This article was originally published in Medium on June 5, 2020.
As an American Council on Exercise master trainer, former MLB player Michael Piercy found success as a fitness instructor. Michael is the owner-founder of The LAB, a New Jersey-based fitness facility. He is the recipient of two of the most prestigious awards in the fitness industry: the 2017 IDEA Personal Trainer of The Year Award and the 2013 TRX Overall Instructor of the Year award (F.A.C.E.U.P Award).
Michael specializes in performance enhancement for the modern athlete and active adults. Now he has entire families joining his group classes from their homes and participation has grown regardless of location.
Prior to his work as a master trainer, Michael played for Professional Baseball for organizations like the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Mets and Montreal Expos.
Michael has had the pleasure of working with and creating programs for many athletes from a vast array of major sports including competing athletes in the NFL, MLB and NBA. Mike has been the preferred choice of everyday athletes all the way up to Hall-of-Famers and Super Bowl winners.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Iguess I can say my journey to pro sports is unique. I grew up in Hillside and Irvington, New Jersey, and graduated from Hillside High School. The strangest thing about my story is that I played very little baseball in high school. I played mostly football and basketball, until I became a freshman at Bloomfield College. I made the baseball team there and later transferred to Kean University, where I played for two years before being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1999. As a minor leaguer, I like to tell people I went to more places than FedEx delivers to. Truly an amazing opportunity I wouldn’t give back for the world because baseball and life in pro sports teaches many lessons.
As for my life in the fitness industry, I like to say I’m a lifer. My journey as a trainer started at 15 years old when I got my first set of working papers and my mom got me a job at big box gym in Springfield, New Jersey. There I learned many lessons that I still use to this day when working with both athletes and active adults. It was early in my career that I learned the value of certifications and continuing education. One of the reasons I am a strong believer in the American Council of Exercise and the education they provide is this amazing industry that I love so much.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high-level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
I would say a lot of that story and my love for baseball leads back to my dad. Growing up my dad was a semi-pro baseball player in New Jersey leagues. So, weekends in my family were mostly spent at ball fields with my older brothers who played as well. I took to baseball from essentially living in that world when I was growing up, allowing me to learn the game and the small nuances to improve as a player in the sport. I gained a love for the game growing up in the park watching my dad and brothers play.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
My dad has always been the biggest source of encouragement for me. He was always a great source of strength for me as a kid and as a man. Growing up in my household he was always the best coach I had; not from using words, but from watching his actions. As a coach of young athletes now, many times I see kids feel pressured and crumble under expectations, being driven too hard by parents and coaches. My dad never did that.
Through him I learned work ethic and got my drive to try to become better every single time I stepped on the field — and in the game of life. He taught me that hard work pays off and that I’m always going to get out of things what I put into them. It was always “do your best and you can be anything you set your mind to.” That hope and belief I try to use to this day and transfer it to the athletes I coach on a daily basis.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
One of the funniest stories of my career will probably always be the story of how I got onto the draft radar. The talent scout that showed up to see me — and also became a mentor of mine — was originally not there to see me play. He was actually there to see another player. The day he showed up I had a great game and I went on to get drafted later that year by the Pittsburg Pirates. It’s a story I often tell my young athletes to illustrate that you really just never know who is watching. So, every day it’s about doing the best you can to give the best representation of who you are.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
As both an athlete and as a coach it is important to keep an attitude of constant improvement. It was always instilled in me as an athlete that if you’re not getting better you’re getting worse. It’s important that you continue to grow and polish your skill set. You see that attribute in the best of the best; they are constantly evolving and growing their skill sets. That’s one of the reasons I know I’m so fortunate to be a part of the ACE team and to be an ACE-certified professional. The organization is always providing cutting edge education for coaches like myself to not only stay current with the ever-changing times, but to provide tools that allow coaches to create a platform to help their clients and athletes reach their best on a daily basis.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
One of the projects I’m most excited about right now is a book I’m working on that will encapsulate a lot of my own philosophy on training, utilizing both my beliefs and experiences from my life as an athlete and as a coach. I released my first fitness guide a couple years ago. It’s called “The Men’s Health 30 Minute Shred Guide” and it really allowed me to move lightly into some of the things I love in my daily training travels. In this new project I’m hoping to be able to dive a lot deeper into the elements we use at The LAB that help our youth and elite athletes perform better. I also want to feature the tools and techniques I use to integrate “fitness fun” with the everyday athlete population.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
- Read — One of the things I truly love is to read great books. Someone once told me anything you need to know or find out you can find in a book. Whatever it is, somebody wrote about it. It’s one of the things I enjoy most.
- Focused Relaxation — It can be one of the toughest things for me because I am a person that likes to constantly be on the go. So, I have to be mindful of scheduling relaxing time to provide myself with clarity. This allows me to prepare and free my mind so I can think the thoughts I need to think to go where I need to go.
- Quality Sleep — One of my most challenging strategies to stay consistent with because I’m naturally a night owl. I make a proactive effort to track my sleep using tools like an Oura Smart Ring. Tools like this not only help me make sure I’m getting 6–8 hours of sleep nightly to be prepared for productive days, but also so I can see stats that I use with my athletes — like heart rate variability, REM sleep and resting heart rate.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
I use a technique called 6–2–8 breathing that is geared towards quick refocusing. It’s a technique I used as a baseball player while batting in between pitches. I would inhale on a 6 count, short hold for 2 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds (using my diaphragm). The practice consistently gives athletes time to refocus and reset the nervous system in tight time windows.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
Another similar technique is measured breathing, which allows the athlete a more customized approach to refocusing. Athletes can adjust their breathing tempo for any setting with certain types of action. They can use slow counts (inhale for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and repeat), or they can extend those breaths or tempo to be a better fit for what they need to bring to clarity and focus.
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
We need to think about our body and strategies we can use to prepare ourselves to be at our best. As athletes we are constantly pushing ourselves to reach that next level, which is more obvious when preparing to perform on bigger stages. So, as we look to drive the machine on a daily basis in training, it is important that coaches keep a close eye on recovery for the athlete. In my own training, I have adopted recovery techniques like compression (Normatec boots), vibration (Hyperice Hypervolt tool) and things like cryotherapy and infrared saunas. I feel like having some variety in my recovery allows me to not only push myself, but to be able to perform better on a consistent basis.
These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?
Habits are everything for me. As former baseball player habits are an extreme part of the daily equation. In baseball if you have a great game and you ate chicken that day, you eat chicken every day to try to duplicate that process. Ha-ha!
If I can attribute success to anything it is having a daily routine and doing my best every day to stay true to that routine. At the end of the day, I listened to a great quote from Jack Canfield where he said the principles of success are like having the combination to a lock. If you know the combination then the lock has to open. Your daily habits are the combination to your success. The right actions daily deliver the achievable results.
Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
They say that if you want to change your results positively the key to your success is in your daily routine. One of the best ways to develop better habits is by utilizing a daily focus planner. I am a fan of writing out my next day the night before and the big three things that I need to get done. Having it written down allows me to see it out with a clear focus.
It can also be an extreme asset in avoiding bad habits as well. For example, it’s useful for clients that have trouble finding time to work out because of the challenges of their daily schedule. Being able to schedule an appointment with themselves in a planner helps them prioritize and find that personal time they need.
As a high-performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?
We just spoke a bit about habits and I truly believe that achieving that flow state in sport or life is a product of the hard work you’re putting in daily being met by the opportunity in the moment. As athletes, you chase that element of flow on the way to trying to find the zone. The zone is that magical place where everything comes together. You see the great athletes live in the state of flow and for many of them I truly believe it’s a product of their work and dedication. When you hear stories of a Michael Jordan or a Kobe Bryant, before you hear about the accomplishments and accolades, the first conversation will always reference their legendary work ethic. The road to flow starts with doing the work.
Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.
Meditation is something that I have utilized in different ways since my playing days. In the past people had to find the right DVD’s or climb mountains to find the great teachers of mindfulness (Ha-ha). The cool thing about modern times is you can utilize some great apps to help you become more consistent with building your meditation practices and becoming more mindful. With a focus on self-help becoming more and more popular daily and stress levels higher than ever, mindfulness practices are something I like to discuss and encourage in all my athletes and clients.
Many of us are limited by our self-talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?
Music for me has always been the fuel for my soul. When I’m thinking of focusing on a big game in my playing days or even a keynote/ presentation now, I can change the channel in my own mind by having a great personal playlist and motivating tunes to get me into a focused state to take on challenges. With modern applications like Spotify it is easier than ever to dial in and put together some great playlists to add to your daily pre-game routine to get your mind focused to perform at higher levels.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
That’s a tough question, I think. Success I guess is determined in a lot of ways by perception. I don’t really know if I would use success to describe my journey as of yet. I feel like I have been able to do some amazing things in life, but I have so much left to do on this journey. I would like to think that as a coach of athletes my mission is to help guide them on their journey to find their personal greatness, and if they have found some satisfaction in their achievements, I feel like that is a noble effort.
I think coaching is a calling, not an occupation. If I can help someone become that best version of themselves, then I would think this is bringing that element of goodness to this world. And that is a journey that restarts every day, in every session, with every athlete from youth to pro. In my mind that’s fighting the good fight, that’s the journey, that is the calling.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Nothing great has ever been achieved without enthusiasm.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
How enthusiastic are you every single day? Are you absolutely excited and fired up about what you are going to do today and every day?
I feel like I have been blessed in this life to have had the opportunity to do the things that I love to do and be of service to people doing them. It is that thought that leads me into a second quote I think gives me clarity direction and motivation even on tough days.
The quote goes:
“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
Just asking yourself those two questions can make all the difference in your life and career. Do I love what I’m doing? And If today was my last day on earth would I be fired up about doing it? In even the toughest times, when the work is at its toughest, I think greatness is contained in answering “yes” to both of those questions on most days.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)
I would probably say it would be Jay- Z or 50 Cent. I admire people who can be amazing in one element professionally and at the same time be able to pivot and recreate themselves to be extremely successful and game change in other industries. You see that so many times with Jay-z (Roc Nation Sports, etc.) and with 50 Cent (TV Production — Power, etc.).