Vernon Smith is a strong guy. In fact, he's probably in the top 1 percent of the population in terms of sheer physical strength. As the head strength and conditioning coach at NAIA Marian University in Indianapolis, he's proud to walk the walk for the student-athletes he trains and mentors. AB executive editor Andy Berg asked Smith how he got into strength training, as well as how he motivates his student-athletes in the gym and beyond.
What are your stats: deadlift, squat, bench?
This might sound a little crazy, but I'm over 900 pounds in deadlift. I'm over 900 pounds in squats. I'm over 550 on the bench. I've been a weightlifter for 10 years, but I don't compete professionally, because I don't really have the time given my other responsibilities as a strength coach.
What got you into strength training?
My uncle played football at Nebraska in its heyday. He was one of Boyd Epley's athletes, and Boyd Epley was kind of the godfather of strength and conditioning. Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to either play a sport or train those athletes. I had a lot of opportunities to do other things, but something has always drawn me to that question of "How can I make this athlete stronger?" or "How can I make this athlete faster or smarter?"
What's the first thing you consider when a student-athlete comes to you and says they want to get stronger?
I tell them it's a process. You're not going to get it overnight. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication. We're going to fail a lot together. But at the end of the day, if we follow this process, you're going to get the results that you want. Having two football national titles. Having two women's basketball national titles, having over 30 national titles as a strength and conditioning coach at a small school, I've just been very blessed.
What's one universal truth about physical strength, regardless of an athlete's sport or activity?
I feel a lot of it is the mental side. We all have strengths of different sorts, but it's the mental strength that's universal. If you're able to mentally push yourself in something, I feel that your strength is unlimited. You can do whatever you want. That's the common denominator. I feel like the mental game, in this generation, is not as sharp as it used to be. But I can control that, because that's when it comes down to the hours you spend with your kids. I feel like it's all about the mental space.
How do you motivate your student-athletes?
Motivation, for me, is all about relationships. I can say, "Come with me, you're going to win a national championship!" I can say that, but first and foremost, I like them to understand who I am. It's going to take time for me to trust you, time for you to trust me. It takes time to work those things out to really be motivating to each other. I feel like I practice what I preach. So, one of the main motivations that they see is that they can look at me and they know that I'm there to get busy. Because if they don't see me doing what I'm preaching, how am I going to motivate them? There are a lot people in this industry who don't look the part, they don't do the part, they're not the part. They know the books. They know everything about the strength business, but they don't do it themselves. So, a big part of it is practicing what you preach.
What motivates you?
The thing that motivates me is that God has given me a power to help others. That's my calling. My thing is to not only make these kids better athletes but better students and better in life. I think that's why I have so much passion for this industry, so much passion to help this individual realize, "Hey, I'm going to be a college graduate, first and foremost, and I'm going to be able to support my familyp." And I've had a lot of success. I have NFL football players, and I have world champions in BMX, and world champions in karate and track and field. I feel that if I help one person become better, if I get one person to their goal, then I've done my job. In truth, I've helped a lot of people, but being young and being so eager and so egocentric at times, thinking I could do everything, sometimes I get kind of selfish, and think I can help out many, many people and then end up spreading myself so thin that somebody suffers. But that's my motivation. God has given me the power to do it and that's what I'm going to do.
This article originally appeared in the July|August 2018 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Strength and motivation, in the gym and beyond." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.