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  • Jesse Irizarry

5 Lasting Lessons From a Master in Strength

This is a repost that never made it to my new blog when I shut down my old one. I wrote it ( I think) 4 years ago. Coach Bill has been on my mind lately because he's recently done a 1015.2 pound equipped bench press at 60 years of age and because I've been devoting some of my time to some powerlifting, taking his ideas, once again.

The first time I walked into his office, my eyes darted to all of the trophies, pictures, and certificates of accomplishment behind him. He had some of the biggest trophies I’d ever seen on the shelves behind his desk. Each trophy told a story. He earned them all through his unshaken dedication to the sport of powerlifting and by his determination to learn all he could of strength. My eyes shifted to a picture of him during his time as a strength coach in the NFL with his arm around Jerry Rice. Then they shifted to a frame with a certificate stating that this man was a Master Strength and Conditioning Coach. But none of it really told the whole story on how this man had spent his entire adult life in the passionate pursuit of his craft.

I very nervously shook his hand and introduced myself. I expected him to dismissively tell me what the internship was about and then tell me to get to work. But he didn’t. I was taken back when he greeted me with a smile and with a soft voice began to ask me things about myself. I saw this man as a giant, both in physical appearance and reputation, yet there was humility and kindness in his voice. So I blabbed on, acting out the perfect stereotype of a dumb young college kid asking to be a college strength coach intern without any idea of what it meant to be mentored by with such experience.

I’ve heard some coaches say that getting strong is easy. These coaches have a different idea from this man as to what strong really means. I saw firsthand that It’s not easy to do, or learn to do, what is necessary to be what he considered strong.

The Man That Set the Records

Bill Gillespie was and remains the Director of Strength and Conditioning at Liberty University. Before this, he was a Strength and Conditioning Coach in the NFL for the Seattle Seahawks and before that the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Washington. Gillespie helped the Husky football program make nine bowl appearances during his tenure, including three-consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl. The Huskies earned an undefeated 12-0 season and the National Championship. In the 1998 NFL Draft, the Huskies had the most players selected (10) in the draft.

Coach Gillespie has also worked with just about every Division 1 athletic team and was named Pac-10 Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year in 2001 while finishing as a finalist for National Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year in 2001.

As a former collegiate athlete, Bill was a 4 time All-American in Track and field. As a strength athlete, he has over 45 powerlifting records in various federations and has bench-pressed 804.5 lbs in equipped competition and squatted over 1,000 lbs. He has done all this as a lifetime drug-free athlete.

But if you spent as much time as I did with the man you learn that he is much more than his accomplishments and so much more than a coach and powerlifter. Coach Bill helped change the course of my entire life and his lessons continue to influence my actions. So, I decided to share just five of these big picture lessons. When I sat down to write this it was a challenge to figure out what to include and what to leave out but I settled on sharing what I think will resonate with most people. I learned more from him, much, much more. Deeper truths, more detailed explanations, more influential lessons to my life. But these are what I’ll share for now.

Lesson #1: Mentors are not overrated. Learn One Thing From One Teacher For a Season

I don’t think people understand the point of a mentor. A mentor isn’t just someone you squeeze for information. A mentor is someone who can effectively teach you how to think. I’ve heard some say that mentors are unnecessary because you can learn from any great person who’s written a book or recorded a speech. Maybe they have a point. Maybe that works for some people. But my mentor, Bill Gillespie, taught me how to focus my thoughts so that I could understand the deeper truths within a message or teaching. The kind of truths most are distracted from by the superficial.

Shiny object syndrome is even worse today in the strength and fitness community than when I first became a coach. The internet, social media, and countless seminars and workshops are now available to everyone. They can be very powerful tools and great vehicles for coaches, trainers, and athletes to share, connect and distribute information. But because there’s now so much vying for attention, younger coaches and lifters don’t know what to believe. They’re being bombarded each day with new ideas. Each new idea causes them to question what they previously believed. Their attention lasts about as long as an Instagram post.

Any true professional in a given field will tell you that to deeply understand an area of study you must focus your attention on the specific parts that make up the whole. You must seek to understand the whys and hows of these smaller parts to truly understand the complexity of the whole.

We’ve forgotten this in our little world of strength and fitness. Before we have the wisdom to decide what information is useful and what should be thrown out, we need to have dedicated some serious time toward learning individual principles, philosophies, methodologies, and disciplines. We need to learn these principles in their entirety before we can understand how to piece all of the information we gather together.

Just because we hear something new or contrary from someone charismatic, doesn’t mean we need to throw out our entire philosophy. If we do, then we probably had no idea what our principles were, to begin with. We should never stop learning, adapting, and evolving in thought and practice. But if you never bother to focus exclusively on the teaching of one mentor or of one methodology, you may never learn how to filter information. That’s what having a mentor in Coach Bill gave me. The ability to filter information and the ability to learn, apply, or reject new information that came my way.

Lesson #2- There’s Genius in Simplicity, Don’t Get Caught Up in All The Hype

While I worked under Coach Bill, I read every book and article in my field that I could. I tried to learn as many facts as I could thinking that it would help me understand more. But as time went on, I realized that I was just trying to find ways to complicate things so that I’d seem smarter and more competent to others.

Coach Bill has over thirty years of experience. He spent those thirty years not only accumulating new information but also figuring out what to subtract and leave out from his methodology. While I worked under Coach, I saw a lot of young coaches come through and think that what he was teaching was too simple. They thought they knew better. They thought that things needed to be complicated to be effective and that they knew something that Coach didn’t. After all, there were so many experts on the internet who seemed to have it all figured out and their methods seemed to have so much more involved.

But the beauty and effectiveness of Coach Bill’s methods were how he manipulated the variables that he did use. He understood what it was that would make his methods truly effective and this is something that can only come through the depth of experience that he had.

Keeping things simple and figuring out the 20% of your methods that yield 80% of results is far more important than having every word of every exercise science book floating around in your head. Coach Bill taught me that it isn’t what you add to a strength and conditioning system and philosophy of training that makes you a master in the field, it’s what you leave out. And it’s the ability to know what you should leave out.

Lesson #3 - Nothing Replaces Hard Work. Your Perception of What Hard Work Is And Your Relationship To It Must Change Over Time

I remember Coach Bill telling me the story of when he first took the job as Director of Strength and Conditioning at Liberty University. He had just moved from Washington, where he had worked as a strength coach for the Seattle Seahawks, to Virginia. Coach had to start working in Virginia before his family could move out with him so he had a lot of time to himself. So Coach decided that in all his spare time after coaching he would lock himself in his office and study. He’d re-read old training manuals and books and spend hours writing and rewriting strength and conditioning programs. I’d imagine that after coaching athletes all day that it was hard to sit down and dedicate time and energy to this some days. But Coach Bill is one of the most passionate men I’ve ever met and he was always willing to put in the work to make himself a better coach.

The effort he put into his own training was no different. I remember getting into my car after training with Coach Bill for the first time. I collapsed into my seat and zoned out for a good ten minutes. I felt like I couldn’t move and hardly had the energy to even start my car. I felt like a truck had just hit me and this was only day one. I thought there was no way I could repeat that level of effort and do that much work again day after day. But Coach made sure I promised that I’d be back to train again with him the next day. I wanted to be true to my word so I got up and did the whole thing over with him the next day.

I felt pretty terrible for the first few weeks, but after a couple of months of consistency, I unexpectedly found that I could not only handle the loads and volumes I could also begin challenging the training. And then I began to adapt and started setting huge PRs, one after another. Training sessions that were once physically and mentally crushing became routine. My perception of hard work had changed, and it was changed forever. Eventually, I would have to push harder if I wanted to see more improvement and my relationship to hard work would have to change again.

Coach Bill knew this would happen. He had seen it and gone through it many times over. He would teach all his coaches and athletes that hard work was always to be embraced.

By watching Coach Bill, I realized that he didn’t see struggle and adversity as a bad thing, the way that most people do. He knew that struggle and adversity were something to learn and grow stronger from. Stronger mentally, emotionally, and physically. His perception of struggle and his relationship to pain, both mental and physical, was not a negative one.

I’ve written about mental toughness before. Athletes will put themselves in uncomfortable situations with the intention of building mental toughness. Some put themselves through some hellish training sessions and others make themselves take cold showers. But many of these athletes miss the point and never learn to properly cope with pain and struggle. They are still mentally resisting the struggle, often unconsciously. But men like Coach Bill have learned to observe their negative thoughts and resistance toward struggle and worked to accept rather than resist. If adversity is no longer seen as a bad thing but rather an opportunity to grow stronger then it is no longer a negative thing.

If you change your relationship with struggle, you can learn to endure more. When you learn to endure more, your perception of what hard work truly is, shifts. And once this shift happens, you begin to truly challenge yourself. This is something that has happened more than once in my life. It’s something that I learned watching Coach Bill and something that has had a profound impact on how I’ve lived my life since.

Lesson #4 - Stay The Course and Keep Refining

Discouragement is a normal part of strength sports. The first couple of years of a career in powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting are filled with some tremendous highs. These highs can be even more drastic if you start your career when you’re young. But anyone who stayed in these sports long enough knows that with these great highs also come equally great lows.

Lifters who stick around long enough to see these lows learn that the stronger you get the harder it is to get stronger. The effort you put in now to add one pound or kilo to your total is more than the effort you put in to add over twenty pounds or ten kilos to your total when you first started. Sometimes months will go by without an increase in your total. Sometimes years go by.

At this point, some lifters give up completely. Others completely overhaul their training. I’ve seen lifters alter their entire philosophy on training and programming. I’ve seen others cut or bulk to drastically different weight classes to try to give themselves a competitive edge. They tried to grasp at anything they could. I confess I’ve been guilty of this as well.

Some things need to be changed and refined as you mature in your career, but you should never forget what got you to where you are, to begin with. Coach never forgot. He went through these times but knew that his methods worked and remained true to his discipline and his work. He constantly tested, refined, and sought to figure out the weak link in the chain that would stall his progress, but he held on to his big rocks that he knew produced the greatest results.

It’s hard to stay the course when it seems like your work isn’t producing results. But Coach Gillespie possessed the wisdom to know that every rep and set he did still mattered. Each repetition made him more resilient and built a greater base that would eventually yield a result. He stripped away anything that he absolutely didn’t need from his training and continually pushed through discouragement until he’d finally came through the other side, stronger. He did this many times over.

When I tell others that my mentor has bench pressed over 800 pounds in equipment they imagine a man who is different from them. He must be a different kind of species. He is, but not in the way they imagine. Coach Bill didn’t bench press this weight until he was nearly 50 years old. It wasn’t talent and natural ability alone that brought him to that point. It was going through fire every single day for most of his life. It was staying the course in spite of discouragement. It was removing everything that wasn’t useful and having the patience and perseverance to figure this out by seeking truth and failing often. Plainly put, it was refusing to ever give up. This is how he is different.

Lesson #5- Love the Competition, Keep the Fire in Your Belly

To this day, I’ve yet to train in a more competitive environment than the one Coach Gillespie created. At over fifty years old, Coach’s competitive spirit rivaled anyone even half his age. Every training session was a mini competition and if you weren’t stepping up to challenge someone in the group of lifters in some way, Coach would call you out.

Coach Bill knew that competition brings out the best in people. When you first get into strength sports it’s easy to be passionate and push hard every day. When it’s easy to get strong it’s easy to stay motivated. But when those valleys come and passion wane many lifters lose their competitive spirit.

I believe that the methodology that Coach Bill created can develop powerlifters better than most any other method, but I also believe that it was the atmosphere he created that truly accelerated everyone’s progress. He created a culture where if you weren’t trying to catch up to another lifter, you were trying to outrun one. At the top of the hierarchy in our group of lifters was Coach Bill. Keeping up with him was the greatest challenge and motivation of them all. He was almost twice the age of many of the interns and assistants he employed and yet none of them could equal his lifts or the volume of work that he put in.

Coach Bill created this atmosphere not only as a tool to develop his lifters but also as a means to fuel himself. The competition kept him young. He knew that competing against these young men would help him keep the fire in his belly even after so many years of training. It didn’t matter if we were lifting different weights or at different ability levels. Coach would make up little games to even the playing field so that we could test our mettle against one another.

It’s not easy to keep the fire as you age. Especially with all the injuries that come along with hard training. But I’ve realized that there’s no good alternative. Coach helped me see that. The alternative is to give up, and Coach would never think of doing it. As a lifter, you need to find ways to keep that fire burning. Get around like-minded men and women and fight like hell to compete. If you aren’t moving forward, you’re moving back.

Taking The Lessons With Me

I meet too many people that try to squeeze people, or situations, or resources for information. It’s supposedly all for the sake of education. I feel bad for these people. They’ve never learned the freedom that comes with taking the time to learn one discipline, one lesson, one philosophy from one teacher. They’ve never taken the time to explore and try to understand the why behind the idea or the why behind the person.

I’ve been blessed to learn the value of focusing on one thing and in learning how to find the one thing that will make the difference. Because of it, I’ve grown faster as a coach than I could have ever hoped. It’s thanks to my mentor, my coach, my training partner, and my dear friend, Bill Gillespie.

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