Charlie Brenneman’s story is amazing. After losing in the wrestling state title match in his junior and senior years, Charlie went on to be a top 10 NCAA wrestler. After his collegiate wrestling career was over, he thought his competitive career was over. He made the decision to leave his dream job as a Spanish teacher and pursue a career as a mixed martial arts fighter and landed in the UFC, fighting against the likes of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and UFC champion Johny Hendricks.
You will learn about…
- Charlie’s journey going from Spanish teacher to UFC fighter
- Charlie’s 5 Elements of Excellence that have led him to great success
- Charlie’s AM and PM routines
- Charlie’s daily video posted on Facebook and YouTube where he shares knowledge from the book he is reading that day
- How you can have Charlie come speak to your team or school
THE 5 ELEMENTS OF EXCELLENCE
1. Vision – Knowing where you are and where you want to go
2. Core Values – Knowing who you truly are and being the person you want to be
3. Defining Success – Appreciate the process and the journey
4. Living with accountability – Creating the life you want
5. Surround yourself with the best – Being a lifelong learner
Brenneman: That result is there. We want it, we want it, we want it. But just above that – slightly more important than that – is the process, is the pursuit of that goal, not the attainment of that goal.
Cain: This is Brian Cain with the Peak Performance Podcast. Today our guest, Charlie “The Spaniard” Brenneman, has not only fought the who’s-who in the Mixed Martial Arts world as a UFC veteran, but he is also a former high school teacher. Charlie has a fascinating story that has come out with his book Driven: My Unlikely Journey from Classroom to Cage. Charlie, I’m just fired up to have you on. Thanks for making the time to be a part of the Peak Performance Podcast.
Brenneman: It’s my pleasure to be here. I love talking to like-minded people and you’re one of them, so I’m happy to be here.
Cain: Well, Charlie, if you would for our listeners – they probably have seen you in the cage. They’ve seen you with the who’s-who in the UFC, from Johny Hendricks and Anthony “Rumble” Johnson. What they probably don’t know is your story up until that point in the UFC. Could you give kind of a quick snapshot of your career as a high school/college athlete, into teaching, and then what kind of got you into MMA?
Brenneman: I’m from central Pennsylvania. I grew up in a small town. I’m a wrestler. Even today when I speak, one of my lines is “I’m a wrestler who learned to fight.” That is basically what I did. The sport of wrestling taught me mental toughness, it taught me mindset, it taught me discipline, sacrifice. Those are the things that I carried up with me through high school. I would always come close to achieving my goals but I would fall short. I started to keep track and understand that the reason I was falling short was because I ultimately lacked the self-confidence at the highest level.
I ended up losing a state title two years in a row in high school. I took my athletic career into wrestling and for my first four years of my collegiate wrestling I redshirted a year. I completely underperformed. The last year it was like I had a mental breakthrough that really changed my last year; it changed the trajectory of my future. I ended up capping off my college career in a great way. I still felt short of my goal but I finished in a round of twelve at Division One Nationals. Then I thought it was all done. I thought all that discipline and sacrifice was over. I was ready to go home. I was ready to get fat and sit on the couch.
After about a year of doing that I realized that I needed something. I needed to compete again. Around that time the sport of Mixed Martial Arts was starting to come to the forefront and started to kind of make a little bit of progress in the mainstream. Then literally one day I decided I’m going to leave my Spanish teaching position and I’m going to be a UFC fighter.
Up until two years ago – it’ll be my last fight – but I spent the last decade training with, competing against, fighting, beating, losing to the biggest, baddest, toughest fighters in the world. I came from a small town, became a teacher, then fighting, and now I’m on the other side of it where I’m kind of taking everything I learned, condensing it, and delivering it through speaking and mentoring.
Cain: I know we just kind of got off of a good discussion before we got onto the podcast. What are some of the key principles that when you’re going in to speak to a school or you’re going in to work with a team, what are some of the key principles – basically your framework, Charlie – that you share with them that made you successful, that you know if they would adopt and they’ll heed to your teachings you know that they’ll be more successful? What are some of those key principles or key concepts within your framework?
Brenneman: So what I did when I had my last fight and I thought “what am I going to do,” the first thing I did was I sat down and I literally wrote a book. I had had so many questions about – I left my job, I got called crazy, I got called stupid, I got called all kinds of things because it was against the norm. So I sat down and I wrote a book about it. I’m a note taker and I’m a writer so I condensed all of the notes, the principles, the things that I’ve recorded over the years and I boiled them down into five what I call “Elements of Excellence.” Those things together create a fighter’s mindset.
When you’re talking about a fighter’s mindset, you think of the best fighters in the world. There is this resilience and perseverance and mental toughness and discipline – all these things. But the five things that I really focus on is the idea of a vision, knowing where you want to go, always having that North Star.
The next thing is your core values, whether it’s in your personal life, whether it’s in your athletic life, your professional life. I read a lot of books and so many of them focus on this idea of core values, knowing who you truly are and being that person in competition.
The next one is defining success. To me that took me a lifetime of winning and losing. That took me a lifetime of competing to really truly appreciate the process versus the outcome.
The fourth one is living with accountability. To me accountability – when I decided to leave my teaching position and I decided to literally drive into the unknown, this unknown world, it was all on me. It was on my shoulders. I had no paycheck. I had no leads. I had to create it. So that idea of accountability (as Jocko Willink in Extreme Ownership says) – assuming extreme ownership in everything you do and say.
Then the last part – I don’t want to say the most powerful, but – is the idea of surrounding yourself with the best every day. Even today in my life connecting with you, connecting with other speakers and mentors and podcasters, I’m obsessed with surrounding myself with the best. Looking at the best in the world then literally trying to talk to them. The first two guys I communicated with in Mixed Martial Arts were Eddie Alvarez and Frankie Edgar. Eddie is the current UFC champion. Frankie is one of the best in history. So I believe in the power of influence.
Those five elements are kind of my keys to living with a fighter’s mindset.
Cain: I love that. I think you hit the nail right on the head, and as it ties back with what a lot of our listeners have gone through and are familiar with some of the work that I’ve done with the 12 Pillars of Peak Performance and in talking about vision and values (that’s Pillar #2) and kind of defining your success is that process. The process over the outcome. Then surrounding yourself with the best. As we say, you become the average of the five people that you hang out with most.
In one of the books that you mentioned from Jocko Willink about Extreme Ownership – one of the top reads (I think) from people in our Inner Circle and people that are going to be listening to this podcast. I’m assuming you’ve seen his video where he talks about good and making adversity your advantage. What are some of the other best books that you’ve read that have had the biggest impact on your mindset?
Brenneman: I literally read every morning. It’s one of the things I started doing 42 days ago. I read every morning. I’ve been reading for years and years and one of the things I’ve been doing is making a daily video summarizing and applying what I have read that day to everyday life. There are 100 books I could say.
Some of the coolest recent ones that I’ve read: The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday. It talks about using adversity to your advantage. Certainly The Obstacle Is the Way. Start with Why by Simon Sinek, which just really gets back to kind of along the lines of your values. Figure out what’s your purpose. Why do I get up every morning at 4:30? Why do I still do treadmill sprint workouts when I have no fight? Really getting to the core of that.
I’ll give you a third one. The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson talks about small consistent actions repeated over a long period of time resulting in giant results. Those are three of the top ones. Reading is a habit that I would encourage everyone to get into.
Cain: Those are definitely four books that are in my library and four books that I think many of our listeners have gone through. It’s funny, The Slight Edge is a book that was given to SMU’s athletic director, Rick Hart, who gave that book to all of their coaches. Then The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday; he’s got another book The Ego Is the Enemy that the TCU athletic director gave to all of their coaches. So you’re reading books, Charlie, that are right up there with our audience.
The videos that you make – is that something that you put out on social media and something that our listeners could follow along as well so they could kind of learn through what they’re learning?
Brenneman: Absolutely. I’m glad that you mentioned that. I do Facebook Live. I tested it out a little with Periscope, a little with Facebook Live, and I seem to get the most views on Facebook Live. From there I upload them to YouTube, so you can subscribe to me on YouTube to get them on a daily basis or you can follow me on my personal page, Charlie Brenneman, or my business page, Charlie “The Spaniard” Brenneman.
Every morning 5:30 I’m there with a smile on my face kind of reciting. I feel kind of weird because I’ve been an athlete, I’ve been a fighter – that’s what I do – but I get so amped up about reading and learning and just pushing it out. So yeah, I put them out every day on my social media.
Cain: I love it. So your social media. The best place for people to follow you. What is your Twitter handle?
Brenneman: @SpaniardMMA. My website www.Charlie-Brenneman.com has all of my links in the upper right-hand corner. I’m SpaniardMMA across the board. Instagram I’m MMASpaniard because I can’t get SpaniardMMA, so that is the only hiccup.
Cain: Then your YouTube channel is SpaniardMMA?
Brenneman: Yep. If you just search Charlie Brenneman or SpaniardMMA on YouTube, it will come up.
Cain: Awesome. I think that would be something that our listeners definitely will want to follow. I didn’t realize you did that so that is going to be something I go and get on for sure and check those out in the morning. You talk about getting up every morning and doing a video at 5:30. You sound like you’re a machine of routine. Tell us about your morning routine and kind of what you do on a daily basis.
Brenneman: This is something for the listeners out there. I’m a fan of Gary Vaynerchuk who – you can call him an internet marketer, entrepreneur, he’s a lot of things. One of the things that I learned from him – actually I didn’t learn it from him. I felt comfortable because I heard him reaffirm it, this idea of trying a bunch of different things.
The very first person who turned me on to this idea of a morning routine is Hal Elrod in The Miracle Morning. Since then I’ve tried maybe 10-20 different routines in the morning. For me basically it’s simple. My alarm is set for 4:30 every morning. I get up early every morning. On Sundays I sleep in till a whopping 6:00 or 6:30. There is really only two things: I drink 32 ounces of water basically right out of the gate and I read for at least 30 minutes a day. Those two things when it’s completely quiet, when the birds aren’t even chirping, it’s dark, I’m sitting here with water, a coffee, and my book. If I can get that in my day, then that puts me up in the right direction.
Cain: Hal Elrod – one of my favorite books, The Miracle Morning, where he talks about the acronym SAVERS. The first S is silence, the A is affirmation (so positive), the V is visualization, the E is exercise, the R is that you read, and the last S is that you scribe and you write and you actually do that without knowing and putting it to the SAVERS acronym that Hal talks about in The Miracle Morning. You’re actually doing that on a daily basis. Maybe instead of writing you’re speaking into your video and putting it out there for others, which is probably a more easier, digestible way for people to learn these days. But I love that morning routine.
What about your PM routine? Do you have a shutdown routine at the end of the day to help you kind of log off and get more dialed in with your family?
Brenneman: We just had a son three weeks ago and I have a daughter that is three years old. Where I’m at in this phase of my life I’m probably done fighting for several different reasons. I realize it’s like the work is there, the tasks are there, and I could literally work every hour of every day. This is a transition period for me and my wife. We’ve seen in the last decade when it went from teaching to fighting and fighting now into speaking and mentoring that these different transition phases – and they’re tough. For any goal-driven person in a relationship who has a family, it’s tough. It’s not easy.
What we’ve done is develop – that’s partially the reason I get up at 4:30 in the morning, so I have the time to do the things I need to do. But I really – we’re recording now in the PM and this is an anomaly. I normally shut off by – I’m done with my workout by 5:30 and then it’s all family. Just because if I didn’t draw that hard line it would go on forever. Mixing that business and family time is just not a winner in our home.
Cain: That one hit me pretty hard, as I’m sitting here on a cruise and I’m looking at my wife who is sitting out on the balcony waiting for me to get done doing work so that I can take her to dinner. I think you hit the nail on the head.
For the coaches that are listening to this, you’ve got to have that hard shutdown routine. You’ve got to have that time in your day where you said, “hey, what’s done is done and what’s not done can be put off until tomorrow” because if you don’t draw that hard line – you’re right, you could literally work 24 hours in a day when you’re uber motivated and a guy who is excited to go out there and make a difference, which our listeners are. So I think I – they can start to learn about that shutdown routine as well. That’s going to be important.
Now when you shut down at 5:30 after that workout, are you done with technology and you’re turning off the computer and the e-mail and the cell phone and all that so you can engage? Or do you still have that digital distraction sometimes?
Brenneman: Yeah, I’m not going to sit here and say I’m perfect by any means. But no, my objective is to – I actually am up in my office right now (it’s on the third floor of my house) and I leave my computer up here because what I’ve found is that when I would bring my computer downstairs I would be tempted. If my wife went in to get something to eat or to fix something to eat, I’d be tempted to hop on my computer and check my e-mail real quick. So by leaving it up here in the attic, it’s kind of the idea of if you don’t want to eat junk food, don’t keep it in your cupboards. It’s that same idea. If I don’t want to be on my computer, I should leave it upstairs. So I do that.
My cell phone – I’ve flirted with some different strategies here and there but it’s in my pocket, but I’ve done a good enough job – and I know this from my wife saying, “You know what? You’ve done a really great job in the last couple months of staying off your cell phone after hours.” The computer is the hard up in the attic. The cell phone is just an awareness that I’m aware of how much I’m on it.
Cain: Love it. That’s awesome. That’s great advice for everybody. Charlie, if we can, let’s go back to your, I think you call them your five “Elements of Excellence?” Is that right?
Cain: And with the five Elements of Excellence – vision, core values, defining success, living with accountability, and surrounding yourself with the best – how do you define success for yourself?
Brenneman: Whenever you’re explaining it you kind of mention the process. What happened to me is from a young age, honestly from the earliest I can remember, I was dead set on getting straight A’s and I was dead set on winning a state championship in wrestling. Those were my goals. I would achieve those goals often but I would fall short of those goals almost as often. One of the things I tell coaches and parents as often as I can is expose your kids – both your real kids and your athletes – expose them to winning and losing as often as possible. That builds resilience and that builds mental fortitude.
What I learned – honestly, the heartbreak of losing two state titles, especially the second one, in high school. I was an 18-year-old kid and you would think as a 35-year-old man who experienced all this other stuff in the last 15 years – those two nights, I can’t think of a more painful athletic night than those two nights. I still kept going. I still kept moving forward, keeping my values, having that vision clear of who and what I wanted to be. But it wasn’t until I was fighting…
You see, in UFC you fight but every 3-5 months. So what would happen is I would win a fight, I would come home and I would feel like a million bucks. That was great, I had money, this and that. But then if I lost, I would come home and just feel like absolute garbage. Like absolute terrible garbage. Everything was terrible. Then after that happening 3, 4, 5 times I started to – honestly, it was like I just got fed up with it and I thought, “there has to be another way to do this because this is not worth it, this up and down is not worth being a professional fighter.” Then it was like one day it clicked and it was like “wait a minute, that’s silly” to judge my self-worth, to judge my feeling, to judge my mental state on the winning and the losing is wrong. I truly believe it’s wrong.
That’s where it goes back to the process that you mentioned and Nick Saban mentions it. The idea of defining success to me – and whether you want to quote John Wooden also – is the process. Putting in the work on a daily, on an hourly, on a minute basis to produce that result in the end. That result is there. We want it, we want it, we want it. But just above that – slightly more important than that – is the process, is the pursuit of that goal, not the attainment of that goal.
Cain: I love that. You just mentioned two of the greatest coaches of all time (I think) in Saban and Wooden. Wooden, since we mentioned books – and I’m keeping a list of your books that you mentioned here, which we’ll put out in the notes with this episode – is one of John Wooden’s books, A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On And Off the Court. It’s a little blue book. It’s fantastic.
Brenneman: Yep. Blue and yellow.
Cain: Yeah, you got it. Then Nick Saban’s book How Good Do You Want to Be? I think is one of the best that I’ve ever read as well. The one I have has this cover of him at LSU on it. I know the new one has him in Alabama. So he talked about the process and I think you’re so spot on with that. What about your core values?
Brenneman: I was going to say another just little caveat I wanted to throw in there is this idea of excellence. Honestly, when I started this pursuit (speaking and mentoring, etc.) the term “excellence” (“elements of excellence,” hence the Elements of Excellence) – that word really stuck to me. That stuck with me. As a kid my parents taught me (1) do the best you can in everything you do, and (2) inspire other people to do the same. It was like those were kind of the two things that I thought were normal. I thought “oh yes, every person does their best and every person inspires other people.” I just thought that was normal. This standard of excellence I’ve carried with me in my life.
None of us are perfect. I’ve done less-than-perfect things and haven’t maintained that standard. But I believe in operating with a mindset of excellence on a daily basis. It’s like – you know the cliché – you shoot for the stars, you miss, you still land hot. If your objective, if your mission is excellence, you’re going to be good across the board no matter what. I really want to stress and emphasize the importance of setting your bar at excellence.
Cain: I love that. Skip Bertman, who was the baseball coach at LSU for a number of years – I had a dream come true and got a chance to do a book with him within the last year. One of the things that Skip talked about is he says there are three doors you can go through. You can go through the door of win, you can go through the door of loss, or you can go through the door of excellence. Excellence is bigger than winning. Sometimes you can give an excellent performance and not win. I’m sure in the Octagon you’ve had those fights where you’ve gone out there and fought great and fought the way you wanted to, and because of the judges or because the other guy was just a little bit better that night, it didn’t go the way you wanted it to.
But I think what happens in athletics all the time is that the process doesn’t always lead to the result but the process does give you the best chance to get the result. I think if you’re committed to excellence and being the best that you possibly can be and have that growth mindset, you’re going to be able to achieve a lot more over the marathon than the person who is focused on win-loss. Would you agree?
Brenneman: Absolutely. 100%. The process versus the achievement or the process versus the outcome, yeah, it’s – and I’m not saying this to make myself feel better because I lost three fights in a row to end my career. I’m not saying this to make the listeners feel good about themselves because they lost and they need a pat on the back. I’m saying this because it’s tried and true from experience. This is what I learned. This is what the most successful people in the world have learned. If you’re not going to take it from me, take it from Saban, take it from Wooden, take it from all of these other people who say the same thing.
Cain: No question. We use a term a lot that says “success leaves clues.” You’ve reaffirmed and (I think) brought to the table a lot of the same concludes that we try to teach and that coaches try to teach. But coaches that are listening to this and myself – I’ve never stepped in the Octagon. I’ve been on either side of the Octagon – fence, corner, and some guys – but you’ve been in there with the who’s-who of MMA.
For the coaches or the teachers or the athletic directors listening to this, if they wanted to bring you in to deliver your message on the five Elements of Excellence and talk about the importance of vision, talk about core values and knowing who you are, redefining success as it relates to the process and the pursuit of excellence, being more accountable (which I know every coach has issues with trying to grow accountability in their program), and then talking about that surrounding yourself with the best and you becoming one of those people that those coaches associate with, what is the best way for people to get a hold of you? And do you go in and speak to schools and do you go in and work with athletes and programs? Talk a little bit more about that process and how they can get you and what you do when you go in there.
Brenneman: I appreciate that. Absolutely that is what I do. If you go to my website www.Charlie-Brenneman.com – it’s very simple to navigate. There is a contact tab up top. Contact me. Speaking events, workshops, mentoring. It’s right there for you to clearly define why you’re making contact.
Honestly, one of the more enjoyable things I do is these workshops, these fighter’s mindset workshops. There are six one-hour sessions. I take them through the Elements of Excellence. I cap it off with a leadership session. It works great with coaches and it works great with athletes.
One of the things I’ve learned from experience and I’ve heard said across the board is these success principles, these fighter mindset principles, they’re going to work for you in high school athletics, they’re going to work for you in college athletics, they’re going to work for you in a coaching position, in a professional position – they’re success principles that don’t falter. They work across the board.
It’s awesome. For much of my life I was the guy in the fire. I was the guy in the Octagon. I was the guy on TV. And I loved it, trust me. It was awesome. I loved every second of it. But now that I’m able to kind of 10x, 20x, 1,000x and 1,000,000x that into affecting people around me – I don’t want to say it’s more enjoyable, but it’s just slowly becoming more enjoyable.
Cain: I think they say that the true measure of a man’s life is the positive impact that he’s had on others. You have a positive impact through inspiration. When you’re in the cage and you’re fighting, it’s entertaining but I think you being able to take your experience, Charlie, of what you’ve done and what you’ve learned through that journey of being an elite MMA warrior and a guy who has fought the best of the best… You are in there with a UFC World Champion and Johny Hendricks. You are in there with Anthony Johnson, who I think was a World Champion as well?
Brenneman: He was almost. He still might be. Well, first of all I fought him at 170 lbs. Now he’s at 205 lbs. So he’s the #1 contender at 205.
Cain: I remember the days of him and his weight class changing. He’s probably at his natural weight now of 205. I can only imagine how much of a beast he was at 170.
But being able to have gone through and done that and now being able to take what you’ve learned from all the punches and the trials and tribulations and now being able to decipher that into the five Elements of Excellence and share that with young people who are in the pursuit of excellence (and for coaches who are trying to support their young people in pursuit of excellence), I think is fantastic. The beauty of just getting to know you a little bit here on the podcast today, and in our time before, is you were also a high school teacher and you are able to communicate that and you can communicate it in Spanish. It’s something that I think is very unique.
I will say having spent a lot of time in MMA, there is not a lot of UFC fighters that I’d be comfortable with, having been a former athletic director, rolling them out in front of my coaches or rolling them out in front of my students, because some of them – the full student body that would be non-athletes – and having you go out there to talk about the five Elements of Excellence, that fits across the board. And the fact that you have been in a classroom and are comfortable in that setting and know what is appropriate to do with high school student athletes and high school students, I think makes you at least at the top of my list of people that I would bring in to speak to my student athletes and coaches if I were still a high school athletic director.
So Charlie, I’m fired up to have had the opportunity to get to know you. I appreciate you making time. I apologize for keeping you past 5:30, so please apologize to your wife for me.
Brenneman: No worries.
Cain: For all of our listeners again, you want to follow him at @SpaniardMMA on YouTube, SpaniardMMA, and go to www.Charlie-Brenneman.com. Looking forward to getting you back on here as a repeat guest. This is one of my favorite podcasts we’ve done and it’s exciting for me personally, having watched you fight and compete in the cage as much as I have, to be able to get you on a podcast here. It’s very impressive to get to meet the guy who was inside of the cage. Pretty cool.
Brenneman: I appreciate it. One more thing I don’t think I mentioned at all is my podcast The Fighter’s Mindset: The Spaniard Podcast. What I do is I dive deep into – it’s called A Fighter’s Mindset and to be honest, I was debating whether to call it that because it’s not about fighting. It’s about applying the mindset, a fighter’s mindset, to everyday life – whether it’s competition in sports, competition in life, being a better father, you name it. It’s those ideas – self-confidence, perseverance, resilience – all those things that make us successful inside the Octagon, translating that into sports and other areas of life. You can also find that on the podcast page on my website or check us out on iTunes at A Fighter’s Mindset: The Spaniard Podcast.
Cain: Fantastic. I’m fired up. I’m going to get on the bike tomorrow morning and pound it out as I’m training for an IRONMAN coming up here and I’m going to listen to episodes on there.
Cain: Yeah, I don’t know how nice it is. It’s a pain in the ass really.
Brenneman: I hear you.
Cain: But it’s just something you set a goal and you want to go do it and it’s something I’m not sure I can finish, so we’re going to find out here. But I’m going to work the process and give myself the best chance for success and that’s all I can ask. I believe that if I do that I’ll cross the finish line. I think if you keep sticking to the process and doing what you’re doing, you’re going to have a tremendous impact and influence on a lot of people’s lives out there.
Charlie, thanks for your humility, thanks for your commitment to excellence, and thanks for being a guest on the Peak Performance Podcast.
Brenneman: My pleasure. I want to throw this last thing out there. I am not okay with having fought the best guys in the world. I wanted to beat them. I wanted to win a world championship but I didn’t. That fire and that passion is coming out of me and I’m instilling it in other people. That is what’s driving me every morning to get up at 4:30 and to keep doing these sprint workouts, is to share that with the up-and-coming group of kids and coaches that still have that opportunity.
Cain: Wow, I hate to say this, but I guess I’m thankful for the fact that you never got the chance to put the UFC Gold around your waist because if you weren’t on the mission that you’re on right now, I don’t think you would have impacted as many people’s lives as you’re going to. So maybe the best thing that never happened to you was winning a UFC title because you are going to influence and impact a hell of a lot more people by what you’re doing now (I think) than you would if you were still in the cage, my friend.
Brenneman: The obstacle is the way. Let’s end it with that.