and, you know, we're someone is at that point in their life. I think to look too far ahead, we really just don't have all the capabilities to look that far ahead at that time. So you really are just trying to refine what you're currently doing at the time, you know, which is, you know, a pecking order. Like how, what, what am I doing in this entire thing, you know, and what are the filters me that are dictating what I think I'm supposed to do? You know, I'm surrounded by people that are like, well, you got to finish school, you got to go on to a higher-order education. You got to make something of yourself, you know, you're going to develop a family or you got to have a future. So that's the only thing that I really had in the back of my head at that time.


Now, you know, fast-forwarding to today, when we take a look at everything you guys are up to now, and what you've built, what would you say is kind of the mission right now for OPEX?


Yes. To make an impact on fitness, you know, to really be because of the sign of the times, I guess you could say, you know, if this was 1985, we'd probably have a different mission, you know? But because of 2017 the advent of technology, the investigation into stress response for humans the massive shift in political social situations the overpopulation, the decreased soils, yada yada yada yada, you know, today we really want to make a massive impact on fitness. And my mission is to leave that legacy so that people recognize a shift in the pendulum of what fitness really means and the true definition of it whether it's sporting or whatever your perspective is on that. And the way that I plan to do it is to consumers through education, but through coaches so that I can spread the news around that idea from coaches into people. So that's our, that's our big, big, big-ticket.


Yeah. So I came across you from simply kind of following the links. And I mentioned this before we started CJ Martin was on the show and I had heard that he spent $30,000 on coaching education when he was transitioning from being a lawyer to a coach or gym owner. And so part of that, I was like, how did you spend that? You know, and he definitely mentioned that you were a mentor. He went through the, you know, OPEX, OPEX coaching education then Marcus came on the show and I really resonated with a lot of what Marcus had to talk about. And so I was like, okay, who has Marcus kind of learned from? And he pointed to you as well, he pointed to Mike Lee, then it's like, okay, who has Mike Lee learned from? And that's like, it points back to you. So I'm curious, was, did you, do you have certain influences and people that you learn from, or from day one, w do you consider yourself kind of like an original artist that was shaped through purely experiences?


Yeah. I think probably the latter that as I experienced things in my own world with regards to my own physical performance as to what I wanted to do as an athlete or as a human and just as a human in general. But also as a coach, I think just over time, it was just a natural evolution that I wanted to be really good at my trade. And so the competitive aspect of that was a carryover to fitness. So, you know, I'll go back, but it'll, it'll kind of make sense as an athlete, you know, and everyone's different as to why they do that. But as an athlete, I hated losing. I was the worst loser. I had the worst attitude around that even as a young kid. And I have no regrets on that and I have no judgment on it.


That's just what's just in my bones. I love being right. I love being ahead of things and I love winning. And so that just transitioned into my job. So we might trade in fitness as a coach. I wanted to know all the answers I wanted to know before other people knew the answers. I wanted to do the research and do the time and spend the money to be ahead of, everyone who was in my trade. And so that, that's just my own thing. It wasn't a narcissistic or you know, a self-indulging prophecy that I had in my head. It was just like, that's a competitive instinct for me that I just get really fired upon. And so it, it led into, I think back to your question, it just led into me over time. People started asking questions like, well, how did you do that?


And I was like, well, let me tell you about that. So CCP and educating other coaches and having, you know, great people like the three you had mentioned in CJ, Mike, and Marcus around me. I mean, we were just all attracted because we all wanted that same thing, which was a gaining of knowledge our own you know, leveling in education. And I just, then at that point in time, I was an early adopter to the method of intense fitness. I looked at it, I think deeply that a lot more than a lot of other people may have. And so I asked some really uncomfortable, but powerful questions that attracted these great people to me. So I think it was the latter in your question that it was just an evolutionary aspect of me just filling the gaps in the continuum for everyone because I had, you know, just wanted to be competitive. Really.


That's really funny that you say that because Steve Martin has mentioned something before, where he's talking about following a certain blueprint. Everybody thinks that they're following a blueprint, but along the way, you're going to have little strays here and there. And over time, those little strays are what kind of adds up and makes you that unique, original, or makes you appear unique and original when in reality it was just your kind of questioning things along the way. Like how can I do this better, for example?


Yeah, the I mean, that's a whole, that's a whole other show really on the philosophical aspect of how all those things fall into place. But my, my personal essence, which sits well with me is is words like drive and words like patients you know introversion you know, execution at the right time. You know, those things really are words that sit powerfully with me. And everyone has, like, you just said their own unique way of going about doing stuff. And I think, you know, I think what you just said, those that kind of sits well with me.


And it, usually I ask this in the latter part of the show, but I mean, you have a big bookshelf sitting behind you and then a bunch of books. You must be a voracious reader. I'm curious. Has that been kind of your, you know, the method of learning that's resonated with you the most, or has it been seminars? Has it been, you know, having conversations with people, what seems to be, you know, the way that you learn?


Yeah. Well, you only have time to read when you have time. So you know, based upon points in my career that was always a staple. So this is just a collection for a long period of time that some of my mentors, both in fitness in life in general were well-studied. And it was just a way for me too, you know unload my brain to relax, but also to take in some information to see systems, how all things work together. And so that was, you know, I wouldn't say voracious, I, I'm kind of like a three a month, three books a month kind of person. And that can change based upon intensity, but I'll be honest with you. There were times in my career where, you know, I remember training on 70, 80 hours, you know, personal training bookings and, and schedules for years where, you know, I only picked up a couple of books, but I at the same time would leave on a Saturday night and fly somewhere to listen to this genius on a Sunday to come back Sunday night, to start again at 5:00 AM Monday morning.


So I think it was a combination really of just seeing what was out there at the time, because the mastery of coaching really, you move from this level of, as of a technician into a craftsman, into a master, and people have a connotation that master means expert, and it's the complete opposite of an expert. So masters still know they don't know a whole lot of things, but they really have created this idea on how all those systems work together. So they're an integrated individual, right. And as a coach, but at the time, back in the day, I was truly a technician. You know, I was just taking things in and practicing with these new tools. Right. But then as I became a craftsman, I did less actual reading and courses because I was working, you know, I was in the trenches trying to figure out how all this works together. Like, why did that work for them and not for them? And why is this system effective for these people and what, and so, and then you come spitting out that end and it's like, wow, you know, it, you know, I have some time now to do some more reading, some more research and, and stay on top, but the long answer to, I think it was an ebb and flow of based upon my, as a coach really.


Right. So there's like periods of you, you know, thinking and being, and then there are periods of you, like just doing.


Yeah, for sure.


Yeah. something that I feel like mastery to a lot of people, you know, the way that we view it is like, it's an end goal, right? It's like something that you reach it's a result. And in reality, mastery is almost a bit of a mindset because if it was an end goal, then the, you know, the curiosity aspect wouldn't be there. Right. You'd be, you'd be at this level where you're like, okay, I've mastered this. And I feel like as soon as curiosity dies there, there's no room for growth at that point. So it's more of kind of you know, it's more of a mindset. Could you dig a little bit more into kind of what mastery means to you?


Yeah, for sure. For me it as I've said, I'll say it eloquently may be in a different way, but you really start becoming knowledgeable of the integration of everything. So when, when you get to that level of mastery in whichever you wish to do, you know, a master of the rings, a master of vaulting, a master of weightlifting, a master of personality disorder, research, a master of science, like, you know, you at either of those people, you know, through what I consider to be mastery in all those areas, there's, there is similarity and a parallel amongst all of those individuals for seeing how all things are integrated to that one area that they're a master of. So that, that really, that really just allows you to see that they're, you know, they may not be a master as being a father, you know, or they may not be a mass.


They have mastery of like human experience, but within that area of mastery that's what to me is, is the, is the definition of that. And I find it very threatening actually to try to become a master coach because there's so, but it's a great challenge. As you said, you're only going to grow, on the balance of support and challenge. There's a massive challenge to be a master coach because people, I don't know if people really, until you get in the trenches for a long period of time, you understand just how much we need to have in our toolbox for human behavior, for prescription, for, for connecting all things together for long-term planning, for seeing a decade away, you know, for day to day implementation, how to commute. Like it's, it's in-depth. I mean, I'm sorry, sorry to take you down a road on the coach's perspective, but mastery and coaching unbiased to it. But I think it's one of the most admirable things that a human could do. I, I, and I really do believe that I'm biased in it, but coaching mastery is a very admirable, highly challenging thing for people to do. So for it's a challenge. Like I don't even think I can possibly capture it in time in my life that that's, that's where I believe coaching mastery sits. So that'll give you some kind of ideas too, you know, what I'm doing for the next 40 years or 30 or whatever.


And, and lets you know, let's peel back the layers on that a little bit because it's true. You are around, like, if you're an athlete you're around your coach, more than you are, you know, your Dr. May be certain practitioners and other people. So coaches have a huge influence on your life in a variety of ways. And we've seen many times, especially if you're maybe, you know, a CrossFit coach, you have people who come in who are maybe couch potatoes. And because they've started, you know, implementing, you know, some of your programming, some of your coaching, some of your classes it leads them down. Other rabbit holes, like all of a sudden now they start to care about their nutrition. All of a sudden they start to care about getting to sleep on time. And this puts you in maybe a happier mood and it trickles outwards into all other aspects of life. So you're right. It is very powerful.


Yeah. I mean, a simple example that you just touched on that can give people a little insight into it in case there. I just feel like I need to explain it some more, so people can see the depth of it, but, you know, someone comes in and says they just want to be more fit. And you know, you have to have the tools in place to ask the right kinds of questions. So you don't take nine months to peel the onion, layers away, to make them recognize that they actually don't want to be fit, that they want to be loved and accepted, or they want to have some kind of experience in life that they haven't had, or they want to truly have some mentorship and guidance, or maybe they've never been accepted within a tribe. Like these kinds of things. A coach needs to have, you know, the smell of the ability to smell that out. And now you need to be able to communicate in a language that allows that person to recognize an open space. So it's no judgment, a possibility for a nudge, a possibility for, you know, this opening, you know an aha moment. And that's just, and that's just in, in behavior, right. There are 25 other things. So, you know, a coach is just a wonderful, you know job. That's very admirable in fitness coaching for all the things that we, that we want to help people with.


Yeah. An easy, I think the way to look at it is when you're thinking about nutrition, right? Nutrition is I feel like a beast of a topic and anybody can give out a macro prescription or certain numbers to follow just like a coach could write up a program and give it to you. But there are so many other layers that are involved. Like, as you said, the behavior aspect, like, okay, if you have your meal plans and you have your numbers, why aren't you executing on it? Why aren't you doing it? How do you stick with it? What, what is it that you really, is it the 10 pounds that you want to shave off? Or is it the love of the process and the feeling that you're actually doing something to get to a goal? And I feel like you gotta be kind of artful with the way that you're able to get people to realize that yeah.


Yeah. The prescription is science, but the way you communicate and do it as art, for sure. Yeah.


Yeah. My, so my first experience, right. Being truly coached, I think I Def, I, I, I wrestled for, you know, quite a few years when I was younger, but I wasn't very good. Didn't really have any awareness of my body, no mental toughness. Like I wasn't really developed as an athlete when I was wrestling, but my first experience being truly coached was probably when I was like 16 or 17. I started working with a trainer who was an amateur boxer. He had gone like 49 and O or something like that. And I was just fascinated by the way that he moved. And so he kind of took me under his wing. And for six months, I kind of immersed myself into the process of just showing up, doing the shadow boxing, doing the jump roping, and just hitting the bag, hitting the mitts.


And that was the first moment where I saw the adaptation and the athletic development kind of unraveled because week one, you know, I was awkward. I couldn't get all the combos. Right. I thought I was hitting hard, but it really wasn't hitting hard. But then six to seven weeks later, all of a sudden I'm making noise every time I'm hitting the Mitt. And there's just this flow state that's there. Like my whole body is kind of working as one. So that was the first time. I saw how things kind of really pieced together. And I definitely absorbed some of that as I, you know, went on to become a personal trainer and tried to take some of those concepts. And eventually, I got started in group fitness classes. So I was teaching spinning. I was teaching boot camps and, and you name it.


And this is me reflecting back. I had no idea probably about the difference between being a fitness instructor versus being a coach until I had stepped into you know, the CrossFit gym that I'm at right now for the first time. And I went through that experience and on day one, as soon as I went through that experience of like a coach walking around and not just being like your workout buddy, and essentially screaming at you, which is kind of like what I was doing, right. I was working out with these people, not necessarily going around and coaching them. I knew from day one, that that's kind of what I wanted to do. And then over time then you realize, okay, wow, there is a difference between being a fitness instructor and being a coach. And I know that's something that you have a pretty strong stance on as well. Could you dig into that a little bit?


Yeah, for sure. Well, on a, on a quick aspect of it, I think that we've got to go back to the history of fitness coaching and then it, then it lays the groundwork for an understanding of it. So cause if people it's complicated, but you want to say like, well, you know, you really want to ask the question, why the hell do individuals need guidance on fitness? You know, so if you sit with that, if you sit with that for a couple of seconds, you could really see that fitness coaching is actually a reactive mechanism to human fault. Okay. So think about that for a second. Why do we need to have people prescribing how to reproduce and survive and live long and prosper? You know, what are we, why are we doing that? So if you, if you really sit with it, you could see that it's, it's largely manufacturing of the fitness movement as a reactive situation to a stressed situation of humans.


Okay. So in, in large perspective it, it came about because people saw, you know, especially within the sixties and seventies, the advent of the body beautiful fitness before that period of time was like, well, are you going to war? Okay, well, you're probably gonna have to do these physical pieces in order to fight, okay, all your boxer. Oh, well, you may have to like jump rope and run around and like actually practice, you know, getting in shape, are you a sporting athlete? Well, after your smoke and, and a Coke you, you may need to do some bench press or something, you know? And so that was the aspect of fitness as to, and I don't mean to like layer it low, but that's the complete honesty in terms of what fitness is. And then the body beautiful comes out. And then people start recognizing this idea around the body, beautiful gym, start being promoted of where you go to make your body beautiful.


And at the same time, of course, there's this intersection of the computer and fast track, you know things in technology humans are doing less work, yada yada, yada, yada. So you can see how this all gets to this point in time where people are now, you know, in droves, going up escalators, and going into a fitness facility to be more fit. But it actually is to prevent all they're doing to themselves on a day-to-day basis, which is, you know, yada yada yada poor foods. And I don't mean to paint a picture, but let's be honest as to how we get to this point of fitness instruction. Okay. So along that period of time, you know, people were, well, we should probably investigate this. Like what happens when you do a bicep curl or you get tired on a treadmill, or, you know, you're doing all this fitness.


So science-backed all of it. There's lots of information, certainly to share on resistance and aerobic work. We've connected all of it to medicine really because that's the only way information like that's going to make money in a fitness world. And we really don't have any idea outside of that. What the heck is going on when people do 10 minutes, accountable, swings, rowing, and burpee, we're just fricking guessing on it. So the, you know, this, this idea came to be that, okay, if this is going to be popular and people are going to be, do it, let's get a whole situation behind it. Let's create a system where people can pay to like, quote-unquote, do fitness. And then of course you can see, then it's like, well, there should be experts in this. And if the experts in this, who are we going to choose from?


Well, the initial experts came from people who just look good naked. Those were personal trainers. Those were people that would give fitness advice. Why? Because that's what I was doing overtime. The pendulum swung towards an educational aspect, that education though, the education based upon it, to be honest, is about 50 years old, relative to what it needs to be, to give people adequate fitness quote-unquote fitness for today, because it's still based upon the scientific method of resistance and aerobic training, which is to promote benefits within the medical system, not for fitness and longevity. So any anyone that gets spit out on the back end in main Mo most times today in most schools is going to have, you know, adequate scientific background as the investigation of those things, but they're going to fall flat on their face in most cases when they get in front of you and me, and we want them to be our coach, right?


Because as I told you about what coaching is relative to what fitness is, so we have to know that story. So you understand my biases as to where it sets. Okay. And understanding that story, as you can see how it all propagated to, to today. Well, there's, you know, in the early two-thousands, this massive movement started to happen. People are like, that's not fitness. This is what fitness is, which was a great revolution in terms of what fitness is, right. And me specifically, and maybe you, we all benefit from that. Let's just call it a movement because it was a deeper investigation. The problem with it is that to current time today, anyone is allowed to prescribe it and anyone is allowed to do it. So it's not a right or wrong, but there's no governance on what fitness is the definition, the true definition, how it applies to people day to day, how to instruct it for long-term progression for individuals, how to provide professional instruction as to where it fits in everyone's lifestyle.


It's, it's well researched as to how it applies to the sport because sporting, you know, involvement is a very deep process that people have captured and been experts in a period of time. And it's a specialty, but when it comes to overall fitness, that's why I'm so adamant on pushing towards the governance of knowing why you're prescribing what you are prescribing because honestly, it's just rape and pillage recurrently within the fitness coaching market. So I make statements like that, which is what is a coach versus what a fitness instructor is simply because of what you just mentioned. A fitness coach has massive depth and breadth and care and competency and consistency inside of them. And a fitness instructor is someone who's just instructing fitness. And the, you have to understand the massive differences between the two and why I clearly delineate them.


Were you ever a fitness instructor or would you consider yourself have been a coach the entire time?


Definitely a fitness instructor at an unconscious level, just learning as a technician because I have no concept or ideas to how it's going to apply to the fitness market for the people that were in front of me with, you know, said knowledge and education and, and pieces that would, I would be participating in at the time, which is, you know, the early twenties or late teens.


Gotcha. And you know, when I logged in to the OPEX CCP level one, you know, system or I was getting my walkthrough for the whole, you know, curriculum, I was blown away because I'm looking at this and I'm like, how in the world does James like, organize this information? How did all of this kind of come about? I imagine you getting out of bed in the morning, putting on a robe, you know, s