Stay the Path: One Man’s Empowerment through Strength

Guest author: Will Wasielewski

A strength and conditioning coach must be able to lead large groups and promote a healthy atmosphere. This requires comfort and confidence in the gym setting, which was not the case for me, initially. Although I was nervous during my early experiences in the weight room, strength training eventually became an essential part of who I am. It is now my goal to share that experience with as many people as possible.

Fear of the weight room is a genuine issue. It can be an intimidating place. Most first-timers carry a phobia of being judged on size, strength or some other ability. However, under the right circumstances, a weight room can be an amazing place, where strong bonds are built and communal support is never-ending.

My Story

I grew up in a family of four kids. We were always on the move together: we played tag, football, baseball, rode bikes and enjoyed countless other activities. As time went on and we began to go down separate paths, my once active lifestyle began to slow down.

By Junior High, I became more sedentary; my health worsened and I slowly became more isolated. I had a desire to participate in sports but held back for fear of being judged. The issue compounded and the isolation intensified. I love my family and they have always been supportive. However, for some reason, I was stuck.

During my sophomore year of high school, I found myself in the same place. My older brother was a senior captain on the football team and urged me to try getting involved with fitness by going to after-school workouts. This was the first time I met Jim Davis, the Director of Strength and Conditioning at New Trier High School. What I thought was going to be an extremely intimidating moment turned out to be the exact opposite. Coach Davis welcomed me in like any other person coming in for a lift, which, for the moment, wiped away the stigma I had developed in my mind about the weight room. I previously assumed that only athletes were welcome, and anyone “lesser” would be looked down upon. While that brief after-school workout meant a lot to me, it for some reason was not enough for me to break through that barrier, and find that sense of belonging.

Psychological barriers can manifest physically, completely prohibiting one from proceeding. To overcome psychological barriers one must develop a realistic, informed perspective of the situation and repeatedly attempt to break the barrier through self-talk and action. This may be a problem if one does not know where and how to begin.

Doctor of Psychology James Olson, explained this further by saying “ [if] the desired behavior is exercising, stopping smoking, reducing dietary fat, performing self-examinations, or using sunscreen, patients need specific information about how to begin, where to go for help, how long to continue, and so on.” That is what I needed – a simple belief in myself to overcome all the fears I had constructed over the years, and a set of guidelines to see myself through. As college approached, this need increased.

Not much changed over the first two years at Marquette University. I kept a sedentary lifestyle and rarely committed myself to physical activities. By junior year I was living off campus with a few buddies. My roommate and I finally decided to explore club activities on campus to meet new people. We ended up trying out for Marquette Club Quidditch, a full-contact, coed game based on the Harry Potter series. This proved to be an important spark, which led to meaningful change. We ended up loving it, and not only did I get back into the gym throughout the week, but I finally found a sense of belonging. I was in a tight-knit group centered around bettering ourselves and helping each other.

I began to commit myself to the gym on a strict schedule, in an attempt to slowly build myself up. I saw physical improvements and felt better mentally. The weight room was no longer an intimidating place. I felt peace in that environment and I could always count on it to boost my mood. I felt optimistic, and I began to think of what I wanted to do after school was over.

I had an urge ever since I began college to apply myself in some type of profession involving service to others. The notion of providing service to others in need was extremely compelling to me. I was ready put others before myself. I decided to enlist in the U.S. Army.

The enlistment process would come after graduation and I couldn’t have been more motivated. I participated in a team building/endurance event orchestrated by a company founded by former special operation soldiers offering a series of events ranging in length and distance, designed to test you physically and mentally. I knew this event would test my fitness level to a high degree.

During the event, the real struggle came from within. Having to be uncomfortable and stressed for an extended period of time was a great learning experience, as it showed me how far I could truly push myself. The event taught me so much about myself. It gave me confidence, and I was finally on a steady path towards my ultimate goal of enlisting. Nothing would get in my way. My dedication to the gym was like no other.

Unforseen Setback

I thought nothing of an injury I sustained while in school, mainly because I had done physical therapy for it and felt great. When enlisting, your entire medical history is scrutinized and combed over for any hint of a possible weakness leading down the road, which could be a cause for liability. After graduation, I’d taken and passed my entrance exam into the military, and all that was left before I could officially enlist was to pass a military physical.

I remember that day extremely well because of the perfect weather, and I arrived at the medical center bright and early. The day went smoothly until a doctor brought up the injury during my final review. I knew something was wrong. I was told that they were not comfortable clearing me for enlistment due to the back injury history. For the foreseeable future, I could not follow through with enlistment. I was devastated, I took an emotional drop and officially hit rock bottom. I had no idea what to do after the goal I strived for was taken away. I spent years working towards that goal, and to have it stripped at the last minute had several negative effects.

My desire to workout came to a stop. I associated the gym with the military, and because of what happened all I could think about when I tried to workout was of what could have been. Not only did I stop working out, but I also fell into a depression. I had dealt with it for many years, but nothing like this. I was in a bad place. For me, depression is not a passing blue mood but rather persistent feelings of sadness and a lack of desire to engage in formerly pleasurable activities. The gym, which had become a constant in my life, was now a source of agony.

After letting some time pass, I realized that I could not let myself completely shut off that part of my life. After researching further about exercise and the positive changes it can have on the mind, I decided enough was enough and got back to the gym.

Soon after, my mood began to return to normal and I could feel my passion for training. A large part can be attributed to an endorphin rush. Doctor Melissa Stoppler published an article on the positives of an endorphin rush. Stoppler noted, “Stress and pain are the two most common factors leading to the release of endorphins,” and unlike some drugs that can lead to full-on addiction, “activation of the opiate receptors by the body’s endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence.” It sounded good to me, so I decided to seek it out.

James Clear also wrote an article examining the relationship between depression and exercise. Clear asserts that by working out people have the potential to accomplish “a sense of personal mastery and positive self–regard, which [is] likely to play some role in the depression–reducing effects of exercise.”

I had gotten back to what made me feel good in the first place, which was the gym. Not being able to enlist in the military still hurts to this day, but at the time I knew I had to look elsewhere. When searching, I wanted a place where fitness and health were greatly appreciated, and service to others were core pillars of the companies.

After a few months of bouncing around jobs, I finally regained that sense of belonging at New Trier High School—a place I used to fear—as a strength and conditioning coach.

My new calling lets me fully dive into the world of fitness, help others, give back and see them grow. Seeing young people improve and experience the community, growth, and positive feeling that I did has been incredibly rewarding.

I still find it ironic that the place I once found terrifying is now my second home. With my own story in mind, I approach each new athlete who comes in the room with genuine care. All students receive a warm welcome, they are reminded that they are part of a community – then the work begins!

My advice for anyone working in a weight room atmosphere is to anchor your program with certain guidelines. I try to keep three in mind when working with new students:

(1) Tell kids they belong. There is always a place for them, no matter what they may think. This is critical to creating a welcoming atmosphere that will only increase the chances of students buying into the program and giving max effort.

(2) Always frame the experience for the individual. Most athletes coming in are not on a varsity powerhouse sport. You must provide dedication and passion to everybody, regardless of their affiliation or playing time so that they have a chance for growth. Whether it’s football, military or quidditch, every athlete matters. At New Trier, every day gives us a chance to work with a wide range of athletes but we always maintain the same exact standard for each group. We treat everyone with the utmost respect.

(3) Stay the path. No matter what happens, stay the path. You may encounter challenges that test your resolve, but always remember what makes you happy and proud in life and stay devoted to it. Life is just too short. The career path of a Strength and Conditioning Coach may be a long and difficult one, so prepare. Increase your knowledge. Work on your resilience. I, for one, truly love what it stands for.

Being in this field makes me happy, and whether I become a lifetime coach or move on to another field, I will embody the lessons I have learned and take them with me. I will stay the path.

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Works Cited

Olson, James M. “Psychological Barriers to Behavior Change.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2145450/pdf/canfamphys00120-0091.pdf.

“Pain and Stress: Endorphins: Natural Pain and Stress Fighters.” MedicineNet. Accessed April 23, 2018. https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=55001.

Clear, James. “Exercise and Depression: The Truth About Natural Depression Remedies.” October 02, 2017. Accessed April 23, 2018. https://jamesclear.com/exercise-and-depression.