‘Maine was always home, and I wanted to come home and show my kids and wife the best life possible’

Neil Willey talks strength and conditioning, working for athletic powerhouse

Mon, 10/29/2018 - 9:30am

BRUNSWICK — Neil Willey went from being an athlete at Medomak Valley and the University of Maine to being a strength and conditioning coach for the University of Arizona, a NCAA Division I athletic powerhouse at the top-rung level of collegiate athletics. 

Now, Willey is in his sixth full academic year at Brunswick’s Bowdoin College, a NCAA Division III institution. 

There is, of course, a significant difference between the average Division I and Division III athlete — the Arizona football roster, for example, boasts 14 players this season weighing at least 300 pounds, while Bowdoin has three who narrowly cross the 300 mark — but obvious size differences aside, there is still a significant difference in weight room environments for Willey between his past employer and his current. 

“There are no sports scholarships in [Division III] schools, so the athletes are there solely for the love of their sport,” Willey said. “There’s overall more pressure in [Division I] athletics. Whether you are in the biggest and best facility in the country or the smallest, you will have student athletes who want to work hard and get better and athletes who don’t want to work at all. This may be because they’re lazy or they might think they have enough talent to get by without putting in the extra work.”

Facilities alone reflect a sizable difference. Willey noted the weight room at Bowdoin is shared by student-athletes, students who are non-athletes, and members of the college’s faculty and staff. At Arizona, Willey’s former employer, the Wildcats operate three weight rooms limited to use only by the university’s student-athletes. 

The number of players for whom Willey provides strength and conditioning services drastically increased upon his move to Bowdoin. At Arizona, Willey worked with five teams — baseball, softball, swimming, diving and gymnastics — which consisted of a combined 100 athletes. At Bowdoin, he oversees 31 teams consisting of 650 athletes. 

“Going into my 20th year of being a [strength and conditioning] coach, I’ll never get used to the crazy schedule and long hours,” Willey said. “If there’s an injury, I write a specific workout for that person to help with recovery.” 

Despite the amount of work and time it takes to keep an entire athletic department at top-notch shape, Willey is content with the satisfying rewards the job yields. 

“Seeing my athletes buy into the program, work hard and make improvements,” Willey listed as perks of the job. “Whether it’s a beginner who puts in their best effort and makes the varsity team, or an Olympic athlete who gets that tenth of a second better and as a result wins a gold medal. Knowing that under my wing, they’ve developed a lifelong habit of fitness and wellness. I still have former students who keep in touch, who’ve gone on as professionals in their sport. Sometimes out of the blue, I’ll get a phone call or an email thanking me for the work I put into their development years ago. I still have former athletes who want an off-season workout. If only I had time! It always makes me happy though, knowing our time together left a lasting impression.”

The decision to leave the state of Arizona and return to Maine was not an easy one. 

“Leaving the University of Arizona was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” he said. “I had been there 15 years, and climbed my way to the top of my field, and was honored to have the best position in the country at a powerhouse [Division I] school,” Willey stated. “The teams there made it really hard for me to leave, and the athletic department offered me more than I could’ve imagined in trying to keep me.”

Willey was a beloved member of the Wildcats athletic department. In 2008, he was awarded the J.F. "Pop" McKale Coach of the Year, an award bestowed upon a University of Arizona coach by the university’s athletes, “based on contributions to the athletic department and a commitment to being a positive role model for student-athletes.” 

But Willey felt the move was for the better of his family, especially his children. 

“Ultimately it came down to a decision that I made with my wife — the chance to offer our kids quality of life where they could have room to grow up in the outdoors,” he said. “Having spent my childhood here, Maine was always home, and I wanted to come home and show my kids and wife the best life possible. Now we have hundreds of uninhabited acres of forest out back to play in.”

So how did Willey gain an interest in strength and conditioning? 

“As an athlete at the University of Maine, I became interested in the profession, working with my strength coach Jim St. Pierre,” Willey said.

In the months following his hiring at Bowdoin, Willey told the school’s student newspaper, The Bowdoin Orient: “I would go in and talk to him on my own to get advice, see what he was doing; that really sparked my interest in [strength and conditioning].” 

Willey not only credits St. Pierre for sparking his interest in strength and conditioning, but also for molding Willey into the record-winning athlete he became. 

“Through working with him I was able to make huge gains, and went on to become a New England champion in my senior year,” Willey stated. “I still hold the decathlon record at UMaine.”

A cause for concern for many across the nation is player safety during hot days. PenBayPilot.com asked Willey to address what steps can be taken by athletes and coaches to address this growing concern. 

“Before an athlete participates in any workouts the should have a physical or screening to make sure they are ready for intense activity. This is very helpful, but doesn’t not always shed light on family history and issues that could arise,” Willey said.

“While I was at the University of Arizona we had two athletes pass away, not because of heat related issues, but because of medical issues. Coaches need to understand that they need to be very conservative with athletes as they start practices for the season. You have no idea what any of the athletes have been doing for activity leading into the first practice and it’s impossible to read your new athletes to know whether they’re working hard or not. If it’s hot you must modify practice.

“Allowing for more water breaks and shortening practice based on what the tempter is on a given day. We have a set of guidelines we follow during hot weather at Bowdoin. This can be hard for coaches to do, but it’s a lot easier than the alternative.”

Reach George Harvey and the sports department at: sports@penbaypilot.com