December 31, 2013

Wilford Channels Near-Death Experience to Motivate

by Corey McLaughlin | | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive 

Wilford's heart keeps him from competing at the level he once reached, but his story motivates teams across the country. (Photo Courtesy Wilford Movement)

After Keith Wilford visited the Stevens men's lacrosse team last year, Ducks coach Gene Peluso pulled him aside and said, "You got something special here."

Three years after suffering a heart attack while competing at a CrossFit Games event in Ohio — and 12 months after starting The Wilford Movement, a unique motivational speaking and training circuit drawn from his inspiring background — Wilford, a former All-American defenseman at Widener, has reinvented himself. Teams from Princeton, Hobart, Towson, Boston College, Loyola, Lynchburg and Ursinus have enlisted his services, as well as various high school and club programs nationwide.

LM caught up with Wilford, the assistant dean of students at St. Joseph's (Pa.) Prep, to learn more about the movement.

How did you decide to start this project?

I worked at Malvern Prep (Pa.). I was the youngest athletic director at Friends School (Md.). And I had always trained kids, in the weight room or on the field. I also realized that 80,000 other companies also train people. Getting bigger, faster, stronger wasn't really what I wanted to necessarily focus on this time around. Part of why I changed my focus was some of the hardships and the things that I had dealt with.

In 2009, I left Friends and went to a school called the Academy in Manayunk [Pa.], which serves kids with learning disabilities. I felt like it was a school for kids that learn like I did. In fourth grade, I was diagnosed mute and MR, which was considered mentally retarded. I eventually was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 21, but in the midst of all this, I still found a way to be an All-American lacrosse player, the first at Widener, and try out for the Philadelphia Wings and Philadelphia Soul [of the Arena Football League].

In 2010, I entered the Cross-Fit games and did pretty well until a competition in Hocking Hills, Ohio, and my heart stopped. For two minutes, I was dead. I felt the pressure of IVs going into my arm but eventually woke up. To this day, I cannot get my heart rate to a certain point. Otherwise, I'll cause damage to my heart. I can't compete at the level that I competed at. I can't train at the level I trained at before. But you kind of reinvent yourself as a person.

What's a typical speaking schedule or curriculum with a team?

The first time I go is when I tell my story. That's the foundation where you get people engaged and locked in to what you say. Is this cat even worth listening to?

Every day I develop my curriculum based on what these young people are saying to me, and looking at them in their eyes. As human beings, we don't slow down enough to pay attention to what other people are actually saying. Sometimes that's just a matter of "How's your mom? How's your dad?" Nobody ever asks me that. Everybody always wants to know, "How many goals am I going to score?" or "What's the next thing I have to do in the weight room?" When you can connect the two, then you have a drive and asset to want to compete harder because now they have a better understanding of themselves.

I go for about a half hour on the field, and a half hour in the classroom, a half hour on the field, a half hour in the classroom. The classroom is all mindset and learning what it means to have a covenant and a creed for yourself. What is your why?

This story originally appears in the January 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Join US Lacrosse to receive your subscription.

Out on the field, the training that I do is not performance-based. It's just training for them to go through a grind, a little bit of pain and connect it to what has been told to them. Then you go back in the classroom, talk about it again, and then when you move for the second time, the shift is powerful. Now they start doing things with a purpose.

What are some examples from on- and off-field lessons?

On the field, I will get them in a line and do some isometric movement that they have to do together as a brotherhood or sisterhood. Everybody has a strength and conditioning program and everyone can write something down that says they're increasing their numbers. It becomes individualized. When I get them, it's almost its own little pep rally. We get a clap going, chants and cadences.

It's a combination of what we all need as human beings: fun and enjoyment, enthusiasm and a level of intensity and expectation. I'm known for this big, booming yell where I say, "Who are you?" Most of that is for them to recognize who they are as a team and to ask the question over and over. I also say things like, "If you can hear me, say 'I.' If you're family, say 'we.'"

Within a team, you have to find your identity. When you engage them and lock them in, and when you're smiling while you do it, that's pretty cool. People smile when you smile. I can take my 4-year-old and that gives him a level of dignity. There's not much difference between a 4-year-old and a 35-year-old and 55-year-old. Everybody wants to figure out how to be happy, to be good and appreciated.

At the end, when we've gone in the classroom and come back out on the field, we get into a huddle, link arms and get it going as loud as we possibly can. It's wild. When you go out fearless and relentless and happy and unafraid like you are when you're 4 years old, whoa, it's crazy.

What's been some of the feedback from teams?

One of the biggest compliments was from [Towson women's coach] Sonia LaMonica. She said 'I feel like we have our own personal Ray Lewis in our locker room, every time you're here.' I'll take that

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