An interview with

Steve Hess

Strength & Conditioning Coach, Denver Nuggets

When did you realize athletic training was what you wanted to do as a career?

I grew up in a multitude of places.  I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, when I was about 6 or 7 I wanted to be a professional athlete or, this is going to sound crazy, work with professional athletes.  So I’ve known my whole life exactly what I wanted to do.  Initially I wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon but figured I was probably not smart enough.  I’m really glad I ended up taking the path that I’ve taken.  When I was 12 I left South Africa and went to live in London until I was 13, then I went to live in Zimbabwe till I was 14, then back to South Africa, then back to London, then Ithaca, New York, then Denver, Colorado, then back to Ithaca, New York, then back to Denver, Colorado, and here’s where I’m at. Growing up in South Africa I played cricket, rugby, soccer, I actually played baseball over there a little bit, it got me extremely excited about what the body could do.

You did a masters degree in physical education at a time when fitness wasn’t as popular or as in demand as it is now.  What was it like choosing a program and dedicating yourself to pursuing a career in fitness at a time when it would have been an unconventional or uncommon choice?

I did my undergraduate degree in cardiac rehabilitation and my masters with a sports medicine concentration.  It wasn’t necessarily hip to do.  I absolutely had the blessing to understand this was a passion I had.  I remember distinctly having a conversation in London with my father, he was in the real estate business, just before I did my undergraduate degree he asked “what are you going to do with your life?” and I said “I want to be a trainer” and he said “you want to be a what?” so I explained I wanted to go get a degree in medicine and he said “you want me to spend a huge amount of money to send you to university so you can get a degree in training people? Steven are you serious?”  He couldn’t even understand the concept of it but I explained it was my passion.  I’m a huge believer that passion is primary and anything that comes after that is secondary.  If you’re blessed enough to follow your passion, fitness was mine, I think if you can make your passion your job it’s not really a job.

I went and got my undergraduate degree in Ithaca and had to maintain a 3.6 grade point average because my high school grades were atrocious.  The more I did it the more I liked it. When I got my masters degree I was a graduate assistant for exercise physiology because my dad, great great great dude, my dad’s name is Michael Hess, he pretty much said “as an undergrad I will absolutely help you but after that you’re on your own”.  I did my graduate assistantship in exercise physiology and paid my whole way and was able to get my masters degree in this incredibly exciting field.

What was your plan for after school? What were some of your first jobs?

(laughs) so firstly, my wife, we’ve been married 20 years, when I finished my undergraduate degree we met in Colorado and she came back with me to Ithaca where I was getting my masters degree.  I had $300 in the bank, didn’t have a place to stay, didn’t have anything, and she didn’t need to do it, I don’t know why she did, but we rolled out there, so blessed.  When I was finished with my undergraduate degree at that point I still wasn’t an American citizen but you are legally allowed to get a job in the field that pertains to your profession, so I worked for a year as a personal trainer and then went back and got my masters degree.  Coming back to Denver after getting my masters degree I was married and we had no money but my wife’s parents, Nancy and Fred, actually paid our first months rent and put down a security deposit and that was it.  I went and got a job at a health club and after three years I ended up being the head trainer and was being interviewed for the Denver Nuggets position.  I’ve been with the Nuggets for 17 years.

How did you get hooked up with the Nuggets?

I gotta be 100% honest, it was being at the right place at the right time.  Again my whole life I’ve always wanted to work with athletes, working at the health club was an amazing opportunity because you learn to diversify your training protocols because you have such a huge variety of people that you’re training.  At that point Allan Bristow was just hired on by the Denver Nuggets, he hired Bill Hanzlik as the head coach and Jim Gillen was the athletic trainer for the Nuggets and at the time they wanted a better facility to train in.

Allan Bristow wanted to hire a strength and conditioning coach who would work part time for the Nuggets and part time for me, well not me for the health club, but I was the head trainer so I’d be managing that particular individual.  I was looking at the particulars and scope of the job and was like “I’m getting this job!”.  I then got on Allan Bristow and Jim Gillen everyday until they granted me an interview.  The job was offered to me and I did both that job and still stayed on as a trainer at the health club and was able to do that for a year until Allan Bristow said “we want you to work full-time”. At that time Allan was let go but I stayed on.  You asked me how I got on with the Denver Nuggets, I was at the right place at the right time.

Courtesy of the Denver Nuggets

What’s a typical day like for you?

Wow! Firstly you know the coyote in that cartoon?

The Wile E Coyote from Looney Tunes?

Yah yah yah you know how the coyote lands with his feet in a revolution?  That’s pretty much how I roll out.  I set the alarm pretty much anywhere from 4:30-4:45am and will try to get out of the house by 5, latest 5:15am.  I’ll go either to The Pepsi Centre or the gym where I’m part owner, FORZA, where I’ll work out for an hour and a half to two hours.  This would be generally a summer routine. Then I’ll go to the Pepsi Centre where we train our athletes, we have groups coming in from 8 until about 11:30.  Then they hoop from 11:30-1:30.  Then we have groups coming in from 2 until about 4.  After that a lot of times we’ll have coaches meetings, I’ll meet with the general manager or I’ll meet with our nutritionist or whatever we have to do.  A lot of times guys will come back and get evening workouts so I’ll roll with them on those particular workouts.  That’s usually in the summertime and I’ll pretty much go hard and take one vacation but besides that and because I love what I do I pretty much live there.

In the season on a day when we have a home game it’s the same thing.  If we’ve had a late game the night before I’ll get up a little later.  I try to get my workout done by 8am.  Guys start coming in at 8:30 and we work out from 8:30 until 10, we have 2-3 groups that are staggered.  We have shoot around from 10-11 and then I have another group from 11-12.  If it’s a 7 o’clock game guys will come in at 4 o’clock and we work them out in groups all the way from 4 until the game starts at 7.  If the game starts at 7 with 85 minutes on the clock Andre Iguodala would come in, this is last year, with 65 minutes on the clock Gallo (Danilo Gallinari) would come in, with 55 minutes on the clock JaVale (McGee) would come in, with 45 minutes on the clock Ty Lawson would come in and get some stuff done, then we’re going to a meeting with 36 on the clock.  With 32 on the clock I’ll do some activation with JaVale, with about 30 on the clock do some activation with Andre Miller.  Before we go out I’ll do some stuff with Manimal (Kenneth Faried) and be on the court with 12 minutes on the clock to do stuff with Gallo, 9 on the clock with Manimal, 6 on the clock with Andre.  Then after the game with guys who didn’t necessarily play if they want to work out and get their conditioning in after the game I’ll stay and do that.  Then after the game I’ll come home.

On a practice day in the season it will be a little different.  Again I get my workout done before 8 o’clock and dudes come in around 9.  We work em out from 9-11 in staggered groups.  I warm up the entire team and do some type of team conditioning and then practice goes from 11-1.  Then at 1:30 we have more groups of guys coming in.  A lot of times around 2:30-3 I’ll do an appearance or something like that and then I’ll go home.  That’s my sort of my life.

That does sound like Wile E Coyote.

Listen I’ll tell you now, I’m being 100% honest, thank God I absolutely unequivocally love what I do, otherwise I do feel it would get somewhat tedious, but it absolutely never does, it’s different every single day. It’s way cool.

The typical image of a trainer, at least on TV shows, is mean and always yelling but you seem very positive and encouraging and I was wondering what your personal motivational philosophy is?

In professional sports it’s very important that people understand that you have one objective, to win. That’s my main objective.  You gotta win or you get fired, it’s just the way it works.  However; my philosophy on life is that as a human being you have one responsibility and that’s to be happy.  You have to be happy.  Now being happy does not necessarily mean that something has to be easy, that’s not what I’m saying.  My personal philosophy is understand that the things you choose are purely perception based, you can like hard, that’s a perception issue, or you can hate hard.  If you choose to like hard then hard makes you happy. I’m a big proponent of loving challenges, thinking outside of the box, doing things that you don’t want to do purely because you don’t want to do them.  Do stuff that scares you.  Seriously, go out there put your ass on the line.  I’m a big proponent of that but the bottom line is you gotta perceive everything in a way that somehow has a positive benefit because your responsibility is to be happy.

In an NBA season you’re dealing with a ton of stuff with these guys.  Again to reiterate, it’s their shop, I’m on the periphery and I’ve got one job, I’ve got to make sure they can absolutely, unequivocally, compete at their peak.  In trying to obtain their peak my underlying philosophy is, I want to encourage them, be honest, be truthful, tell them when they’re lacking, but I need to encourage them with a positive base, that’s just the way I go.  My base is to be positive all the time.  I also believe you have two options, how you do one thing is how you do everything, you’re either positive or you’re negative, you’re either encouraging or you’re not.  The choice you make must be consistent.  That also gives the guys a basic understanding of where you’re coming from, which is fair to them.  If you’re negative just be negative all the time, if you’re positive be positive all the time.  That’s how I choose to be.  I remember we were in Brooklyn and my mind was on something else while I was getting Manimal prepared for the game and he said “dude are you serious, what’s going on man, focus” and he was 100% right.  I opted to give 100% of my positivity with everyone I train every single time.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have good and bad days but this is what I wanted to do so I need to be consistent with it.  That’s just how I roll the whole time.

Courtesy of the Denver Nuggets

I always enjoy watching Denver games because the team is usually built up of a mix of great veterans like Kenyon Martin and Andre Miller and just freak athletes like Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee. How do you tailor workouts for athletes at such different places in their careers?

Like I told you before, the cool thing about this is that it’s different every single day.  I absolutely get excited at that exact challenge.  How do I tailor every workout for every athlete on different days?  For example in a lockout season we’d play 3 games, day off, then another 2 games, what do I do to try to get these guys to benefit? Is it rest? Do I modify K-mart’s workout? Do I modify Andre’s workout? What do I do when I’m doing the warmup? Do I come with low energy? I say okay, here’s what I’ve got to do, if I’m truly selfless, it’s not about me, my ego’s not going to get in the way, it’s what best benefits Andre Miller today so he can strive and he can do better.  That’s how I look at everything.  How do the workouts vary?  I have a basic philosophy, I try and create strength and stability in as many muscles as possible, before they do anything.  Once I’ve accomplished that, it’s on the schedule where their bodies are at, what’s going on according to an exact plan I alter the workout to where I believe it will best benefit them at that stage.

Are you also in charge of personalizing diets?

Here’s the thing, people have to understand that the nutritional aspect of this is a huge component and it’s a controllable component.  There are certain components that are tough to control, freak injuries and things like that you can’t control. Diet to a large degree you can control.  I’m a huge proponent in saying look, if you’re able to increase your output 10% it’s absolutely worth it, you have to do it. I’ve done this long enough to understand that if you arrive in a city at 4 o’clock in the morning a lot of times things just aren’t open, you just had a 4 hour flight, you just came off a game, so we try and control whatever we can and do the best we can.  If we have an individual player who is on a strict diet modification for a strict goal we are trying to obtain I’ll make some food for him, I’ll cary the food, and we’ll supply it to the individual.  We have a group of chefs who come in and cook breakfast, lunch, pre-game meals, and post-game meals for every player to meet their nutritional needs and according to what the specific goal of that player is.  I have a nutritionist I consult with.  Again I do all of this stuff to try and obtain the best knowledge as it evolves but also understand that you have to eat clean, you have to eat smart, and you have to eat often in order to gain the benefits.

If you’re asking if there is any trick way or any trick thing that anyone can do, I’m saying absolutely not.  The body is a very very smart tool, I think the body is the most mechanically superb mechanical apparatus on the planet.  The great thing about the body is that if you want to do stuff properly, it takes awhile.  That goes for everything, nutrition included.  A lot of times the basics are the most important, we’re all looking for the magic bullet, the magic drink, I’m saying if you do everything right it all adds up.  Check it out, if you’re strong it’s a huge percentage of your performance, if your nutritional intake is great it’s a huge percentage of your performance, if your anaerobic and aerobic capacity are at the exact pace it needs to be it’s a huge component, if your basketball IQ is right on it’s a huge proponent, but if your rest is terrible or you have no ability to recover, that all gets shattered.  Do you understand what I’m saying?  If you put rest and recovery into it with nutrition, incredible basketball IQ, incredible coaching, with luck and everything all together, it all kind of fits in. So the nutrition is a great great great controllable piece of the whole thing but you have to look at all the aspects, your macronutrients, your micronutrients and you need to punch that into the equation.

I like when players tweet about eating fast food and you tweet back at them and get on them about eating unhealthy.

Oh my god, oh my god, Dave, it kills me.  I’m sitting there thinking I don’t know if I could even jump over a crushed grape, I eat a certain way, very very consistently, if I’m on the road I’m bringing my food with me just because you just feel so incredible, it’s unbelievable.  Their machine is so incredibly important for everything they do so the nutritional aspect, absolutely unequivocally, it’s just vital, it’s freakin vital.  If someones joking around saying I stopped off and had this particular fast food the thing that kills me about it is you don’t know exactly how it’s effecting you.  Say that it inhibits your system and if you’re inhibited the system doesn’t work as well.  When you call upon the system, which is the body, and it’s inhibited so it doesn’t work as well, I’m not saying it’s a direct correlation, I’m saying it just doesn’t work as effectively, you don’t sleep well and if you don’t sleep well you’re even more inhibited and there are ramifications.  Sometimes people don’t understand the ramifications they get from eating inappropriately or drinking inappropriately.  It pisses me off.

Courtesy of the Denver Nuggets

I saw you when the Nuggets came up to play the Raptors last year, you were running around the whole game and whenever I see you on TV you always look hyped. What do you do during the game?

The most important thing is to determine what’s going on with every single guy.  I don’t want to micromanage everyone but just to reassess.  I think the mind is a funny thing, a lot of times you don’t want to push doubt into players mind by asking are you okay, are you okay, are you okay? It’s very important that if specific things occur myself, and I have an assistant, Felipe Eichenberger, and head athletic trainer Jim Gillen, and his assistant Daniel; we all work as a team.  If something goes wrong we all want to make sure the athlete is functioning at optimal capacity at all times.  That’s our primary goal.  We want to make sure their hydration levels are met, a lot of times we don’t have proper electrolytes or water available so we don’t drink it so we need to have that for them.  When they come out of the game we want to make sure their breathing techniques are being done properly.  We want to make sure if something happens to a player and they need to go back to looker room we are there to do that.

Essentially I’m part of a group of young men who are doing everything they can to go out there and win.  Those are my individuals so I’m going to do everything I can to try to help them win a game because they’ve put in all this work and at that point in time my only objective is to see them succeed.  So when you see me getting hyped on the bench… I’ve got two sons and it’s like one of my sons is playing, not to be condescending but I feel so passionately about the coaches who have busted their butts, the players who have busted their butts and I just really want to see them win really really badly.  If I can give them positive encouragement I’m going to do whatever I can.

How’s your summer been?  What have you been up to?

We have a great ownership at the Denver Nuggets and it trickles down.  Their basis is if you’re going to be part of this incredible organization you gotta come with it.  I’ll get with coach Shaw and he’ll tell me what his plan is with a particular player.  I’ll get with Tim Connelly, our general manager, and he’ll say this is what we’re looking for.  Then I go ahead and contact the players and we do whatever it takes so that we put them in the exact position so they can succeed.  I’ve created amazing relationships with all the players that come through here because I generally think they are amazing young men, they are one of 400 NBA athletes and they’re doing an incredible job.  I’m so incredibly blessed to be a small part of their journey.  I get very close to all of them, in fact I was on the phone to K-Mart two days ago, I stay in touch with these guys, Marcus Camby one of my favourite people on the planet, Carmelo Anthony, I love these guys, they are part of my family and will always be.  I hate it when a trade goes down because I lose a part of my family.  That being said if I was the GM we’d probably have 50 players so it’s better that I’m not.  When new guys come in I relish the opportunity of trying to create a bond based on trying to get these athletes better.

You’re the co-owner of Forza fitness in Denver, was that a way to help regular people get in shape?

There are no regular people.  I think every single person is incredible, I think we’re all athletes in our own way.  I think we’re all striving to be the absolute best that we can and if I’m able to partake in a situation where there’s a particular kid that may be able to take advantage of my expertise I feel blessed that I’m able to give that experience to them.  If I’m able to train someone who doesn’t play in the NBA or the NFL or the NHL or whatever I’m just blessed that they’re inclined to move towards me so I can get them better.  My view is there is no such thing as a set point, if you’re not going forward you’re going backwards.  It’s a basic philosophy.  If someone chooses to go on a journey with me when they train for a day, a week, whatever it is they want to do, great we’re on this journey together but what I really want to try to do is make sure we’re moving in the right direction.  I don’t really care who I’m training.  I’m so incredibly blessed that the majority of my time is working with these incredible athletes but I find enjoyment out of the ability to work with anyone.  You asked me about normal people, I don’t feel like I’m giving back, I feel like I’m getting.  I do appearances for these young athletes, oh my gosh, it’s a different pace, I get to do different stuff, afterwards it’s unbelievable, so so appreciative that they may have got something out of it.

You’re one of 12 people on the Under Armour Training Council what do you do there?

This will be my 6th year with Under Armour.  They’re an amazing company that actually listens to the specifics of the trainers ideas, when it comes to new training protocols they’ll listen to our input.  So if they’re planning on making a training shoe that is specific to basketball they’ll come in and do research, they utilize the inputs from all the trainers that work for the company.  You’ll spend 3-4 hours doing specific think tank sessions where you’re able to help them.  I really feel like I’m a part of the family because they do an unbelievable job and they would be absolutely on their way without my input. They’ve chosen to utilize my input and they actually do use it.  Meeting Kevin Plank, the guy is just an amazing amazing human being, he’s one of those guys where you meet him and you’re talking and he’s actually listening to you and it’s like seriously?  He’s just a humble guy who spares no detail. Even when you go to the facilities at Under Armour and see how they’ve done everything, even their Hungry and Humble cafe, it’s so advanced and it’s brilliant and I love to be a part of greatness because I think it makes me better.  Me being a part of Under Armour what little amount they get from me I get a huge amount from them just because I feel they are striving for greatness the whole time.  I feel words are extensions of your thoughts and the words they use all the time are humble, they’re always looking to get better it’s an ongoing thing and they keep striving to do that.

Courtesy of the Denver Nuggets

What are you looking forward to this season?

Everything! Working with the new guys.  Seeing how it gels.  I can’t wait, just being out there watching coach Shaw banging with the dudes.  My whole life is this freckin exciting thing where everyday I’m going to come up with new challenges and see new things.  If you look at an NBA season, oh my gosh, the stuff that goes right, unbelievable, the stuff that goes wrong unbelievable, but you’re a part of it. We’re in the trenches and I’m not looking to hide.  I understand this is all about our players and our coaches but we’re in it.  You asked me what I’m excited about, I’m just excited about the concept of doing everything right to put us in a position to possibly win a championship.  Oh my gosh are you kidding me?  I may not sleep for a month.  That’s why we do this.  I do this to get the players in the best shape possible so we can do something unbelievable.  Let me ask you a question, can you imagine that today you had that ability to make an impact or maybe that percentage you were able to contribute helps you win a championship?  You win a freaking NBA championship, are you kidding me?

That’d be huge.

I’d be done.  Ridiculous.

What are some lesser known positions on the team that people might not know about?

Oh man we’ve got Timmy Gelt in our PR department, one of the greatest human beings on the planet. I’ve got Tim Dixon who helps with player affairs, it doesn’t run without him.  The guys who provide the food, Rick and Nancy, are unbelievable.  Our chef, Ryan, who comes in, incredible.  My assistant Felipe, oh my gosh, he deserves a metal just for putting up with me.  The guys in the marketing department, Doug Fulton who runs that department, so blessed he’s able to put all these things together.  You’ve got your assistant general manager, your statistician, your film guy, you’ve got so many people who are part of what makes this thing go.  No one is more or less important than anyone else.  Even the guys who keep our facility in tip top shape, I come in in the morning, the guys who work in the Pepsi Centre, when the lights go out they’re there.  Engineering helps fix the sound system every time it goes down.  How do you want to get involved in professional sports? Write your own script.  Whatever it is you want to do there are a thousand ways to do it.  You just gotta be original and think a little bit outside the box.

Do you have any final advice for someone looking to become a trainer or strength and conditioning coach?

I always follow the path of while you’re getting educated be active in the field you want to be in.  I would definitely get an undergraduate degree, definitely get a masters degree.  There’s some incredible certifications out there that I would thoroughly research before you do them, I can’t endorse just one because I don’t know what the specific goal of the individual is.  I would think outside of the box.  I would even consider a PhD, don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, but I think a masters degree is hugely necessary.  I would set a goal and see if this is something I wanted to do and if you’re passionate about it.  Understand it’s always changing, stay totally involved in your process by always studying, always practicing what you preach, and always be legitimate in your cause.  I think this is the most incredible incredible field.

Date: June 15, 2014 • Category:
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