Interview with Jon Pietrunti – The Art and Skill of Coaching

Interview with Jon Pietrunti – coach at Complete Human Performance, personal trainer, massage therapist, blogger, and sports psychologist. Jon talks to me today about goal setting, relaxation, process, stressors, and it turns out we are both Philip K. Dick fans.

Jon Pietrunti – Coach & Massage Therapist – New York, NY

Jon, thanks for taking the time to talk to me! Let’s get started by walking me through your career and how you got to this point.

As a kid, I always had a fair amount of intellectual curiosity. I wasn’t the most athletic child, and was often ostracized for being the neighborhood “geek”.

I was 14 when my parents got me an Olympic weight set for Christmas and things evolved from there. Eventually, I found out that I was a decent runner, and I was fairly competitive.

I joined the Navy after high-school and spent over 13 years as an Aviation Ordnance Technician. Part of being in the military in staying in shape, and because I always had an endurance bias, I excelled at the Navy Physical Readiness Test.

Of course, this meant I was put in charge of unit Physical Training, based on my performance, with no consideration given to my actual knowledge of coaching.

On the Sport Psychology side of the house, leadership and coaching have always been of special interest to me. As a Navy Chief Petty Officer, I have many Sailors in my charge and was responsible for their morale and development.

This meant figuring out how to lead, communicate, and determine what motivates people. I became slightly obsessed with this and it carried over into my formal education, resulting in a BA in Applied Sport Psychology.

Anyway, my reasons for leaving the Navy are complex and I go into detail in my blog. Suffice it to say that I needed a job, had a cert, and decided to go the independent route while going back to school. Although I was fairly well versed in programming, I ended up training clients out of a private facility with a LOT of very educated and excellent trainers.

I humbled myself and they took me under their wing, introducing me to corrective exercise, NKT, different programming modalities, and strategies for dealing with special populations (I actually had a small niche as the guy who knew how to train folks with joint replacements and spinal fusions).

This led me to New York to pursue an LMT license, and a brief stint at a commercial gym before joining the coaching crew of Complete Human Performance and attaining my CSCS.

Can you share with us one experience or lesson from leading and training sailors that you use today with your coaching clients?

I give people a fair amount of autonomy when it comes to the decision-making process. I always felt as though a lot of leaders micromanaged entirely too much, which ultimately stunted peoples’ growth. With this in mind, I put people in the driver’s seat with regards to their fitness goals.

This isn’t to say that I am not an active participant in the process, quite the contrary. What I try to do is facilitate the process by providing as much guidance as possible, without forcing a client into my goals or my way of training.

I think it is very important for coaches to be able to separate themselves from the outcomes when it comes to fitness clients: this is about learning, growth, and continuous improvement…and sometimes we need to let clients experiment with decisions and find what works best for THEM.

Why do you coach?

This is such an interesting question. I do love to help people to reach their full potential.

However, there is an element of self-discovery, as well. This is particularly true when I am working with performance psychology/mental skills clientele. I am very candid about my own person struggles with depression and anxiety, both in sport and in my personal life.

Part of what I do has helped me to grow as a person and heal, as I often see myself reflected in my clients. So, the primary reason that I do this is that I enjoy coaching and leadership and want to see each person who crossed my part reach their full potential, regardless of the endeavor.

However, there is also a part of me that does this in order to understand myself better. The more I learn about myself, the more effective I am as a coach, so this is a self-perpetuating cycle.

So what’s exciting in your world right now?

Mindset and Sport Psychology! I became fascinated by this as a Navy Chief and it continued as a trainer. Regardless of the best leadership, programming, diet…whatever, ultimately results lie in the client. Why can some people stick to a plan and others can’t? What motivates people to action? What causes people to choke under pressure?

I saw this as the limiting factor to my coaching and sought a degree in it. It is really exciting to see how this is quickly becoming a hot topic in the industry. Programming and training is easy. COACHING is a skill and an art.

As such, I have put a tremendous amount of focus on the mental side of the house. I do a lot of work with advanced goal-setting, imagery, self-talk, and confidence building. The results have been amazing and I see an overall increase in progress and satisfaction from clients.

Programming and training is easy. COACHING is a skill and an art.

Do you have one mindset exercise that you have found works with a large number of your trainees?

I usually recommend some sort of mindfulness/meditation app to everyone. I am partial to Headspace, as I find it the most user-friendly and accessible. Before one can learn to cue relaxation (see below), one needs to really learn how to relax, in general.

People, myself included, are REALLY bad at that, particularly in the Western world where everything is “go-go-go”. Just about 100% of clients who begin to practice meditation or mindfulness report enhanced relaxation, clarity, and focus…all of which go great lengths toward enhancing enjoyability and compliance on a fitness program.

What was an obstacle that you faced and how did you overcome it?

Myself. For years I struggled with “Imposter Syndrome” and guilt based off of pressures placed on me as a child. Also, I was very Ego-Oriented, so I would self-sabotage myself a lot and often choose to not follow through on certain goals if I didn’t think I could initially win/be the best/dominate. I stagnated for a very long time because of this and have really just now started to embrace who I am fully.

This took a great deal of self-reflection and introspection. A lot of asking “why”. All told, it was a very uncomfortable process for me, but it has been very rewarding for me, as I have grown a great deal, learned that the process is more important than the destination, and stayed true to my values.

Is there something in the fitness industry that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

I wish I knew the importance of marketing, especially to an independent trainer. It is really easy to look at some of the more popular people in the industry and bitch about the fact that they do not actually know much, but rather just market well. I don’t like to blindly complain about something without attempting to find a solution, so I took it upon myself to really invest in training for sales and marketing.

It is still my least favorite part of this industry. I find it very frustrated when I see talented trainers take a back seat to trainers with better sales skills (but not coaching skills). Fortunately, once you are established, it gets a bit less “cut-throat”, and if you create a reputation of professionalism and results,

Have you learned anything recently that helped you become a better marketer?

The biggest lesson I have learned here is to BE GENUINE. People can see through bullshit quite readily, so I don’t bend my personality or beliefs to fit into specific molds. I made the mistake, in the past, of trying to fit in where I didn’t, and it just made me miserable.

It was once suggested to me to write blogs that were written for what my audience wanted to hear, but, truthfully, I developed a good audience with thatgreyarea.com by simply writing about things that were important to me that I thought might resonate with others.

What’s one book that changed your practice/mindset, etc… and why? What’s the one thing you took away from it?

Thick Face, Black Heart by: Chin-Ning Chu. I can’t remember who pointed me in the direction of this book, but it has been life-changing and I return to it often. A lot of “self-help” books are too “touchy-feely”. I find this to be totally unrealistic when compared to actual life. Thick Face, Black Heart is based on Asian Philosophies.

A summary doesn’t do it justice, but, essentially, it speaks to accepting where you are, facing life courageously, learning to accept failures, and not being afraid to be “selfish” (ethically) in the pursuit of your goals.

It is very blunt in places and can be overwhelming to some, but in life, you need to learn to take lessons from the bad times instead of lament in them

Reading anything good right now?

For fiction, I am currently reading “A Scanner Darkly” by Philip K. Dick (can you believe I haven’t read this before).

Non-fiction: “Triphasic Training” by: Cal Dietz and waiting for the NSCA TSAC Textbook to arrive so I can take a gander at that.

Can you talk about a breakthrough with a client, and what led up to it?

I had a client with high pre-performance anxiety. She is an amazing powerlifter, but always seemed to get in her own way, so we spent time developing cued relaxation techniques and created a mental plan for her for every step of the meet.

Long story short: she went to the platform with a calm state of mind and a plan and qualified for the Arnold Classic, setting a WR along the way.

What’s an example of a “cued relaxation” technique?

Cued relaxation is one of those things that is simple to describe but harder to master. Essentially, we are looking to take general relaxation and cue it so that we can reach a relaxed state quickly and precisely.

For example, a powerlifter needs to be amped up for a maximal attempt, but after the attempt, it is critical to reach a state of relaxation so that energy isn’t being expended that could be used toward the next lift (this is especially hard if the lifter missed the attempt).

Using different cue words, that the athlete selects, we can train an athlete to associate the word with a relaxation state that is achieve during a general mindfulness session. In this way, the athlete can calm themselves down and regain focus very quickly when needed, particularly during competition.

What are the top 3 questions when meeting a client for the first time, and top 3 questions for someone you’ve been training for a while?

  1. Why are we here?
  2. Can you talk to me about something that has worked for you in the past with regards to your fitness goals?
  3. What do you feel is the biggest obstacle in the way of your goals right now?

What do you wish your client’s asked you?

One of the reasons I am so candid about my life, on my blog, is that I really wish people would ask me if I struggle with my own fitness. Many people assume trainers are constantly motivated and perfect, but that just isn’t the case.

I struggle with injuries and getting older; I have always had a terrible relationship with food; there are days when I don’t particularly want to work out; I have workouts that suck. In the end, I am just a real person, and by letting people know that none of us are perfect, it just helps people on this journey.

What do you wish people knew about you but probably don’t?

I can appear very extroverted, but that is due to conditioning. I am actually a very introverted person and am often lost in my own thoughts. Additionally, I get overwhelmed when too much “stuff” is going on. However, I absolutely adore being around people and getting to know people, which is one of the reasons I enjoy being a coach so much.

People are so unique and I learn so much just interacting.

How has your programming changed since last year?

As a coach with the Complete Human Performance team, I have learned a lot about consolidating stressors and this has had a great impact on how I approach programming and recovery. Learning how to consolidate stressors is not just important for elite athletes or hybrids.

I think it is important to acknowledge that normal people have tremendous amounts of stress to deal with in their personal and professional lives.

Also, in playing with my own personal programming after a hip injury, I have learned to be more flexible with intensity levels and make judgements, real-time. I don’t marry myself to the idea of NEEDING to hit specific numbers. People have a lot going on in their personal and professional lives and sometimes we just can’t hit the numbers prescribed. This doesn’t mean we still can’t be productive, though. Sometimes, scaling a workout is the key.

As well, I have started to embrace LISS a lot more. Coming from a running background, I have always had a soft spot for low-intensity cardiovascular exercise days, but this industry went all “HIIT” a few years back.

Is there any recent continuing education that you really enjoyed?

I’m currently back in school for LMT and the orthopedic assessment and myology classes have been a blast. I think understanding human movement and anatomy is really critical to being a good Strength and Conditioning coach, and these classes have been invaluable.

What’s one thing that you think is really easy, but works well with many of your clients?

Process, process, process! When looking at a client’s goals, I almost always see a bias toward performance or outcome goals (I want to run a 6:00 mile, or I want to lose 10 pounds by the new year. What I rarely see are process-oriented goals, such as “Eat at least two servings of vegetables a day” or “Take a vitamin and fish oil each morning”.

Having small goals like this seems like it won’t do much towards reaching a large goal, and many clients will balk at this, but small steps turn into momentum, and momentum propels you toward your goal. Set small process goals and learn to love the journey.

Thanks so much Jon! Any parting advice for us?

Have I mentioned listening yet?! I think, of all the attributes a coach needs, learning to listen is perhaps the most important. Active listening is HARD! As part of my Sport Psych degree, I had to take “counseling techniques” classes.

These were brutal. Basically, you role-played a therapy session with an actual therapist supervising and the session being recorded. When you watch the results, its amazing how much you don’t listen, interrupt, wait for your turn to speak, etc. I found those classes, and my years of leadership, to be invaluable in learning the skill of listening.

Parting advice? Alway be “in the moment” and listening to people as actively as you can. It is much easier said than done, but the rewards are amazing.

How do we get in contact with you?

You can find me on Facebook: Jonathan Pietrunti

You can also check me out on my blog/site at www.thatgreyarea.com

Recommended Reading:

Thick Face, Black Heart by: Chin-Ning Chu

“Triphasic Training” by: Cal Dietz

NSCA TSAC Textbook

“A Scanner Darkly” by Philip K. Dick