Learn more about Brent Darden, the interim president and CEO of IHRSA, including his vision for the future of the fitness industry.
Who is Brent Darden?
Well, that’s a complicated question. However, it’s one many of you may be wondering due to Brent Darden’s appointment on August 21, 2020, as interim president and CEO of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).
Brent has been a mainstay in the fitness industry for more than 30 years, serving on the IHRSA Board of Directors, chairing REX Roundtables for Executives, consulting with fitness brands, owning a health club of his own, and giving keynote presentations on leadership, customer experience and more.
He’s also a Texan through and through, a man of deep faith, an adventure racer, and devoted husband and father of two sons.
Brent’s administrative assistant of 15 years, Tara Hummel, described him as both “relentless and balanced,” stating his commitment to both work and homelife are unparalleled.
“Brent Darden doesn’t miss a beat,” said Hummel. “He’s always thinking about the next thing, be it a budget meeting, a staff change, an inspirational message, conflict resolution or a sympathy gift. He also attended every sporting event for his boys, he celebrates milestones grandly and rarely misses a workout. The way he supported and raised his family, while running a business, was and is an inspiration to me now that I have my own children.”
To really get to know Brent Darden, however, it’s important to go back to his roots — based firmly in a small town in the Lone Star state.
Growing up in Plano, Texas, Brent was inspired by his father, Joe Darden, who instilled in him the values of hard work and no excuses.
A true company man who stayed at the same organization for 45 years, Joe was also passionate about football, and in particular, officiating — a hobby he held for 20 years and that allowed him to officiate 15 bowl games over the course of his career.
Although officiating wasn’t a full-time job, Joe’s commitment to excellence was inspiring to his son.
“I remember even on our family vacations when we’d have some downtime, my dad would have his officials book with all the rules and regulations and he’d be reading, studying and highlighting it,” recalled Brent. “He really dedicated himself to being great at his craft. This set an example for me — that whatever it is you’re interested in, if you want to be really good at it, you’ve got to study, learn, watch and listen, be able to critique yourself and always strive for continual improvement.”
Brent’s father was also committed to fitness — an important aspect when officiating football games, especially at the elite, bowl-game level.
“He would always start running and get himself back in shape before the football season started — almost like the athletes do as well,” said Brent. “So, it was not only the mental aspect, but also the physical that inspired me. You have to prepare physically, mentally and emotionally if you want to be the best at your craft, whatever you choose that to be.”
Brent took these lessons and applied them directly to football as well, playing in both high school and at the Division 1 level at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Brent’s work ethic especially paid off in high school, helping him overcome the challenges of being, in his own words, “too short, too small and too slow to play football.” His commitment to fitness and year-round conditioning — something that at the time wasn’t common practice — helped him stand out.
“A lesson I learned early on is I’m not going to be the biggest, the strongest, the tallest or the most athletically gifted, but what I can be is the most in shape — particularly as a freshman in high school,” explained Brent. “Now, of course, all the kids are constantly training year-round, but back then, that was really a difference maker.”
While other kids were enjoying their summers off, Brent was dragging tires with a chain, running up and down country roads and hills, and doing whatever he could to ensure he was in the best shape compared to anyone else on the football team.
“When I did that, I found my confidence grew in who I was as a person, as well as an athlete,” said Brent. “And of course, all the coaches thought, ‘Wow, that Brent Darden kid, he’s in really great shape. He’s serious.’ That was my first foray into what health and fitness was all about. And of course, I continued with those athletic endeavors through college, and it gave me a background of working out and what that could mean for you as an individual physically and mentally.”
Brent pursued a degree in exercise science while at Baylor University, and would go on to have a venerable career at institutions such as Texas Instruments, Northern Telecom and Cooper Aerobics.
After his tenure at Cooper Aerobics, during which he was recognized by IHRSA as “General Manager of the Year,” he purchased N. Dallas Athletic Club with a partner, and renamed it TELOS Fitness Center. The facility would ultimately earn accolades such as “Business of the Year,” “Business Ethics Award” and “Top 100 U.S. Health Clubs.”
Brent then founded his own consulting business, where he’s since worked with hundreds of clubs across the globe to better their businesses, increase retention and employee engagement, and better serve their communities.
Through all these roles, he cut his teeth in leadership and honed the value of being a servant to others — something he learned from his mother, Jessie Darden, in particular.
“The real lesson I learned from my mom is she was really good at making people feel special,” said Brent. “She was always doing little things, personalized touches.”
Brent’s colleagues and friends state he has inherited this trait, many of whom have received thoughtful gifts or notes from the industry veteran over the years.
This includes Bill McBride, the co-founder, president and CEO of Active Wellness, who once received a vintage fitness magazine in a frame from Brent soon after the two had worked together in a consulting role.
“It was really meaningful because it had a connection to our industry, it was a collectible and he knew I’d really value it,” said McBride. “Brent Draden is extremely thoughtful.”
The call to serve others also stems from his faith. One of his favorite bible messages is “Be the salt and the light” — a phrase he often closes virtual roundtables with as a positive call-to-action for the audience.
“Even if you’re not a person of committed faith, I think there still is this responsibility as a human being to help the world and help your neighbors, in whatever context that might be,” said Brent. “Creating the world we desire starts with each of us and our own sphere of influence. Encouraging listeners to be ‘the salt and the light’ is biblical and simply my way of sharing the message to be a positive influence in your day-to-day interactions. Live with purpose and lift others up when you can.”
Along with his faith, another thing that hasn’t wavered for Brent is his commitment to personal health and fitness.
Over the years, Brent has completed a number of adventure races — including the 1996 Eco-Challenge in British Columbia, which aired on the Discovery Channel. These multidisciplinary events can span from 36 hours to 10 days, and see participants tackle orienteering, running, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, glacier trekking, rapelling and rock climbing, for example.
Brent said he was drawn to adventure racing due to the combination of mental and physical toughness the races require — and the feeling of self-pride that’s earned from crossing the finish line.
“It’s so exhilarating because you’ve done it for yourself,” said Brent. “There’s no big prize money around extreme adventure racing. It’s a fringe sport. You’re doing it just to confirm, ‘I can do it.’ Forget the trophy or anything else that might come with it.”
Ultimately, Brent is drawing on the lessons he’s learned from adventure racing, his parents, football, faith and passion for the industry in his new role at IHRSA. When asked why he accepted the position, he explained he felt it was the right thing to do.
“I felt called to do it, and that probably goes back to my faith,” said Brent. “Also, my internal compass told me it was something I needed to do. The industry and IHRSA, specifically, have been very good to me. It was a great way for me to give back during a time of great need.”
His vision? To reimagine IHRSA for the better, and help the fitness industry as a whole move the needle in a positive direction when it comes to its perception among the public, media and policymakers.
“One of the things the pandemic has revealed to us is we’re not being well respected by elected officials and the public messaging right now related to clubs being open and safe,” said Brent. “We’re often lumped in with casinos, bars, restaurants and entertainment. We need to do better about getting the message out there that we’re a part of the healthcare continuum — we’re part of the solution to well-being.”
Brent stressed the importance of IHRSA’s role in this endeavor. But he also encouraged individuals to take action as well.
“Winning that battle with the public and with elected officials really starts in your own backyard, it starts in your own neighborhood, it starts in your own community, city and state, and then nationally,” said Brent. “Although as an association we 100% need to do better, we also need every single club operator, industry supplier, health and fitness professional — all of the people who make up our industry — to understand and get the message out in their backyards so collectively we can change the narrative. That’s really powerful.”
Brent would also like to see the fitness industry and IHRSA become more inclusive — leveraging the power of not only big-box and independent gyms, but also CrossFit boxes, yoga studios, aquatics and martial arts facilities, and more.
“One of the things we want to do is have a greater voice, especially with the public and especially with elected officials,” said Brent. “And a lot of it comes down to how many people are participating in the choir. Right now, our choir is pretty limited and that’s been somewhat self-imposed. If we can get everyone to join together, I think that will help us increase our voice and our relevance.”
Overall, Brent Darden’s appointment as the interim president and CEO of IHRSA has been met with positive fanfare — especially among the people who know him best and have worked with him closely during his long tenure in the industry.
“Brent Darden is the right person to help stabilize and prepare the organization for the next chapter,” said McBride. “He is smart, down to earth, honest and cares very deeply about IHRSA and our industry. He has his heart in the right place, carries nothing but pure intentions and is a man of integrity.”