Interview: Kevin Hollabaugh, ProForce Sports Performance [Tips + Education]
Starting your own fitness business is an enormous endeavor that will be challenging and time-consuming. That challenge will be even more difficult if you think you know everything, refuse to seek counsel from others, and attempt to go at it alone.
Today, we’re talking to Kevin Hollabaugh who extols the value of seeking meaningful internships and mentorships from other accomplished professionals in the fitness industry. He discusses how being teachable and humble and willing to adapt are crucial traits to possess in order to build a successful fitness practice.
If you’re ready to grow and manage your business better, schedule a demo today.
Meet Kevin Hollabaugh, Owner of ProForce Sports Performance
Schimri Yoyo: Welcome back. This is Schimri Yoyo with exercise.com and we are continuing our series of interviews with fitness experts. And today we are delighted to have Kevin Hollabaugh, who is the owner of ProForce Sports Performance in the Cincinnati, Ohio area.
Kevin, thank you for joining us.
Kevin Hollabaugh: Oh, not a problem. Thanks for having me.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah. Alright, let’s jump into it. How did you develop a love of health and fitness?
Kevin Hollabaugh: I think it started a long time ago. Basically, like most people in our industry, a broken athlete myself. Spent a lot of time in the training room doing rehab. I started as an athletic trainer and then fell in love with the weight room.
I really saw it and wanted to use the weight room as a tool to keep people off the training tables. Or those that were on the training tables, help them get back into their sport at a higher level than they ever were before.
[Editor’s note: View the video below to see the intersection of strength and conditioning, sports medicine, and rehab.]
When I got in this, it wasn’t really much of a profession or thing at the time. So it’s been cool to watch it grow over the last, I’d say, 10 years or so. And I’ve already been in it long enough to watch the pendulum swing back and forth on topics.
And it keeps me on my toes every day. Keeps me young as we interact with the youth. And I just really enjoy it. I like watching the underdog, if you will, become the top dog, and just helping kids build confidence every day.
Schimri Yoyo: Alright. And you mentioned playing some sports. What were some of the sports that you grew up playing?
Kevin Hollabaugh: A washed-up baseball player. That’s my background. The majority of athletes we train are baseball, but we do have multiple other sports athletes in here as well. But I grew up playing baseball in high school. I played a little bit of club baseball, if you will, in college.
[Editor’s note: Nobody embodies “washed-up baseball player” quite Kenny Powers. Video contains explicit language.]
But primarily just focused on my studies when I got to college and didn’t—finally, I completely tore my labrum my sophomore year of playing club baseball at the University of Cincinnati. That kind of ended my career there, with three screws in my shoulder and not being able to throw any more.
Schimri Yoyo: Oh, that’s got to sting a little bit.
Now, you have a degree in Exercise Science and a Master’s in Healthcare Administration. So what was your favorite class? What were some of your favorite classes in undergrad or in grad school, and which ones do you think have helped you the most in your current profession?
Kevin Hollabaugh: That’s a tough one. I actually just went back to the University of Cincinnati and spoke last week or two weeks ago. And it was funny because I had somebody stop me while I was talking and they said, “Oh, so I don’t really need my degree to do this?” And I said, “Well, that’s not what I’m saying.”
I would say, for me, the majority of my learning actually took place in the athletic training department. And then, because I switched so late to Exercise Science—it was really bad advice on my academic advisor’s behalf. I should have just finished the athletic training school, in all honesty.
But I’d say a lot of my evaluation modalities classes in athletic training is what helped me out the most because a lot of what we do is detailed evaluation and assessments on intakes for athletes. We use that data to kind of guide our training philosophy in what we’re going to do.
So knowing that put me kind of leaps and bounds above just a general exercise science [person] if you will. I think the class, looking at it from an ex-phys perspective, was more of just the program design. That’s what sparked my interest. It was like, “Okay, if I do these sets and reps, I’m focusing more on this.” You didn’t get a lot of that in athletic training, so that was good.
But then once you find out, as soon as you get into this field as an intern or GA, is your schooling didn’t teach you anything. I feel like the majority of all of our interns say that when they’re interning with us, it’s like, “I didn’t learn any of this in school.”
So really my advice to any young coach or trainer or anybody looking to get in this field is just do as many internships as possible because that’s where your learning takes place.
I was blessed. I did an internship every single year I was in college. So that way, when I get out of school, I would have a nice resume. But really it allows me to see a lot of different things, see different training methodologies and integration policies between different healthcare systems and just learn and move on from that. So I’d say that was my biggest—probably the internship was my biggest learning [experience] overall.
Schimri Yoyo: It’s great that you have that practical application, which is necessary to be successful. And you mentioned that you’ve been in this industry for a little over a decade now and you’ve been able to see the pendulum swing from different topics throughout.
Who are or have been some of your mentors during your time in the fitness industry, or who have you looked to for guidance as the pendulum has swung a little bit?
Kevin Hollabaugh: I’m pretty self-motivated. So, from the very beginning, I pigeonholed who I felt were the top people in the field or the people that I thought I was always learning from. And I’ve always tried to find a way to get in front of them and then slowly but surely make them friends and mentors.
I was blessed that one of my internship sites, the guy that owned the place was Ted Lambrinides, who knew everybody in the fitness industry and strength coach out there. So it was easy to get my foot in the door with a lot of people and just say, “Hey, Ted told me to talk to you.” But I’d say looking back on it, Ted was big for me.
Jim Kielbaso up in Detroit has been a huge mentor of mine. Ron McKeefery. I’ve always looked up to the work of Mike Boyle. I never met him in person. Always looked up to the work of Eric Cressey. So a lot of the big guys [in the fitness industry].
Lee Taft’s work has been heavily influential on me from a speed and agility standpoint. And I think that’s where, when you say mentors, that’s where a lot of young coaches get stuck. And I have this conversation with some of our interns. It’s like, “You can’t be afraid to ask somebody for help.” Like somebody in my situation, I love when people come to me and say, “Hey, I want to interview you. I want to talk to you. I want to learn from you.”
[Editor’s note: Learn from Lee Taft about correct foot position when increasing speed in the video below.]
I’m here to make the profession better and to make everybody better is the way I look at it. So I’m an open book and I’ll help whoever. And because there have been a lot of people that have helped me. And that’s just kind of how it is.
So you have to understand that if you’re going to reach out to somebody and ask them a question or ask them for help on something, as long as you do it nicely enough and you word it correctly, they will help you and people will help you in this field. And don’t feel like, “I can’t talk to that person because I have nothing to give them.” You’re giving them something by asking them for something. It’s a really weird way of putting it.
But you can’t hold that up and say, “I have nothing to offer this person, so therefore they’re never going to talk to me.” Right? So if you have the right connections and the right way to get in front of somebody, they’re going to talk to you. And then, you’ll be surprised at how much you have in common and the kind of friendships you can spark, especially in this industry.
Because that’s happened to me multiple times, where I have absolutely nothing to offer somebody. But then they become a very close friend and then a mentor and I can’t wait to see them again and just bounce ideas off of them.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, that resonates. Because we actually interviewed Ron McKeefery a couple of months ago and he is such—as you described him, he’s that times a thousand, you know? He is an open book and he wants to improve the profession and he just puts his time out there to want to help the young trainers and coaches and things like that.
And I feel that a lot of the guys you mentioned, Eric Cressey, Mike Boyle—they are the same way. They’re all a wealth of knowledge, but they also want to give back and help share with the upcoming crop of coaches.
And so, like you said, that’s a great piece of advice to never be afraid to reach out and ask because a lot of these guys, they want to help and do exactly that.
Kevin Hollabaugh: Yeah. Yeah. And you just, you got to frame it the right way. If you just ask a blatant question, and I don’t know who the hell you are, I’m probably not—you’re not on my to-do list to get done for that day. So I mean, if you word it correctly and you say—you may have mentioned somebody [we] knew in common or something like that.
You’re more likely to get a response than just kind of blatantly like, “Hey, how do you do this?” Well, I don’t know you that well, so I’m not going to share that secret with you. But if I get to know you, then, if you want to ask, that’s a different question.
Schimri Yoyo: I understand you have relationships that are key. That’s true in any profession and any walk of life. That’s a good piece of advice.
What do you do for fun when you’re not training and you’re not running your business?
Kevin Hollabaugh: Man, people keep asking me this lately and I feel terrible. I mean, as an entrepreneur or small business owner, there is no free time. I have a two-year-old and a five-year-old, so my life pretty much revolves around the business and them.
And I would love to get back to playing adult league baseball or sand volleyball or something competitive to that nature, but there just really isn’t time in the day for that. There needs to be. But there’s that whole guilty feeling of I am already at work for so long, so I need to be there for my family. So it’s really just hanging out with the boys, coach them, teach them, be able to watch them grow up.
Because in this profession, that’s something that you don’t always get. So for me to be able to put my head on my pillow at night and know that I’m in the same house every night as my wife and my two kids, that’s a win in my book.
Schimri Yoyo: Oh, yeah, that’s fun. Investing in your young children. That’s a good way to spend your time. I’m in the same boat. I have a six-year-old, a five-year-old, and a two-year-old. So I have a boy, girl, boy. So I know that pull.
Kevin Hollabaugh: Yeah. God bless you with three of them.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah. God bless my wife, too. She’s with them most of the day and she does a great job, and so we’re a good team that way.
Being a Coachable Coach
Now, thinking of your philosophy and methodology of strength training. What one word best describes that?
Kevin Hollabaugh: Evolving. That’s the first word that just came out. Big fan of Mike Boyle and he always says he’s always willing to say he was wrong. I’m always willing to say I was wrong and I’m always open to new ideas. I think that’s something that you have to be. I think you have to be smart about what you choose to evolve with.
Because like I mentioned before, I mean I’ve seen the pendulum go back and forth on different training styles and methodologies. I’ve seen exercises go from ridiculed to in-style to back to ridiculed.
And it’s just one of those where just know what you put out there and what you want to do. Make sure it’s backed by science and make sure you can answer the why of why you’re doing it. And if you can answer the why of why you’re doing something, then, by all means, do it.
But if you can’t really—if an athlete comes up to you and says, “Why are we front-squatting?” If you can’t describe to him why and back it with a scientific principle or research article, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. But at the same time, I feel like you have to be open to new ideas and take things with a grain of salt and digest it.
And I think what one of the bad things about our industry is you go to a conference or you see something on Instagram and, “Oh let me incorporate this. This looks cool.” And then you integrate it. But you just saw it and you knew it. I think if anybody has heard me talk before, like when I did McKeefery’s podcast, the whole thing was kind of based around knowing is not understanding, right?
So I either know something or I understand it. Know how to understand it first, then integrate it. So, I was recently introduced to a whole new philosophy on how to move and how to run and how to sprint.
If you told me I was actually going to try to understand that further and integrate it, I would’ve told you that you were nuts. But take a step back. The more you digest it, the more you understand it, the more you’re like, “This just makes sense.”
How do we move? How do we integrate this further with—from one person to two, the whole group setting? And that’s what I love about this field is always learning, always trying to evolve, always trying to make sure we’re doing the best thing for athletes.
And sometimes that means you were completely wrong about everything you ever knew, but you have to be able to do that. Otherwise, you’re going to be left behind. So I’d rather be on the cutting edge of something than left behind. But at the same time, I don’t want to be so far on the cutting edge that everybody else is looking at me and kind of laughing. I don’t understand it yet.
Like I can’t regurgitate it enough to make sense to everybody else. Like the core group, we’re working on some new stuff right now, it’s like I got to call as many coaches as I can and try to figure out why I feel like I understand this and if I’m nuts, I’m nuts. If I’m not nuts, then I’m onto something. And that’s kind of where I lie with everything.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, that makes sense. It seems like to be a good coach you have to be yourself coachable and humble and be willing to adopt and adapt as the situation calls for it.
And so you train both amateur athletes and some professional athletes, correct?
Kevin Hollabaugh: Yes.
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Schimri Yoyo: What have you noticed is the difference or what are some of the major differences between training professional athletes and then the amateur athletes?
Kevin Hollabaugh: Training age. And even sometimes training age isn’t even the right answer. I mean there are been pro guys where training age is zero. There are some times where my high schoolers are more advanced than the pro athlete because they’ve been training with me for three to four years.
I think the biggest thing—and even sometimes this isn’t the case—but most of the time with your pro athletes, the mentality of how they train, it’s their job. They attack it at a different level. A different level of seriousness than the high school [athlete]. But I have high school athletes where they attack it and train it like their job.
So I can’t really say it’s one or the other. It goes back to you as a coach, your principles and program design and understanding where people fit. Because like I said, I have some pros that are zero on a training age and I have some high school athletes that are higher on training age. I have some high school athletes that are zero on training age. It’s all an evolution.
Again, it’s all a cycle. It just depends on where they’re at. I think a lot of times we tend to get too fancy when you train both and it’s like, “Well the pros are doing this, so we want to do a derivative of this with the high schoolers so they feel better about themselves or something.”
And that’s not the case. Just keep it simple, stupid, at the end of the day, and make sure everybody’s being trained safely and efficiently and doing something that’s backed up with the why once again.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. That makes sense. Now, what’s the relationship that you see between the strength and conditioning and the injury prevention and then the rehabilitation? How do they all work together?
Kevin Hollabaugh: It’s really—Are you talking from like a multi-facet approach? So, if we’re talking like athlete-centered, how do I work with the doctor? How do I work with the athletic trainer, the PT, or is it just how do we integrate all those principles into our program, I guess?
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, the more the latter. How do you incorporate all those principles into your program?
Kevin Hollabaugh: For us, it’s a balance. So our high schoolers and middle schoolers, when they come in, everything’s done in a group setting. So they’ll come in, they’ll have their individual workout sheets. We have their correctives or pre-work. We’ll do that before the session starts. Then we’ll warm up together as a group. They’ll go through speed and agility. They’ll come back over. They’ll go through their individual lifts.
And then we’ll condition at the end. So it’s finding a balance to—Most of the kids enjoy having the extra correctives and free work at the top because they know it’s helping them. It’s specific to them, once again, so they’re more bought-in versus the mass mentality.
It’s not getting too heavy into it is what I found. In a day, [concerning] injury prevention, most kids are just weak, right? Just finding out where they’re weakest and where their movements are leaking energy the most and then helping them by creating a program around that. Versus like some of the kids that come in, they’re fresh off surgery, they’re in like a return-to-play program.
A lot of times it’s just the physical therapy program might be a lot slower of a progression than us, but making sure that we’re working together with them. Just knowing how to progress, I guess, as I digress and get on a soapbox here, but—
Schimri Yoyo: No, no, that’s good. Now you are also an educator, right? You’d do some adjunct faculty work from time to time. What’s tougher to stomach for you? A poor course evaluation or a negative customer review of your business?
Kevin Hollabaugh: I would say if somebody had a negative customer review of my business because that’s a reflection on me. It’s a reflection on my leadership ability, my managerial style and how I prepare the brand to move forward. So yeah, I would say that would be—I would probably lose my shit if that happened.
And things like that’s just the generational thing. Like the kids just don’t get it. Like I couldn’t care less—I’ve had multiple times where I’m talking with my administrator/manager about things I’ve done wrong. It’s just, “Well, sorry they didn’t turn in their work. I can’t extend the due date for every kid just because they can’t log online and they can’t read directions.” Like that’s just a generational—I couldn’t care less about that.
Schimri Yoyo: How do you measure progress for yourself and for your clients?
Kevin Hollabaugh: For clients, it’s easy. Every six weeks, we’re re-evaluating. For example, today’s an evaluation day. So we’ll get progress reports on all the kids there. They all have individual workout cards. So, I can tell if they’re going up in weight or not. So the number one mistake: our kids like to put checkmarks instead of weights on the workout cards.
My sarcastic self when they ask how much weight to do is, “Just do a bigger checkmark because that’s all you put down.” But as far as for myself, this is a huge problem of mine, is I am so competitive and so entrepreneurial, it’s not funny. I never take moments to look back and say, “Look what we’ve done. Look what we’ve created.”
I always set extremely high expectations and goals, and most of the time most people would say they’re unobtainable because I want to shoot—It’s that old adage: “Shoot for the stars. If you end up short, at least you’re among them.” Right?
Very lofty and like it’s just, I don’t ever take time to reflect. I should. This is a big problem and I just… It’s funny you asked that because I just posted it in our business group. Like, here’s my last week. I was mentally a train wreck because of X, Y, and Z and I just cannot… I’m my own worst enemy, honestly. Because I can never just look in the mirror and say, “Good job. Look what we’ve done.”
Creating an Attractive Business Culture
Schimri Yoyo: Well, actually, that leads me to my next question. Let’s take some time right now to reflect. What makes you and your team at ProForce Sports Performance unique? Brag about yourself a little bit.
Kevin Hollabaugh: I don’t think you can get me to do that. I would just say we’re unique in essence that we genuinely care about each athlete or each member. They’re genuinely part of our family. From day one, I try to instill a culture of that #PFFamily. Like we’re going to show up at your games, we’re going to care about you, and we’re going to show you how much we care about you. You’re not just a dollar number to us. You’re a person.
And I think each of our team members, their personality’s a fit with the company. It’s not, “Do they know the X’s and O’s?” I can teach you the X and O’s of how I want you to train somebody. I need a personality. And it’s just kind of what we talked—I mentioned creating a brand and identity for the brand versus just the workouts identify who it is. I think that’s what makes us unique. Like the last two years we’ve won Best of Cincinnati and I don’t think—I mean you don’t just get votes for that just because your workouts are good.
If somebody misses two or three days, one of my staff and I are texting them and like, “Hey, where you at? What’s going on?” And it’s been growing over the last five years. But I mean, it’s nothing—I’ll have clients tell me all the time that are here from day one like, “Dude, I can’t believe how big this is now” or something. It’s kind of the vision I always had. It just happened because I had the vision and I stuck to the plan that I had in my head.
And making sure that we’re supporting each coach the way they want to be supported. What are their goals? Not just from a coaching standpoint. And how they fit into the family, so to speak. But what are their personal goals? How can I help them achieve their personal goals?
A big thing for me is I should pay myself more. I don’t because I want the people who work for me to be able to buy a house, raise a family. Why they work here instead of having to feel like they have to job hop to get to where they want to go. So that’s just—I think that all creates the brand and the identity and the family feel.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah. That community and that familial atmosphere is definitely something that is hard to create. But it’s genuine when it’s there. So obviously, you know, winning those Best of Cincinnati awards, those are things to be bragging about. And like you said, those don’t come out of nowhere. So you must be doing something right. So that’s definitely something you can take pride in.
What are some ways that you’re using social media or technology to promote your services?
Kevin Hollabaugh: Oh, we use a ton of social media. Like I mentioned, we try to have like that hashtag PFfam or family. So the cool thing is like this past year other people started finally tagging it instead of just me.
Promoting wins for athletes is always huge for us. So if they had a good game or they send us a photo, posting that out there. Celebrating the victories of our family is huge for us on social. We have a whole marketing plan laid out where Monday we post this, Tuesday we post this, Wednesday this goes up. That’s been big for us because it keeps you on schedule.
So, as an entrepreneur, the biggest downfall is you don’t have somebody telling you what to do. So always making calendars that kind of hold yourself accountable and following through with that, especially with social, that’s helped a lot.
And then just making sure other people are actually following you. So, all of our athletes follow us. So then that way I can see on their feed. If they post something about an athletic achievement, we’re commenting on it. And then you can start comment wars. Like you have the athletes coming in saying, “You commented on so-and-so’s post without commenting on mine.”
“Well, you don’t follow us. Follow us.” And then that’s how you get more visible, in my opinion. Posting good content and it’s not just, “Look at me, look at this new exercise.” I know that’s how you can get some followers and stuff. But good educational content is what we try to post.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s right. Good educational content and active engagement. That’s a good recipe for social media success. So thank you, again, Kevin, for your time. I want to be mindful of that. We’re thankful for all the information that you’ve given us.
One last question for you and I think this will serve our audience well, as well. Do you have any resources to recommend, whether it be books, podcasts, magazines? And it doesn’t necessarily have to be fitness-related. Anything that you’ve benefited from that you think would be of value to our audience?
Kevin Hollabaugh: Something that’s helped me out immensely is just seek mentors, whether it be business-related or training-related. Ask, seek, and be willing to not just always ask for free things, but also pay those to help you and then—
Schimri Yoyo: Invest in yourself.
Kevin Hollabaugh: Yeah. It took me a long time to figure that one out because you always want to spend on the business and you’re like, “No I’ve got to spend on me, too.” As far as books, I’ve really gone down the road of, I don’t read much from a training side anymore. I like to talk to other coaches about that stuff.
Most of my reading is about personal-related stuff. Leadership or about the business. Right now, I’m reading a really good book called Shoe Dog. It’s about Phil Knight and his journey creating Nike. Really good book, actually.
Schimri Yoyo: Excellent. Excellent book. Excellent.
Kevin Hollabaugh: Yeah. I’m not even halfway through it, but I’m really enjoying it. So yeah, I mean, I’m not much help on this one.
Schimri Yoyo: No, that’s a great suggestion right there. Shoe Dog. That’s a good one.
Kevin Hollabaugh: I mean obviously follow our Instagram, duh! But ProForceSP. But, outside of that, follow anybody who’s actually done something in the business, I guess. Don’t just follow somebody because they always post online.
But to your credit earlier, like saying that we’re trying to counteract all the Instagram fitness gurus out there. Ask them who have they trained. Like sometimes, I don’t get a lot of media content up there because I’m training all the time and I’m actually training kids and other people. And I know how to do that. Or you can post workout videos.
Schimri Yoyo: No, that’s awesome. That’s great advice. And we definitely, like I said, we’re seeking mentorship from people who actually have accomplished things and who have the credentials to make a difference and help out, you know, not just any Joe Off The Street. So that’s definitely something that we can both champion.
So thank you again, Kevin, for your time. And we appreciate it. Good luck to you and the PF family out there in the Cincinnati area and we hope that you continue to grow and have success.
Kevin Hollabaugh: Appreciate it.
Schimri Yoyo: Alright. Have a good one then.
Kevin Hollabaugh: Thanks.
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Schimri Yoyo is a writer for Exercise.com and a financial advisor with active life and health insurance licenses. In a past life, he covered Villanova Men’s Basketball and Big East Football for Examiner.com. Schimri has also produced freelance copywriting, editing, and proofreading for various websites and online publications for over a decade. He is an avid sports fan, possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Boston Celtics, Boston Red Sox, and San Francisco 49ers. Schimri is an educator and a storyteller who is eager to assist individuals and families to stay financially and physically fit.