Mike Cassidy’s 35-year career with the YMCA started as a weight room attendant in Arizona and continued to develop to his current role as COO at the YMCA of the East Bay. In each step of his journey, Mike felt the importance of staying planted to truly hone an entrepreneurial and creative attitude. For Mike, this has included a deep investigation into vulnerabilities of the Y Movement, and seeking affective solutions. This type of creative thinking served Mike and his branch well throughout the pandemic. Key takeaways in this episode include:

  • Vulnerability as Opportunity. Addressing our weak spots can help us blossom. Mike realized some key areas within his Y that could use some scrubbing, like requiring paper forms instead of online registration, and losing members to more expensive facilities. weight machines that don’t address members’ holistic fitness goals.
  • Member Results Based Program Strategy. This all began with a shift to functional fitness. Noticing that this type of exercise relies on natural movements of the body, Mike realized that building a functional fitness affiliate within their Y would help them prevent membership loss and better serve a range of fitness levels. Members of all ages are now able to engage in this programming and see improved fitness results from their efforts.
  • Redesigned Fitness Centers. In adopting a program strategy rooted in results and data, Mike was able to see benefit in redesigning the space toward these efforts of achieving members’ goals. This was a heavy lift with lots of moving parts and coordination, but ultimately led to major growth in membership joins..  

This interview took place on March 19, 2020.

‍Podcast Transcription

Saranda West: Have you gotten to the point in a project, a decision or in life, where you look back to a time and say “That was pivotal” and it majorly changed the direction you were headed? I have a personal example of this. Several years ago, I made a commitment to focus on my health. Over the course of a year, I lost 40 pounds. Now I’ve gained some of that back. Thanks, COVID.

But, I’m to a point where I now can tell when I’m healthy based on how I feel, my movement, not a scale. That was a pivotal moment for me in my life. It’s so easy to reflect back on a life-changing time like this and forget how much daily work and determination and grit into that process. In this episode with Mike Cassidy, you’re going to hear another example of one of these pivotal moments.

Mike is a pioneer in his field. He’s also super humble in describing his Y shift in their business, but I know many hours, how much consideration and determination went into making this happen. Of course, as we look back to 2020, I know his team was well-prepared to recognize that their mission hadn’t changed and they leaned into serving their community even more because they were prepared.

I hope you leave this episode with some gratitude for these pivotal moments.  

Mike Cassidy: We, as an organization, are data rich. We have more information and it’s overwhelming how much information we have, and data rich, yet I think sometimes we’re strategy and execution poor. I think we’ve got all this data and information, and it can be overwhelming paralyzing and tough to make a decision.  

The data was clear. It was also external. We were watching the growth of Orange Theory and all these boutiques and studios. We just said, “We gotta try something.”  

SW: Accelerant, a substance use to aid the spread of fire. Accelerating or causing acceleration. This is the Accelerant podcast.

Hi there. Thank you for joining me today on the show. I’m your host, Saranda West. I hope you’re ready for another personal inspiration, because Mike always brings it. We’re going to be talking with Mike Cassidy. Mike has a long career in the YMCA movement, but currently is the Chief Operating Officer of the YMCA of the East Bay.

Mike, thanks for joining us.  

MC: Thank you for having me, Saranda. It’s great to be here.  

SW: Good. Would you start off and just tell us…I know everyone, if you’re in the YMCA world, [you recognize the question] “do you have a Y story?” Would you fill us in on your own?

Mike’s Y Story

MC: I grew up in Massachusetts, and it was while I was a student at the University of Arizona, I saw a job and it said Weight Room Attendant, and I thought, “Wow, that can be a real job.”

I applied for the job and got the job. It was at a small YMCA in Tucson, Arizona, and I fell in love. I had my little domain of my own weight room and I thought it was amazing. You could eat off of any surface in there. I took great pride in it, but the more I learned about the Y invent certified and Y certifications, I saw a real alignment with my personal values.

I always felt comfortable in the fitness setting and I really found an opportunity there to make everyone else feel comfortable in that setting. That started it. That was 30 to 35 years ago. I became a director 32 years ago in Tucson.

Then I was with the YMCA of San Francisco for a number of years. My first exec role was in Phoenix, Arizona. Glendale, Arizona, the Glendale branch. I stayed a number of years in places. I really believe that you bloom where you’re planted, that grass isn’t always greener, so I just tried to succeed and learn where I could.

As I went through my career, when I was younger, I would say, “Wow, they really took a chance on me,” and I used to have that attitude, but in my role now, what I’m realizing is the leaders I worked for, they saw something in me.  

I’m greatly appreciative, and I’ve tried to pay it forward since. That’s my Y story. 35 years in.  

SW: That’s a great Y story. Mike, you said you just loved it when you were the weight attendant started out. What has kept that love going?

Keeping the Flame

MC: Part of it is there’s an opportunity to be entrepreneurial, and I think I’ve had some great bosses that actually fed that desire in me and kept that fire lit. You give the opportunity to be creative, I think in any role, whether you’re an accountant, you’re at the front desk or in fitness, the opportunity to be creative and express ourselves creatively, I think is what keeps us around.

If somebody said to you 15 years ago, you’d be doing a podcast working for Daxko, you would have said “No way,” but now look where we have it. I’ve been able to really express that creativity for all 30 years and it’s been a blast.

SW: Perfect. The big exciting part to me is, we don’t know what the next 10 are gonna hold., right? Like who knows.  

MC: We couldn’t have predicted 2020, that’s for sure.  

SW: We’ll get to that. Oh, my goodness.

The pandemic and COVID-19, and obviously we’ve just been through a year working our way through the next one. How have you seen the Y change and adapt over the past year?

Change and Adaptation in the Y

MC: Our mission hasn’t changed at all. Our CEO said something early on. He said, “Our mission hasn’t changed the one bit, but the expression of our mission changed.”

I think for me and our team, it reaffirmed our mission. For decades, we’ve known good nutrition and regular exercise, good sleep, our vehicles to good health. In regards to this virus, healthy behaviors potentially could save people’s lives, so there’s that piece, but we learned a few things, right?

We learned our vulnerability in that we were very facility-fixed, or a facility centric, everything revolved in one row where we were doing in buildings. When our buildings were shuttered, we thought, “Oh my goodness.”

So yeah, we had to, like everyone else, pivot. We pivoted quick. We also saw other needs based on our community presence, food deliveries, food pantry, partnerships, feeding kids, digital hubs for learning.

We’re obviously the youth piece in our afterschool programming, so strong and robust or to trust to provide or our community. Parents trusted us to keep their kids safe while they’re in school virtually. Then there’s a virtual fitness piece where we’re a content provider-partner for Y360.

We are also connecting with our members much like this. We’re connecting with them on Zoom, trying to solve for a lot of things. Just keeping them connected. Obviously, we want to be open again, and it’s where members will come to like being that third place for folks. But we’re also focused virtually that’s going to be a part of our future.

There’s no doubt in our mind: We’ve got to get better digitally. We were paper bound and we’d come to join and we’ve got this encyclopedia for you to fill out, to be a member. Now, if you join, you can do it online. Thank you, by the way, for helping us do that. It was quite a challenge, but we were part of our vulnerability was our brand centric.

We were also vulnerable to the processes that we were just anchored to. We have a climate advantage, outside/outdoor. I think outdoor is going to be a large part of our ongoing strategy is as we move forward. We’re looking at building an air nauseum and we’re grabbing pieces of parking lots and patios, and we’re redesigning all our indoor.

We didn’t put every other machine out of order. We extracted the equipment so that now we have physical distancing and things like that. We were looking for you. We looked through our fitness centers and we’re like, “You know what? These look really good. You can actually tell the areas clean when the treadmills aren’t mashed together.”

There could be dust bunnies under there. Nobody knows, but now they’re spaced in the areas.

We continued with our functional fitness movement, so people have the space to move well and maintain a physical distance from each other. So COVID-19, it’s been a lot of learning for all of us.

SW: I think that’s one of the things. Like you said, you ask yourself, “Why don’t we do something?” And you say, “Because that’s how I’ve always done it.”

MC: Let’s never say that, right? I think we got to ask ourselves that in a lot of ways, like, “Why do we do it this way?” I don’t know, because we always have. You get a chance to rethink and, and really, like you said, prioritize on what’s most important.

SW: Yeah. The moves we’re making now we’re investing in the resilience.

I know that you have this huge passion for fitness, of course, but also functional fitness. How have you seen this from you starting your career to where it is in the Y movement today?

Functional Fitness at the YMCA of the East Bay

MC: That’s a really good question. Functional fitness, I think is that’s getting over marketed now. I’ll define my definition so that you understand where I’m coming from on it.

Functional fitness is functional movements that are naturally occurring. That’s it. Squat, deadlift, push press and pulling motion. They occur in nature. We do them every single day. We get up and off a chair. My 77-year-old mom lifts her groceries off the ground. That’s a deadlift. If she moves a gallon of water from the ground to her countertop, that’s actually an Olympic lift.

It’s not a clean, when you think about it. It’s functional movements that we do in nature, and they require a no or minimal equipment to perform, hence the success of some of our efforts in COVID. I always knew the movements, deadlift, squat, push press. I knew all those and was certified, and all these certifying bodies over the years, but I never saw them introduced into a methodology until I tried CrossFit.  

CrossFit defines their methodology as constantly very functional movements, executed at high intensity. Now, that intensity is relative. It’s relative to the individual and the person and the intensity’s achieved through either load or time or a combination thereof. When I went through my first CrossFit workout, they said, “Hey, we’re going to put you through a workout. It’s seven minutes.” I thought, “Seven minutes?!”

I’m used to being in the gym for an hour or maybe two, and seven minutes. The equipment was a set of rings and a box. That was it, and in seven minutes, I was flattened out. You know, it was a combination of box jumps or step-ups, and I think pushups and air spots. It was just a quick, you at seven minutes, but I’ll tell you four minutes in.

I thought, Whoa, I really thought I had found the Holy grail of fitness here. And in 30 years of being in the fitness, I’d never seen a methodology so transformative, metabolically, mobility wise, strength wise, and the ability to build community within that. I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to peel the curtain back and learn more all ages, all abilities and from the broomsticks.  

It’s not an equipment-intensive programming. I kept falling back to, “Okay. It’s functional movements. It’s functional.” It’s hard to scale. We launched an affiliate at our Pleasantville branch, but it’s a challenge to scale a one coach, maybe 10 to 12 people can be served really well in the traditional CrossFit setting.

I thought, “Well, we have over 50,000 membership units, pre-COVID of course, but I thought, how do I scale this? That was in 2014. Also in 2014, we started to see this trend where people were joining these boutique studios, CrossFit boxes, and I thought I could just start to see something going on, they’re leaving a moderately priced YMCA for a $200 a month, $300 a month sometimes small setting, one bathroom.

We have acres of toilets and lockers, and we brag about how many treadmills we have. I have a thousand group exercise classes a week. there’s this exit it’s out. I thought, “Okay. Couple of things going on.”

I’m personally getting results participating in this program that has functional fitness as its foundation members are leaving to achieve results somewhere else, or they’re keeping their membership and they’re going to this boutique setting.

I was like, ““W’ve got to find out what’s going on.” So, in our association, we adopted a member results, bias programming strategy. We’d gotten caught up in considering value was all the stuff you got. If you’re a Y member versus making the value of the results you’ll achieve when you’re in our Y, in our programs and our facility.

When we shifted to that, it was frightening and scary moving to functional fitness and getting rid of these machines that are so comfortable to our members and our staff, a fixed range of motion type of movements. It was frightening and it was also liberating because it gave us clarity in terms of our decision-making.

We were going to make decisions that are going to be results-biased, or a result-based for members. We knew what we wanted to start doing, but it was also really clear what we needed to stop doing. It gave us that room, space and bandwidth to start experimenting. That’s what we did. We eliminated tons of fitness equipment.

We opened up spaces and added functional fitness training equipment, kettlebells, weightlifting platforms, pull up bars and eliminated the redundancy of some of our circuit equipment. A fixed piece of equipment doesn’t address the context of a member’s ability, their limitations or even their goals. It can shift behavior change potentially, but a leg extension doesn’t help someone get up and off a chair during the day.

We redesigned all of our fitness centers and growth was phenomenal. The membership growth is pretty monumental. We have a philosophy that we haven’t touched our rates for over a decade. We don’t raise rates, but we want to provide the best absolute value. Then to see this exponential growth based on the strategy, it was phenomenal.

To see members actually begin succeeding and really achieving the results that they came or that they joined for. It was heartening, and we were excited. I love that you really capitalize on an opportunity, because with the different boutique gyms, it depends on who you are.

SW: Right. I’m a mom of three. I can’t go to a CrossFit class because I have nowhere to take my kids, but if you can really appeal to that, the family, you know, who the YMCA serves in a lot of ways. There’s real opportunity in that, too.

MC: I probably wouldn’t put a CrossFit affiliate in every branch, but at Pleasant Hill, we did.

We’ve got all agents. I mean the CrossFit kids class is phenomenal. Then we have a longevity class, which isn’t your grandmother’s murder Jazzercise. These are a 70, 80-year-old folks that are deadlifting. It’s just awesome for that generation. For that group, it’s all about independence.

The functional fitness needs of my 21-year-old daughter was pole vaulting in college and my 77-year-old mom are different. My mom wants to stay independent living and my daughter wants to go on a podium, but physically they have to do all the exact same movements on a regular basis. It’s covering that in infusing that results bias.

I think has helped us and it’s helped our members when COVID hit. This statistic was folks with chronic disease, which is obviously a big part of the Y mission and advancing health, were suffering more, dying more. I felt horrible. I thought we didn’t get to enough people yet we can solve this. And there are elegant solutions. It doesn’t have to be that complex.

SW: When you were making the shift to putting these functional fitness areas in your facilities, obviously that’s a big decision, right? That’s capital investment. You’re having to put this business case together, if you will.

How did you go about that process?

MC: We, as an organization are data rich. We have more information and it’s overwhelming.

We have so much information. We have are data rich yet, and I think sometimes we’re strategy and execution poor. I think we’ve got all this data and information and it can be overwhelming, paralyzing and tough to make a decision. The data was clear and it was also external. We were watching this growth of Orange Theory and all these boutiques and studios.

We just said, “We got to try something. Our initial thing was okay, we’re going to be a brand within a brand or create these boutiques within the branch. And then what we realized is as well, if we brought this out though, so just driving results for members, when they join, we can find a goal. I think we had all this data. We’re watching it.

We’re executing. Then, when it comes to making the decision in the process, there’s that creative tension you need in your team. You don’t want a bunch of, Yes people. You want people saying no, and we did, and it was a process. It took some negotiation and collaboration and there was some balance in there.

I think if we just went in and got rid of every circuit machine, some members would have ticketed. You need that creative tension. You need the naysayers, but you need people asking really good questions throughout the process. Thankfully it worked, we did a small experiment and I’ll never forget, we upgraded a strength area, but then we had to put platforms in.

I wanted to fill the room with them. I wanted 10 of them, but I even negotiated and we had three, and I’ll never forget, within a few weeks, the exact person said, “We need more, a lot more.”

SW: Yeah. That’s great. Looking back at 2020, that was actually one of the things that was almost freeing. You were talking about so much data and you can just get in that analysis loop where you’re constantly thinking.

We couldn’t do that last year. We just had to make a decision and that, whether it was right or wrong, you don’t know, but you had to make something. So, it was actually freeing in a lot of ways.

MC: Yeah. That was liberating as well. Here’s the thing about decisions. You’ll never know how the other one would have turned out.

If you have two paths, you can have an assumption of what it would have happened if you had made the decision, but if you go decision B, you’ll never know. So, stick with B and then be agile and nimble to the process as it goes through.

SW: Yeah. I love that. How do you stay healthy and happy yourself?

Staying Healthy

MC: I probably don’t move as much as I should, but I have access to a lot of functional fitness programming. I try and follow our CrossFit programming as much as I can from Pleasant Hill. When I’m not, I know what to do. It’s just getting to do it. I think movement-wise, that’s it. I try and get sleep and try and maintain a growth mindset.

I try and eat well. I’ll try, not always succeeding, but when it comes to a lot of this over my career, in terms of fitness, I’ve always been like my own lab rat. I have a roller in my garage and I’m a rock in my garage. I’m able to play with some movements and try things, which is always fun.

I am a voracious reader because my boss is too. Thank God, because if I weren’t a reader, I’m getting a book a week. And I love audible is the best purchase I could ever make or listen to a lot of books. And then I have two daughters in college and I think watching them thrive and grow up. I hope I’m the type of parent that shows my kids how they should live versus tell them how they should live. That’s about the healthy and the happiness piece.  

SW: I love it. Well, and I think what you said there as a parent, I can relate is you just show your kids that you’ve tried.  

MC: I’ll try to do these things. I’ll try to do this and just keep at it.  

SW: Yeah. Mike, for those that have enjoyed our conversation, want to learn more, is there anything from like maybe a Y website or something to direct them to where they can dig into the areas we’ve talked about?

MC: I don’t think so. They can call me, you know, they’ve all got me.  

SW: Perfect.  

MC: Or maybe check out the YMCA of the East Bay website, ymcaeastbay.org. That’s where you’ll see most of our programs, as things evolve and we begin to open. We are in California, so we’re slowly opening now.

SW: As you kind of reflect on this conversation and as you’re navigating as best you can open it up and different things, any final words for those that are going through the same thing?

Final Words

MC: I have a couple. I think a lot of times, we try and buy a strategy, Oh, I’m gonna buy the XYZ line. Or I don’t want no offense to any vendors, but I don’t want to bend or dictating or creating our strategy. You know, they should serve our strategy or should have a strategy and then find the vendors that are best to solve what I need solve with them.

The other thing is I think new goals don’t deliver new results. I think we’ve got to build better organizational behaviors to achieve results.  

That’d be probably my advice, and stay nimble.  

SW: We learned that. We did, and well done to you and your team for even the going back a few years to be nimble in that case, making that, making a shift and how you’ve also continued to serve your community in the shut down time.

MC: Yep. Yeah, we are blessed. I worked with by the best team on the planet, so we’re blessed. Good chemistry synergy. Wonderful.  

SW: Thank you so much for your time today, Mike. This was a lot of fun.  

MC: Thank you.

SW: Thanks so much for listening to the latest episode of The Accelerant. As always, this is about inspiring you … And me. Okay, all of us. Let us know what you’ve learned, what you want to hear, any other thoughts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at Daxko, that’s at d-a-x-k-o, or post with #accelerantpodcast or you can send us an email at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you.  

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Accelerant podcast is a product of Daxko, serving the health and wellness community for over 20 years with comprehensive technology solutions to over 17 million members worldwide. Learn more at daxko.com. That’s d-a-x-k-o dot com. Accelerant is produced by Christy Brown, Sean Ellis Hussey, and me, Saranda West. Sound and editing by Sean Ellis Hussey. Visual design by Jenny Miller.

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