Into the mind of the coach: Richard Ficca

  • (Read the other interviews – links at the project’s page, “Into the mind of the coach“)
  • Please tell us something about yourself: where and when were you born and places you lived. Where do you live now?

I was born and raised in Tampa, Florida.  Between college and the US Military I have also lived in South Carolina, Georgia, Alaska, and Italy.  That said, Tampa Bay is definitely my home and I currently live with my wife and son in Palm Harbor, FL and have two businesses here in Tampa Bay.

  • How would you describe yourself as a child? Very active? What types of activity interested you the most? Did you get involved with sports at an early age?

If you deem running the streets active, yes I was a very active child.  That said, I also played basketball, football, or baseball either by myself or with friends almost every day after school at a public park by our home.  My parents bought me a Joe Weider weight set, the kind with the cement filled plastic plates when I was 12, and I was hooked.

  • Was any athlete your hero as a kid? If so, who?

The first athlete I really remember thinking was “the man” was Iron Mike Tyson, I hung a picture of him that read “Champion” on my wall.  I loved that he was a poor kid (as was I) becoming the heavyweight champ of the world.   I was crushed when all the charges against him began and played out.  While I was a fan of players, after Mike, I never really had another hero per se.

  • Were you involved in sports during High school? How was that experience? At that age, did you already entertain the idea of becoming professionally involved with sports/training?

I was an injury prone kid and my mom hated the idea of me playing football and avoided it until I demanded it the summer before 8th grade.  She relented and once I got into middle school I played football and did field including shot put and discus and in high school I played football and wrestled, but all throughout school, I loved the weight room and the solace it gave me.

  • When and how did you decide to become a coach? Can you tell us a little about that choice and what it involved? Did your family support your decision?

I don’t know that I made a conscious effort to begin coaching athletes, I am still hesitant to use the term coach because I hold that term in high regard and do not know that I see myself as having earned it.  That said, I do coach athletes and our team on a daily basis and try every day to get better at my craft.  Now that I know it is part of my life and what I do, I want to continue to get better at it.

  • Did you / are you involved in sports as an athlete? If so, how does your experience as an athlete influence your decisions in coaching?

I compete in raw powerlifting at a decent level; I am proud of my accomplishments but have so many more I want to hit that I do not feel “elite” in my own mind.  I also do an occasional strongman competition as well.

For Coaching, I think experience is such a big part of coaching or wisdom in general.  I think it is hard, even if formally well-educated to “coach” because it takes trial and error, and results good and bad to really start to understand what works and what doesn’t.  It also takes years to realize that none of us (well most of us) aren’t as bright as we think we are and I was almost 40 before I started to realize that my theories weren’t always right and to take my new ideas with a tempered excitement instead of thinking I now have it.  Plus coaching is helping understand people outside of the iron, and again, it is hard to do that without the life experience to back it up.  Currently, I am working through the challenges of becoming a Master age lifter and what that means, for my training and those folks I train as well who are also north of 40.

  • Are you an athlete now? Tell us a little about your sports career, your achievements and your goals.

For PL, I have a 2077 total with a high 7’s squat currently, just over 600 raw bench, and a low 7’s pull.  I am proud that I can now do all three at a decent level instead of just being the bench specialist I began as.  I still have hopes of beating Kaz’s 661 bench in a legit full meet.  I think a 650 plus bench with a 2200 (and maybe even a 2300) total would be a well-rounded accomplishment and to do it at 40+ would be a win for the old guys.


  • What is your educational background? Do you think school provided you with good tools for the profession you chose?

I have a BA in Finance and a BA in marketing.  I think they help me as a gym owner but my day job is I am an insurance geek and own an agency with a team of 7 of us.  It helps me to have a business mind because I think is helps me to be critical, analytical, and see both sides of a situation.  I have been to countless seminars on training, have the pleasure of having Dr. Fred Hatfield as a mentor, Josh Bryant as my coach, and Jenn Rotsinger as my training partner.  I am surrounded by people far smarter than I and love to absorb their protocols, methods, and ideas; even when we agree to disagree.   I am formalizing my education with the ISSA and do not know how far I will take that.  I am debating trying to earn my Masters thru their program but for now, just using their courses to better myself.

  • At what age did you start coaching at a professional level? How was that beginning (where, who helped you the most, what were your greatest challenges)?

Again, I get nervous using the term “coaching” when speaking about myself but I have written programming for athletes for over 10 years and I am doing it much more extensively over the past 5 years.

  • Who were your greatest influences? Who and what impacted your work the most? Can be anything: a member of the family deeply involved with something that geared you in that direction, an athlete you admired, an author that made a difference, an experience that changed your life, etc.

I was blessed with strong men in my life throughout my life which I think has helped me to be a strong man as well, (pros and cons to that but that is a whole other conversation).  As a kid I looked up to the normal folks, my dad, my older brothers (all are significantly older than I am), my uncles, etc.  But I was really shaped by my time in the US Army.  I had some of the best leaders a young man can have and my First Sergeant and Company Commander, Dennis Dunn and Christopher Vanek.   Both were the epitome of what you want in a military leader and I profited from my time underneath them more than I can express.  I was pushed hard by and pushed myself for these two men more than I could ever thought possible, and the mental reward I will carry with me for the rest of my life and I guess my son will benefit from their influence on me as well.

  • If you feel comfortable, I’d like to know your thoughts about the educational background for coaches in your country: are the programs available adequate for your needs? What do you think makes a strong basis for coaching? How did you obtain this?

I think it is average at best in the US.  I would love to see more dynamic learning tools available to us as people and coaches in strength sports.  I would love to see a requirement system to put a shingle out to protect lifters from those who just do not know what they are doing.  At minimum, some type of litmus test.  I would love to see more studies using true scientific method to determine what works and what does not, to start to calculate numerically what success in a lifter is.  If I get 25% growth in an absolute newbie during a training cycle, is that in line, above average or am I actually failing that person?  Conversely, if I get a 5% growth in an intermediate lifter how have I performed, and how have the protocols faired?   What about an older lifter, is growth realistic (I pray it is as one of those lifters) and what is the cost benefit analysis on a perceived expectation of growth versus risk of injury

  • The golden question: what is your approach to training (your “training philosophy”, meaning the way to organize exercises in a program, progression, principles to observe, whatever you think defines YOUR approach)?

I could go on for days but  the reader’s digest version of what I believe is that you can use relatively heavy weight (85 to 95%) at relatively high volumes (multiple sets of 2-5 as opposed to less sets with more reps) and illicit a response from it far faster than by doing rep after rep in a 70% range.  Of course this requires more rest and the workouts are intense and mentally challenging.  I find that athletes who do training cycles with tons of reps at 70-75% for say 6 reps per set get stronger in this range and it is great to watch but it doesn’t always translate into their ability to turn it into a higher 1RM.  On the flip side, I do not like seeing athletes testing their strength in 100% 1RM ranges instead of building their strength session in, session out.  I believe in the good old basics, squat, bench, dead, military press, rows, shrugs, dips, etc and think we have become so sophisticated we try to improve on wheels that are already perfectly round.  I am not saying accessory work is bad, I do tons of it; but in my humble opinion the way to squat, bench , and pull is to squat, bench, and pull.

  • The gap between science and practice: in your experience, how much does current scientific knowledge on exercise physiology, kinesiology, biomechanics, etc contribute to your daily decisions in coaching and how much does it fail to?

I freaking love science and it helps us tremendously!  Nutrition in particular comes to mind for healthier athletes instead of just strength by McDonalds concepts.  Also, how to far quicker and more effectively overcome injuries, etc.  And as cool as that is, if we also deem the experience we have in the sport as science of the sport; any coach worth their gym membership knows to use exercises and protocols to fix issues. For example, we know that if your hams are weak, GHR’s and reverse hyper are an easy way to correct it.  Dead press to work out of the hole starting strength, rack pulls for lockout, etc.  This is amazing that we have all this data we have earned ourselves, but the world today provides us access to the information for things we haven’t seen firsthand.  (But as I cautioned up above, too much of this Google knowledge gets potentially dangerous to me).  That said since you asked about the flipside, the problem I have with the science of our sport is that I see 2 things happen regularly.  1)  We as coaches get a hammer and everything becomes a nail.  We learn some tidbit or potentially accurate (or not) piece of data and now we change our protocols, our programming, our response to everything until the next great tidbit for every athlete.  This one size fits all approach is not going to help our athletes grow.  2)  Sadly our science has been tainted by our need for journalism, (no offense) and the need to write new articles has folks disputing what we knew just because saying everything you already knew is right doesn’t sell whatever the hell we sell these days.

  • What were your biggest challenges as a coach? Can you give us some examples (stories)? What do you think contributed for you to make the best call?

Not letting the lifter’s excitement cloud your judgement of what they should be doing on the platform or for that matter in training.  Especially on the platform, we become (in our minds) invincible as athletes and it is a coach’s job to bring them off the ledge.  Early on in my handling of lifters, I would allow their clouded judgment to cloud mine, and at times they would go 4, 5, or 6 for 9 as a result.  All that work to come up short is disheartening and my job was to help them be their best that day which they were not which means I failed them.  This sport is hard, sometimes it just isn’t a lifter’s day, we ask our bodies to train for one specific point in time and be optimal for a 12 hour window in that 12-16 weeks.  The body is far too sophisticated for monkeys like us to get that right every time, but as a coach I can maximize the chance for success.  As I have learned to use discipline with my team on the platform, we are seeing far more 7,8, and 9 for 9 meets where they are successful on that stage and the joy it brings them is awesome; not a ton of money in our sport so joy is why we do it. As an aside, these decisions affect everyday life; as a coach, when I let a lifter “go for it” or when I think they have it and allow them to “not go for it” I have potentially hurt their next 12 week training cycle, their profession, their lives.  A lifter that goes 8 for 9 with 3 PR’s carries a feeling of success that permeates his or her work, relationships, etc.  Now I am not saying a bad day on the platform means you will fail in life, I am just saying it can help be the final push to believing in themselves enough to ask for that raise, take that new job, etc.

  • Some professionals in the health care fields become so traumatized when making a bad call with a patient/client that they give up. Did you ever make a bad call? How did you handle that? What advice would you give to younger people starting their coaching career?

There is no question you will make the wrong call, it is a natural function of making decisions over and over and a foregone conclusion as a coach.  How you profit from these errors is the key.  Did I push this person too hard so they quit?  Did I over train this person and cause a repetitive use injury?   Should I have chewed them out more about skipping training?  Should I have made them do more floor press this cycle?  Should I have put them in their wraps sooner?  As a business owner, I make calls all day every day and as I stated above, some will be spot on, some will be wrong but not really affect anything, and you pray that none are nuclear meltdown mistakes but if they are, if you don’t learn from it you truly lost twice, if you do you at least gain equity from the mistake.

  • How do you handle special groups, such as the elderly, pregnant women and the disabled? How is the communication with their primary health care professionals? Is it necessary and is it easy? What advice would you have for younger coaches when they are contacted by their first “special” client?

I typically do not but I am just smart enough to know that I am dumb enough to lean on professionals who do.

  • What is your clientele today? (types of people and their needs) Do you have a preference for one or another type?

Our gym has over 50 members and I have input on some level in about 15-20 of their training cycles.  These are folks who compete and I am hoping to assist them to do the best they can on the platform.  Add to that another 10 folks I give basic guidance to for weight loss, etc.

  • Athletes: in which way are they different (or not) from other clients?

Athletes are hard because they seek you out for guidance and for a limited window of time they truly listen, truly follow the program, truly give viable feedback.  The hard part is as they continue to get outside influence and get bored with your same old same old, they tend to deviate from the plan and then blame the plan for not working,  I am pretty candid here with athletes, either I am handling you soup to nuts and you listen, or I will give basic advice and do the rest yourself.  But I do not like being in charge of a program being half followed.

  • Emotional / psychological aspects of coaching: if you had to instruct a group of young coaches, what would you say is the best professional attitude a coach must have concerning the emotional burden clients bring into the coach-client relationship? Besides a general approach, do you think some types of clients demand extra emotional work? Examples: anorexic young females, low self-esteem people in general, depressed or other psychiatric condition patients, over-stressed business people, etc.

With good old fashioned every day clients there is still such a range of personality types that a single approach probably will not work very well.  That said, my athletes know that what I say I mean, a critique is for purpose, and a compliment is sincere.  I am pretty brazen in the gym, the energy I get walking into a gym most days fuels that persona from me, but I still try to know who to press, who to congratulate.  A good coach can use the carrot and the stick equally effective.

  • Non-presential coaching (online programming and/or coaching): what are the challenges? What to you require from clients to conduct a successful program?

I do very little of this but my coach Josh Bryant is in Texas and we have a tremendous relationship.  You have to be honest with them.  You have to tell them when you skipped an exercise, skipped a session, hate an exercise, etc or it will not be near as effective as it can be.  My first 6 months with Josh I regressed, not his fault but because I didn’t provide the feedback he needed to help me.  Since then I have really come on.  Also, the athlete has to be a self-starter for this to work.

  • You have your own facility. How did your training approach guide the construction of this training center (as in choice of equipment, special organization, etc)? If you had to offer advice to someone opening their first gym (suppose a tight budget and not-so-tight), what would you say are the most important structural and organizational elements in such a place?

Gonna need more pages.  For me Gorilla Bench Training Center was built with the idea to house PL, SM, and Oly lifting with maybe a little Highland Games too.  First the tools needed were a monolift, combo rack, speciality bars to practice on, and tons of weight.  As we grow, I do not try to match equipment per se, I prefer different racks, different benches, etc so a lifter can utilize the tools they may use at their next meet.  We are hoping to expand and I want to expand our footprint into other extreme sports, such as parkour, obstacle training, etc.  Anything that is a little off the beat and path and about getting stronger is where I want us to be.  From a semiotic approach, the culture of a gym is the most important thing.  Our rules board is cannon to us.  Rules like everyone spots and loads, no one is better than anyone else, offer advice if asked, shut up if not are part of why our gym is in my mind working,  Different gyms have different cultures and more power to them, but your accomplishments past or present do not excuse you from being part of our team.  They do not excuse not yelling for the new lifter whose trying to break 200lbs when you squat 800.  To me, this is the most important part of a gym is that it has a culture, not necessarily like ours, but that it has one.  And to me, this is far more important than what bench you purchase.  My proudest moments at meets are when I see our team wrapping not only each other’s legs, etc but helping out a lifter who doesn’t have a handler, offering help to newbies, etc.  If I can be part of our team making that mark on the sport, I will be happy.


  • You are a powerlifting leader, meet organizer and State Chairman with the USPA. Do these roles overlap with your role as a coach? Do you transfer to your organizational roles some of what you learned as a coach? Is a coach a better sports leader?

Here we go with terms again.  Everything in this life overlaps.  I think you should use every lesson you learn in life to try to better every other facet of your life.

I have allowed myself to become less than I could be in the past, and when this happened, I was less than my best in most aspects of my life.  I am having a personal renaissance.  I am blessed to have an amazing life with a beautiful wife and son, I have a successful business with amazing team members who allow me to be as busy as I am and in 1000 directions because they are so good at what they do holding my insurance agency down.  I have great gym members who help teach and uphold our culture on and off the platform.  At this moment, I am trying to do the right thing in every situation, God knows I won’t, but I think that as long as I do that, it will work out.  If I am fair and honest with lifters at meets, they will respect it and support them, which will help our entire federation.  I try to be equally as fair with my teammates, gym members, and people in general.  I am just a big dumb Gorilla, but that’s enough if people believe I am honest and ethical.


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