Perhaps most famously known for his coaching of female MMA superstar Ronda Rousey, Leo Frincu is more than a personal trainer—he’s a high performance mentality coach (more on that later). The former six-time Romanian wrestling champion and four-time European champion overcame the constraints of communist Romania to become a successful entrepreneur in America, translating his own mental tenacity and self-drive to training champions.
Frincu said in an interview that coming out of the repressive environment in Romania, there are two roads one can take. You can be conditioned for someone to provide for you. “That’s what communism/socialism did for most of its citizens,” he said. The other road, which Frincu took, was to escape. “I don’t know why I chose the second; it’s probably the harder way, but it is the most rewarding. Growing up under that environment, it either breaks you or makes you.”
Frincu was introduced to the sport of wrestling as a little boy, as an outlet for his frustrations. He realized at a very young age that his ticket out of the country was to become a world champion. As he grew in talent, there was increased responsibility and more pressure to perform well, which he wanted to escape.
When the opportunity came to leave, he didn’t think twice. Selling everything he had, Frincu eventually bought a roundtrip plane ticket to Lost Angeles, with $10 in his pocket and speaking a handful of words in English. His first job was washing dishes.
“It was hard to forget who I was—world champion, V.I.P athlete from Romania—and start over. I took one day at a time. Didn’t look at it like ‘I’m better than this.’ This is where I am. This is what I have to do,” he said. “The only way people can grow is to be satisfied. I would do everything I could to be the best of what I do, whether it’s washing dishes or wrestling. By being happy, I am accepting the reality. By being a dishwasher, I accepted that, I never thought I was too good for that, and that allowed me to grow.”
While dishwashing, he began to teach himself English, picking up every newspaper, dictionary, and books. In a matter of months, he had learned enough of the language to be promoted to waiter.
Frincu began asking himself what was the next step. He pondered what to do for the rest of his life. Could he see himself doing the work he was currently doing 10 years from now and be happy with it? Being honest and true to himself, he realized the answer was no and immediately started seeking another path.
While wrestling kept him grounded, in good shape and provided a social outlet, he realized it wouldn’t be his career. “Being a wrestling coach wouldn’t give me the financial freedom I was looking for, so I looked for other opportunities in fitness. I found opportunity as fitness trainer. First time, in many years that I could see myself still doing this in 10 years.”
Three-and-a-half years later, Frincu accomplished his next goal: By his own business and own his own gym.
“I’m proud to say I did it myself. I solely believe I create my own opportunities. The journey I am on, the direction I take, I am full control of my destiny,” he said. “When I say own who I am, I figured out why I took this road and the reason I’m here and what pushed me to accomplish what I have—I basically figure everything out about myself.”
Frincu passes on his own sense of drive, responsibility and accountability to his clients. “I hold athletes accountable for what they say. I hold the mirror up to them. ‘This is who you are, and this what you need to do in order to change who you are.’ Everyone knows what he or she needs to do.”
He explained how people have to decide if they want to change or not; all a coach can do is provide clients with tools and answer questions. “It’s very simple to get what you want, but it’s very hard to get in and do the work,” Frincu said. “One must take responsibility and meet his own expectations. That’s all it takes.”
Frincu provides people with the tools to reach their highest potential. He says just as we only use 10 percent of our brain capacity, the same idea applies to our physical potential. “We only use 40 percent of our highest physical potential.”
Frincu stresses self-awareness in his strength and conditioning training. He holds them accountable for every movement, to be aware of their form, to be mindful of how they breathe in both training and performance. He emphasizes rests and recovery time between exercises.
“Otherwise, the brain will not acknowledge the next exercise,” he said. “Athletes who just want to move right into the next exercise are skipping 60 to 70 percent of the benefit of exercise.” If you acknowledge only 40 percent of exercise, you always feel behind and like you need to train more. This leads to overtraining, injuries, bowing under pressure in competition.”
A high performance mentality allows athletes to reach their highest potential more quickly. “You accomplish more by working less if you’re in the right mindset. You walk out of the gym feeling the growth you want to feel,” said Frincu. “You manage yourself better. You see improvements immediately.”
These athletes have an edge over others, that something extra that pushes them forward.
The champions—the top 1 percent of athletes—are those able to reach their highest potential by tapping into who they truly are. “These are the ones who take responsibility, who are brave enough to face their weaknesses, smart enough to take fully advantage and grow their strengths and confident enough to achieve their goals.” wrote Frincu in his piece Three Types of Athletes in Pro MMA Now. “They have what they need and know what they want. When you don’t need anything, then you can want and you can have.”
Someone who has mastered high performance mentality and is in the top 1 percent is MMA champion Ronda Rousey. Frincu and a friend discovered Rousey one day, and asked her mother if they could train with her. A year to the day later, Rousey was a Strike Force Champion.
After her first training session, Frincu told Rousey that she would be the most famous MMA fighter in the world—and today, she is. Frincu expresses amazement on how she stays so mentally focused and ready to battle every match. “With all the hype for every fight, she is never bothered—it’s amazing!” he said. “So calm, relaxed and ready to win!”
Frincu said with top-performing athletes, there is often a tendency for coaches and trainers to not correct them in training because they think their athletes are the best. With Rousey, Frincu maintains the same level of professionalism and excellence and demand that from her while coaching her in strength and conditioning.
He makes sure Rousey is in the right mindset and best physical conditions. “When I feel out of control and like I am losing my grip on everything, he’s the one I can talk to and make me feel like I can handle it,” Rousey told the New York Post.
“I create a different Ronda to which she can aspire, and I raise her own expectations of herself,” he said. “You have to meet your own expectations. Raise them and meet them the whole time, that’s the only way to make them grow. Set new goals.”
Frincu said that it is harder to stay champion than to become one. “You’re your own worst enemy. Everything changes when you have the belt,” he said. “Surround yourself with really good people who hold you accountable. Respect them. That will be a critical factor of whether you’ll stay champion or not.”
Frincu brought up the UFC fight between Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman, where many accused the long-time UFC middleweight champion Silva of throwing the fight. “Silva is an athlete who has it [high-performance mentality] but didn’t use it. You need to continually challenge yourself, or it becomes routine and boring,” Frincu said. Competing and winning loses its value. That’s what happened with Silva.”
Frincu said that being champion for so long—seven years—Silva wasn’t challenged. “It was almost like he needed to get down to their level to be challenged,” he said. “Silva thought, ‘I’m going to go so low, I’m going to pretend not to even defend myself and see how far I can go with that and still win.’”
Silva knew he was playing with fire, but Frincu believes he didn’t care if he lost or won. “Next time, you’ll see a different Anderson Silva. He had to lose the championship to get some value.”
Silva and Weidman are set to rematch Dec. 28 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
While Frincu works predominately with jiu-jitsu athletes and on MMA training, he also coaches swimmers, tennis players and other athletes. He says 95 percent of his clientele are soccer moms, lawyers and regular people.
With all of his clients, Frincu stresses, “ You must recognize and understand your strengths to take full advantage of your skills. Your body is the machine but your mind is the driver. If you own it and you are aware of it, you take advantage of your own resources,” he said.
Frincu is the owner of Results Studio Gym in Sherman Oaks, Calif. and the author of Choosing Freedom: A Journey of Determination, Setting Goals, and Achieving Success.
2013 © Renée Canada, The Mind-Body Shift