STEVE WILLIS’ HEAD is bobbing up and down as the rhythmic whack of a skipping rope slaps a rubber mat in a car park in Sydney’s Alexandria. His eyes are locked on a distant target only he can see as I wait, and wait, for his concentration to falter and the rope’s elliptical blur to halt at his feet.
Finally, on the 26th double-under the spell is broken. Willis’ gaze shifts and his jaw slackens, as his stern, formidable visage cracks into a disarming grin. “Four more,” he says, before resuming his 30-count set. He duly knocks them off before moving onto some kettlebell work.
The celebrity trainer’s body betrays little of his 42 years. His face is perhaps more illuminating, etched in character lines, possibly from running around after his three-year-old Axel, who he describes as a mini version of himself, or maybe it’s the weight he lost in the jungle on last year’s season of Australian Survivor that has helped forge an impression of rakish, middleaged gravitas.
Not that the former Biggest Loser trainer has ever lacked for authority. But now, in the aftermath of his stint in the Fijian jungle under the glare of the reality TV spotlight, it seems he knows himself better than ever. “I feel I can use the knowledge and wisdom I gleaned to help others enrich their lives,” he says, his sonorous voice in full oracle mode, as he reflects on his time on the island of Savusavu. Foremost among those lessons was a new appreciation of the importance of fully inhabiting every moment you’re on this earth. No easy task in a world where you’re bombarded with stimulus from phones, TV, podcasts and the like. No wonder it took a trip to the jungle, deprived of gizmos, gadgets and social media, for Willis to fully reckon with himself. The revelation he took away? You can reassert control of your emotions. “As you start to feel yourself react to a stimulus or a situation, you go ‘ah, there it is’,” he says softly. “You realise,
‘I don’t have to react that way. In fact, I might not even have to respond at all.’” Think about that next time a length of rope, be it a work problem, row with your missus, careless motorist or something worse, threatens to trip you up.
YOU’RE A SURVIVOR
How long do you think it would take to break an ex-military, former CrossFit champion who refers to himself by the most macho of sobriquets, when you deprive him of food, family and creature comforts? Two weeks? Two months? Try two days.
“In all honesty, I knew that was going to happen because we had to establish camp and we were doing that on limited input,” says Willis, of his rude introduction to the show. “We didn’t have the calories, the food, the intake. And I remember that second day I was off with the fairies. I’d experienced times like that in the military and there’s always something in reserve. But if you call on those reserves and then they throw something else at you, that can be a tipping point. That’s when you realise that it takes community. It takes a team to get the job done.”
The experience humbled him, something every man needs, he says, before you can truly escape the invisible tripwires laid by your own ego. The artificial constructs of the show fostered, in fact, forced collaboration, camaraderie and for Willis, self-reflection. In the real world, though, that wake-up call may never come. Chances are whatever troubles you won’t so comprehensively break you that you’re forced to re-examine your place in the world. Instead you labour on when stress weighs on your shoulders, take on too much when a deadline looms and become a martyr when other people’s work ethic doesn’t measure up to your own. “In everyday life a lot of the interactions we have with people are ego-driven because there’s an expectation of something in return for our efforts,” Willis says. As he grappled with the show’s psychological dimensions, Willis also had to come to terms with its social and competitive dynamics. Rather than try to impose himself as the alpha male, the life-long competitor chose to sit back and observe. “I wanted to play the ‘grey man’ as we used to call it in the army, where you’re the guy sitting on the periphery and you just remain quiet and composed and observe how others react when the pressure’s on. I still love competition but not to the point where nothing else matters. It’s more about upholding values, pursuing the journey with others, not just of self.”
It was something of a departure from his public image as the gruff trainer from his Biggest Loser days but it was an approach that saw him voted off 19th out of the 24 competitors. For many contestants, he says, the challenge of living without distractions – TV, social media, phones – was too much. “You’ve got nothing to escape into and when we were left to ourselves, that’s when people started struggling. Just existing wasn’t enough.”
Willis relied on meditation, Tai Chi and yoga to avoid falling prey to neurotic introspective implosion and also to preserve precious energy. “Because the input wasn’t there in terms of calories, you need any exercise you do to be directed inward so you have enough in the tank for the challenges,” he says.
The precepts of mindfulness also helped him deal with the agitations of operating on little sleep and the frustrations of the group. “It takes effort to be calm, to be kind, because it’s so easy, especially as a man, to respond to situations with anger,” he says. Emotional responses are even harder to control, he adds, when you’re existing on limited rations – rice, beans, paw paw, coconuts and the odd crab and fish, that amounted to less than 4000kJ day. Willis lost a bicepsshrinking
7kg. As someone whose self-image has been built on strength and what he’s able to achieve physically, it could have been a problem. Instead, he used it as another pathway to acceptance. “You have the aesthetic and an attachment to a certain way of being for so many years,” he says. “And you learn to let that stuff go. You accept that food is going to be scarce, there’s going to be weight loss and that’s going to chew into lean muscle mass. Sure, it’s great to get rid of body fat but in a survival sense that doesn’t leave you much room to move. The battle of attrition really begins there.”
WINS OF THE FATHER
Taking on Survivor took Willis away from his family for six weeks.
Considering he has four children, ranging in age from three to 20 and a partner, in Michelle Bridges, whose life is even crazier than his, it was a significant sacrifice. “You’ve got to be prepared for it,” he says of having kids. “Because there’s a lot that goes on that’s quite spontaneous and you’ve got to have the bandwidth to deal with that, plus everything else that’s going on.”
The chaos of family life is another reason Willis has come to prioritise being able to control his emotions in the moment and recognise habits that have the potential to be harmful. “As an adult, when the pressure’s really on, we tend to default to those ways we did as children,” he says. “As a kid I’d throw myself on the floor and have a tantrum and I see my kids doing that. I can actually see myself in them. I know over the years I haven’t literally thrown myself on the floor but inside I have, I’ve had a hissy fit. It’s an unconscious action but if you start to feel yourself react to a stimulus, you just need to take a couple of deep breaths, be calm and try to let it all unfold in front of you.” It’s an emotional response Willis has had to employ in other facets of his life, perhaps most notably as an ambassador for Sage Institute of Fitness, an accreditation college that went bust. The first he knew the company was in trouble was when a journalist called him up. As the face of the company he inevitably got caught up in the controversy, even though he wasn’t involved with the firm’s finances. “You might receive some nasty emails about things and you’ve just got to be measured in the way you respond to it and engage with some understanding,” he says of the fallout from the company’s demise. “It’s uncertainty for people. They put their trust into the organisation and it didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to.” The incident made him reflect on his shortcomings but also renew his faith and trust in the path he’s forging. It also made him look carefully at the type of person he wants to be. “As a youngster in the army, the guys you respected weren’t just telling you what to do,” he says. “They had that position of authority and they would say this is what we need to do. But they were willing to get in the trenches with you. And you’d die for them. It’s the same in
everyday life.” What does that mean for you? “It means pulling up your sleeves, getting down to work and not just talking the talk but walking the walk,” he says. “There’s so many people around pointing and directing yet they’re not being.” He pauses for a moment, perhaps thinking about the carriage of his words and the message they possess. “It’s through action that we find humility and we get that connection with others. When we be.”
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A keen skipper since his CrossFit days, Willis is increasingly incorporating the exercise into workouts as a high-intensity kilojoule burner. “Jumping in general is good for the body,” says Willis, who recently joined forces with RX Smartgear Australia to release a skipping rope. “With a rope, there’s those neural components that come into play. The coordination, the balance, the accuracy. And because it’s a dynamic action, where you’ve actually got to jump, you’re putting your body under greater load. Three minutes is going to own you.”