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More Than War: Beyond the COMMANDO

By: Steve ‘Commando’ Willis • 4 years ago •

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I GREW UP IN QUEENSLAND, MOVING FROM REDCLIFFE TO MARYBOROUGH AFTER YEAR 10. I WAS 16, RIPPED OUT OF MY FRIENDSHIP GROUP AND HAD TO START ALL OVER AGAIN. I DIDN’T DO ALL THAT WELL ACADEMICALLY BECAUSE I WAS REALLY QUESTIONING MY LIFE BUT TRAINING IN THE GYM GAVE ME AN OUTLET.

I guess I was fortunate that when I reached that fork in the road, I took the path of exercise. I was always drawn to physical activity and I was constantly running, outside on my push bike, training, reading. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a huge role model for me at that time.

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n leaving school, I couldn’t get a building apprenticeship, and ended up in the army. However, when I got to the Army Recruit Training Centre at Kapooka, Wagga Wagga, I was young, dumb and very impressionable. The next thing I knew I found myself in Singleton at the school of infantry.

THE MAKING OF THE COMMANDO

As much as I hated it, I loved it and though it was hard, it was very rewarding as a young bloke, being constantly under pressure, learning discipline, focusing on teamwork to solve situations. It laid my foundation for the years to come. I’ve still got friends to this day who I went through Singleton with, and we’re as thick as thieves, even if we haven’t seen each other in years. Those bonds that you form from an early age, especially through hardship, remain.

Singleton was definitely tough in a physical sense; to say otherwise would be lying. There was the requirement to think on your feet and learn new skills. Most importantly, you needed to be trainable so you could learn the required skills of an infantryman: bushcraft, weaponry, teamwork, taking orders and discipline. Essentially, anything and everything that war requires.

To rise up and become an SAS Team Commander, I first had to get over myself. It requires quite a unique and special kind of person to be able to fulfil a counter-terrorism role, but even more so when you move into a command role, where you are looking after yourself and a team of five. It is such a chaotic environment in close quarters, so the ability to assimilate, react and respond in short periods of time was the biggest factor for selection. You need the ability to make informed decisions in the heat of the moment. Some guys had great skills and were extremely fit but didn’t have the awareness to keep up. It’s like trying to put someone in an F1 racing car for the first time and asking them to drive as fast as a trained driver. They just wouldn’t be able to respond at the required speed. That is one of the greatest assets that I’ve been able to take away from the military, as it helps build self-confidence and self-awareness.

The selection process to become a commando was extremely tough. The objective on selection is to test people and break them down physically, to the point where their true character bubbles to the surface. The SAS can then identify whether someone’s got the character and the required traits to become a special forces soldier. It includes long pack marching, being awake night after night, working on very little food and your ability to work with others to problem solve. You have to have the intrinsic motivation to keep fighting to be there. They only want the best of the best and there’s reasons for that.

One time, we were doing an exercise parachuting out of planes at night into water in North Queensland. The drill was: when you hit the water, you pop one side of the chute connection to your harness to deflate the chute. If there is wind across the top of the water with the chute still inflated, it can drag you under and drown you. These aren’t the recreational skydiving chutes you might expect, they’re big, round things for static-line jumping, which is how you mass-deploy guys out of big, bad-ass Hercules planes. It’s exhilarating. We’d been told that the riggers (who re-pack the chutes after jumping) were having difficulty as all the suspension lines were getting tangled up once wet, so we were ordered not to pop our harness release, to prevent the chutes from getting tangled.

So when I jumped and hit the water, I didn’t pop my release. My parachute came down right on top of me. This is a big silk chute that gets extremely heavy as it gets wet, and I started to sink. We would always have boats on the water as safety craft, but I was on my own and freaking out. Rather than popping my Personal Floatation Device (PDF), I tried to reach for my knife on my leg to cut my way out of it. I was going under and after some time went by, which felt like an eternity, a boat drew up beside me and a few blokes pulled me out. That was a pretty hairy moment! Another time we had to do swimming drills in Port Stephens in NSW. We were caught in a rip in an outgoing tide with webbing on (weighs 7.5 kilos) plus a machine gun and we all had to get rescued that time.

Thinking back now that I’m older, the easy thing would be to just pop the PDF. But when you’re younger, you don’t want to be seen as the weak link. However, a lot of that is also what keeps pushing everyone to be better, so it’s a double-edged sword. Now, I think that when weakness is expressed and verbalised, you can actually deal with it. It’s like having a chink in your armour. You don’t want to go into war with a chink in your armour. You want to identify it and patch it up. If weakness goes unattended, it magnifies the harder a situation becomes. There’s a lot of things I see in the world that I wish I could just reach out and change. But for that change to occur, it must first come from within.

Growing up with a broken family, not knowing my natural father and having a stepfather who was very hard on us, I always had this fear of failure and not being good enough. I fought extremely hard to create an identity and have a sense of belonging. I would crawl along a bitumen road, bleeding at the fingertips and missing skin, to make sure that I was there standing on the line with the rest of the guys. There is a fair amount of peer pressure, but I’d say, for myself, it’s was quite balanced with my own tenacity and desire to make it. I always had a belief that if other people were doing it, there was no reason why I couldn’t.

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THE BIGGEST LOSER

When I left the army, personal training was just becoming a trend and a job. I wanted to help people have what I have so I gained my qualifications, Certificate III and IV, and started working out of a gym. As you might expect, I applied my work ethic from the military. Among other things, I ran bootcamps drawing on my military experience. Then The Biggest Loser opportunity came my way.

Standing at the front gate of The Biggest Loser (TBL) house, on camera – it was daunting. The guy that you got on TBL – “Commando” – at the start was very much that military guy. It was all about action, drawing that line, you’re either in or you’re out. That’s how I perceived life and what needed to be done. It was tough for my team, but one of them went on to win [2007 TBL winner Chris Garling].

I loved it. In a situation like TBL, the contestant is doing the work. They’ve made a decision, they’ve drawn a line and said, “Enough’s enough, time for change”. I’ve just been a mentor, a guide, a coach. I cannot do the work for them. You’re not going to stand next to me and vicariously or by osmosis become like me. As the years went by, I was able to better communicate and I could blend my true character with my on-camera persona.

LEADERSHIP

Now I’m interested in mentoring young kids and helping Australia reach its potential. Leadership to me, is that you’re willing to get in the trenches with your soldiers and do what needs to be done. You lead from the front. If the toilets need cleaning, you’ll do it. If the floor’s needs vacuuming, you’ll do it. Then when those underneath you, see your willingness to go above and beyond, they’ll be with you for life.

That’s how it was for us in the army. We had certain leaders we didn’t respect because all they did was bark orders. But then you had others who toiled and bled with you, you respected them for that. When I look at Rugby League and Wayne Bennett, coach of the Broncos, every team he’s ever coached has risen to the top. Why is that? He builds rapport on an individual level. He knows people, he cares about people as much as he cares about the bigger picture. That’s what it means to me.

First and foremost, I believe coaches need gratitude, humility and empathy. Be a good sounding board. Listen to people and use observation to understanding what makes people tick.

Being a trainer, you’re almost a psychologist. If you’re asking somebody to do something because you feel it will work for them, you need to give them greater understanding. Through education and gaining knowledge, people grow. I can recommend an amazing book on resilience and adversity: “Resilience” by Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL.

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THE FUTURE

The Commando Steve brand is not just superficial – there’s a lot of meaning behind it. As much as business is about making money, it’s also a by-product of our intentions and our philosophies – our ‘why’. The partnerships that we have, the ambassadorial roles that I’m in, have been identified because they are a good fit. Their mission and goals are very much aligned with ours.

We want people to rest-assured that the information that we’re providing is sound. We build rapport and they come to us as a known source. Many have done our 12-week online program and it’s changed their world because they’ve been willing and committed. But the program is just the foundation and framework. Anyone can do it and it will work. We are also breaking down the big picture into weekly offerings and little training packages tailored to individuals. Technology gives us the ability to do all these things.

COMMANDO’S TIPS FOR COACHES:

1. Be prepared to do everything, do it well and to the best of your ability

2. Be a better version of yourself today than you were yesterday.

3. Hone your craft.

Known best by his television persona ‘Commando’ from The Biggest Loser reality TV series, Steve Willis is a former Australian Special Forces soldier in Counter Terrorism. He turned his military experience into big business personal training, became a CrossFit champion, before becoming a household name in fitness through TBL. He is also an author of several books and a motivational speaker. www.commandosteve.com

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