I couldn’t even hold my son on his second birthday. I couldn’t rock my younger, newborn son to sleep or even put him in his crib. I couldn’t help my wife with the daily tasks of being a parent, spouse and homeowner. I couldn’t demonstrate proper exercise form to my athletes.
When I say those things out loud – or at least type them – it’s pretty crazy to think that I’m referring to myself less than a year ago, during the recovery stages of my spine surgery. Going under the knife is truly something I hope nobody ever has to do. But I did. And I was 27 years old.
Trust me – this isn’t a pity party. There are far worse things that people go through. However, the entire experience from initial injury, to countless recovery attempts, to borderline depression and indescribable pain, to the surgery decision, to the recovery and beyond was a life-changing experience and I’d love to share my learnings.
Keeping personal things, well…personal, one small aspect of my life that I’d like to highlight is how this injury and eventual operation made me a better coach. There are takeaways here for everyone – coaches, athletes, business owners, healthcare professionals and more. These things were learned through adversity and can be applied to any profession if you use your creativity. The best part is the struggle is already done for you. You just get to keep the lessons learned.
Since this is a topic based around something that happened in my life, I want to be overly cautious of making this about only ME. Everything I say will be applicable to your career, life, etc. So let’s jump into it. My major takeaways from how adversity can make you a better coach, and a better human being.
Find Gratitude & Be Grateful
First and foremost comes gratitude. I think gratitude is one of those infinite feelings that you can never max out on or hit a ceiling with. No one in the history of the world has ever been too thankful.
During the rough stretches of pain during injury and extreme physical limitations during recovery, it became very clear to me that I have a lot of other things to be grateful for. Not that it wasn’t apparent before or that I was an ungrateful person, but the clarity of the situation made it more impactful.
One thing I think we could also improve on daily is showing that gratitude. A wise man once told me, “If you admire somebody, you should go ahead and tell ‘em. People never get the flowers while they can still smell ‘em.” That man was Kanye West, so maybe wise isn’t the right word, but still a great quote nonetheless.
In our line of work, a little gratitude can go a long way. Never take for granted the fact that people are spending their valuable time and hard-earned money in your care. That speaks volumes about the kind of person you are and who people believe you to be.
While we serve others on a day-to-day basis, we may only be serving those people in one aspect of their life – often physical. Starting today, make sure to serve others on an emotional level as well. Even if you think you do now, dig deeper. Reach further. Extend yourself to others more often and in more ways than ever.
In an industry where most of the good professionals do relatively the same thing, the great professionals separate themselves not by their knowledge or experience, but by the relationships they create with those around them.
If you want to set yourself apart from the competition, you have to provide something nobody else can and that is being a servant-leader and authentically YOU. As again, coaching and PERSONAL training is indeed a service profession.
Principles are the foundation of all success. In fitness, a common answer is, “it depends,” when trying to answer basically any question. I get it, there are so many variables in developing optimal health that giving one singular answer is not only counterproductive but could leave others at risk.
“It depends,” is an awesome answer for a lot of questions and I use it often. BUT… there are also situations where you have to feel strongly enough about a topic to give a straight answer. Those instances are where you find your principles.
Mine? Purpose, attitude, commitment and effort – this makes up the acronym of my business, PACE Fitness Academy. These principles are the four things we can control in a life full of uncontrollable circumstances and usually if you have a heartfelt purpose, optimistic attitude, commitment to the purpose and put out an amazing effort, things will work out in your favor.
In training, there are also principles or foundations. Find them and hammer the hell out of them with your athletes. I’ve taken a liking to Dr. Rusin’s foundational movement pattern theory. Everyone should find a way to perform the squat, hinge, push, pull, lunge and carry patterns.
Methods vary. Opinions change. Principles do NOT. These are the roots, while your methods and opinions are the leaves. If you do it right, you can grow yourself a pretty strong, bad ass tree over time.
On the flipside, if you do not develop and enforce principles, you will eventually crash and burn. Guaranteed. I’ve seen it happen to many and I’m sure you have as well. Please do not let that be you.
Health Trumps Performance
Unfortunately, I don’t think this was something I valued before the injury, but you should always prioritize your general well being over your performance. An available athlete is the superior athlete. With your own training and obviously with those under your care, you must learn to take calculated risks.
Lifting weights or training for any sport at a high level isn’t supposed to tickle. It will challenge you and stress your body out to the point where it has to adapt. You should definitely push yourself and others to limits that you thought were impossible, sometimes.
The bottom line is that performance is a byproduct of awesome health. If you’re a generally healthy individual, your performance will constantly improve with the right training, nutrition and recovery methods. Conversely, those in poor general health will usually not perform well and will progressively get worse as time goes on.
Here are three methods that I think everyone should employ to optimize health as a way of ensuring long-term performance gains.
Don’t Be Afraid To Auto-Regulate
Autoregulation is a tactic that allows you to make micro-adjustments to your program based on day-to-day lifestyle variables that could impact physical & mental performance. In other words, you make changes to the program (for you or others) by simply using common sense.
Life happens and sometimes you have to train through it. Other times, you need to adjust the program to ensure safety. Relationships end, grueling final exams happen, long club sport weekends accumulate stress on the body, poor sleep sucks, family drama is real, bosses suck, pets get sick… the list goes on and on. It’s up to you as the coach and the relationship you have with the athlete to gather this info and make the proper adjustments.
If you have a client come in 15 minutes late with road rage because of a traffic jam on the way to the gym, after a proper warm-up today may be the day to go for that PR and unload some of that anger. If you have a 17-year-old kid come in heartbroken after his girlfriend broke up with him, maybe you deliver some wisdom and back off of the workout a little bit.
Always have several progressions and regressions so you can autoregulate exercises, volume or intensity. This is one major way you can keep health at the forefront, still train extremely hard and remain safe.
The Power of Progressions
Speaking of progressions, I am the biggest advocate of them. My programming is very welcoming to progressions, regressions and exercise variations because of the impact I’ve seen it have when trying to emphasize health over performance.
One size fits absolutely no one. Programs must be tailored with as much detail as possible to each individual based on initial assessments and the coach’s ability in their given situation. For each major foundational movement, here are some of my go-to variations. This is not an exhaustive or customized list. From basic to advanced.
- Assisted BW Squat
- Goblet Squat
- Landmine Goblet Squat
- 2KB Front Squat
- Barbell Front Squat
- Safety Bar Box Squat
- Barbell Back Squat
- Squats while your idiot friend kicks you in the stomach between reps while your other idiot friend records it. Oh wait….
- Cable Pull Through
- KB/DB Elevated Deadlift
- KB/DB RDL
- Barbell RDL
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Single Leg variation of any of the above
- Landmine variations of any of the above
- Sumo or Conventional Rack Pull
- Sumo or Conventional Deadlift
- Assisted Split Squat
- Goblet, DB or 2KB Split Squat
- Reverse Lunge
- SSB Reverse Lunge or Split Squat
- Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat loaded in way previously listed
- Reverse Deficit Lunge
- Side Lunge or Cossack Squat variations
- Landmine variations of any of the above
- Forward Lunge variations
- Forward-to-Reverse Lunge variations
- Hands Elevated Push-Up
- Half-Kneeling Landmine Press
- DB Military Press
- Cable Press
- Single arm variations of the previous 2
- DB Arnold Press
- Standing Landmine Press
- Floor Press (1 or 2 arm)
- DB Incline Bench Press
- DB Bench Press
- Barbell Bench Press variations
- Overhead press variations
- Cable Row
- Band Pull Apart
- Face Pull
- Half or Tall-Kneeling variations of any above
- DB/KB Prone Row (1 or 2 arm)
- Lat Pulldown
- Single Arm DB Row
- Chin-Up Holds
- Meadows Row
- Inverted Row
- Pull-Up Holds
- Kroc Rows
- Loaded Marching
- DB/KB Farmers Walk
- Single Arm Barbell Isometric Hold
- Zercher Carries (sand bags or barbell)
- Single Arm Farmers Walk
- Chaos Farmers Walk variations
- Overhead Farmers Walk variations
Again, this is not the only answer. This list is hopefully a tool for you and a scale of exercise execution difficulty that makes sense for you or your clientele. The bottom line is you must have options. Don’t get stuck in a dogmatic mindset.
The more you know, the more (potentially) you can help. 2018 technology is crazy. When used to create an online challenge on who can consume the most Tide Pods without dying, it’s not great. When used for collecting data on clients in hopes of maximizing their health and wellness, it’s pretty cool.
Don’t be afraid to try out some of these new technological advancements that relate to training. Things like velocity trackers, programming software, heart rate monitors and other products are accessible and affordable. In the right coach’s hands, these can be game changers.
Personally, VBT (velocity based training) is something I’ve bought into heavily. Going back to the idea of autoregulation, this is a tool that can give specific data on indicator lifts that I use as autoregulation tools for my athletes.
For example, a medicine ball slam or set of pogo jumps are two common ways for us to end a dynamic warm-up in hopes of activating the CNS. I’m able to track those movements in terms of power and velocity with the implementation of a VBT tracker. The numbers day-to-day should not be too far off from each other, so if I have a client slam 6.0 m/s last Friday but slams a 5.10 m/s on Wednesday, that concerns me.
That is a dramatic drop-off. Maybe I should ask some questions and figure out if everything is okay with the athlete. Bad day? Feeling sick? Sluggish? It could be a simple pep talk and re-test, but it’s worth looking into for the sake of staying safe and healthy.
That is an extremely limited example of some of the things we’re able to do for our athletes using technology. Unfortunately egos, habits and tradition often stand in the way of opportunities like those. Open your mind to new methods and try things out. Remember, the principles stay but if you can find a way to make your life and others around you better… well, you better damn sure be doing that!
The final major takeaway from this recovery process is all about vision. During my time in pain or in recovery from surgery I had some things pop up that almost got me off track. We welcomed two baby boys to our family, I got into a bad car accident, lost a close friend to Leukemia, lost my grandmother, quit the gym I worked for and then opened my own.
Again, this is not a pity party, I just wanted to extremely emphasize the importance of having a vision (and an amazing support system). My internal vision of what I want out of life was a great help for navigating through its obstacles.
When you have a vision or goal, you need to accompany that with a plan of attack. Don’t wing it. Strategize thoroughly. Vision is not just about saying you want things and then passively letting those things maybe come into your life. Having a vision means you have to literally visualize what you want. Imagine the future, literally. Then go impose your will on the universe and make it happen.
The purpose of doing this is so that you can see the end goal. That way in the present when you make countless sacrifices or keep going when you want to give up, it’s easy. You’ve already seen how it ends. You already know what’s coming and what you deserve. This makes doing the work so much more enjoyable.
Your vision is everything. Don’t let success surprise you. Envision it and prepare for it. Then, go for more.
Applying these lessons to my day-to-day life, training, business tactics and relationships with others has made a very positive impact in my life. I hope that you can take away some nuggers and apply them to your own situations.
Remember, adversity is necessary for growth. Injuries happen. Things don’t go your way. How you respond to these situations is truly what makes you grow as a person and help those around you. Situations don’t define you, reactions do.
About The Author
Justin Ochoa is a Personal Trainer, Strength Coach and the Co-Owner of PACE Fitness Academy in Indianapolis, IN. He enjoys working with a wide variety of clients ranging from high-level athletes to rehabilitation patients. No matter the goal or experience level, Justin’s coaching philosophy is that everyone is an athlete. His focus is helping his athletes bring out the absolute best of their mental and physical potential, and then continuing to raise the bar for continued success and results.