Sam Taylor was working toward a master’s degree in neuroscience when he came to realize that life in the lab was too “slow” for his liking. Taylor, a native of Perth, Australia, is a lifelong competitive athlete and upon finishing his degree, he promptly changed careers, returning to the U.S.—where he’d done his undergraduate degree—and obtaining multiple personal training certifications.

That turned out to be a good thing, as Taylor came to join 24 Hour Fitness as a personal trainer in 2017. For two years running, he has been selected to help Team USA coaches assessing 50 finalists vying for the chance to complete for the U.S. Olympic Teams as a part of “Milk Life Presents – The Next Olympic Hopeful.” As the official fitness sponsor of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, 24 Hour Fitness has hosted tryouts for hundreds of contenders striving to make it to the final 50.

Those finalists undergo four grueling days of competitive assessment at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. On December 29, audiences watched as six athletes received invitations to compete alongside the nation’s best when season 3 of The Next Olympic Hopeful aired. Taylor knows just what the coaches are looking for—and it might surprise you.

There’s a different “perfect” for every sport

Arriving at the USOPTC in 2018, Taylor was asked to manage the overhead squat assessment station. Taylor says while it’s not a move that’s integral to any particular sport, this move provides the observer with a lot of information about the athlete’s biomechanics. And so, taking his responsibility as a representative of 24 Hour Fitness to heart, he immediately sought out the Team USA coaches to understand their needs.

As it turns out, there is no gold standard for an overhead squat. For example, Taylor explains, while greater ankle mobility can reduce the chances of calf or Achilles tendon injuries in the everyday athlete, “a stiffer ankle translates into a good shin angle on the ice for bobsled athletes.” Rowing coaches are interested in the vertical jump because they want to know athletes’ reach. “They want that big wingspan” that’s ideal for rowing, he says.

What else does it take to be a contender? “Coachability,” says Taylor. “You have to believe that there’s still farther you can go, you haven’t peaked”—no matter how hard you’re working or how well you’re performing. And how does that translate into progress toward, say, Olympic competition? “Your chances are radically increased,” he says.

Don’t think you’ve reached your peak

Taylor says that coachability is key, even if you’re not a competitive athlete. He describes a client of his: “She’s 84, she’s had two knee replacements and she’s hiking Fourteeners every season. She has that mindset that she hasn’t reached her peak.”

Taylor is taking his insights from the set of “Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful” to his own work with clients. He is also USOPC Silver certified, meaning he has worked with Team USA coaches to learn to design sophisticated programs that take into account biomechanics, force absorption and other factors of sports performance. This specialized expertise means Taylor can help injured athletes train while they are healing, so that they don’t risk further damage and don’t sacrifice progress on their goals.

Taylor’s clientele at 24 Hour Fitness—not surprisingly—includes elite runners and cyclists. Yet some of the most rewarding client relationships he cites are the ones that made small changes amounting to major transformation.

Take the woman who wanted Taylor to commit that she would lose 60 pounds in a matter of months. She’d been struggling to introduce dietary and exercise changes for years and had reached 300 pounds. Taylor’s first stop was her nutrition, and the first task was to introduce small habits. In place of a slice of reduced-calorie bread, Taylor asked her to buy a package of bagels and eat one of those every morning instead. The next week he asked her to add a tablespoon of peanut butter.

Over weeks, she introduced and maintained small lifestyle changes that improved her nutrition and fitness. After several months, the scale said she had not reached her weight-loss goal—but, as Taylor had proposed, she felt like it. She had gained muscle as she lost fat, and that left her feeling far better.

Advice for all gym-goers

We asked Taylor a few more burning questions as 2019 came to a close and 2020 brings fresh chances to be our best.

New Year’s resolutions: Taylor says make them “functionally overreaching” goals. That means something that’s just a bit more than what you’re capable of. “Giving up candy for a week is probably something you’d do anyway,” he explains. “Two weeks is twice as long and might be doable. But four weeks—four times what you’re capable of—is reaching too far, and you’re likely to give up.” That’s why Taylor also recommends setting deadlines at six to eight months out, instead of a year.

Secret to a winning athlete: “What most people don’t understand is the majority of the athletes who were top-ranked in the USOPC combine were three-sport athletes, and the next level down were the two-sport athletes,” Taylor says. “People miss out on the fact that they could be awesome at something else,” other than the sport they played in high school or college.

Best way to train: “Train to become a well-rounded athlete,” Taylor says. “To train like an athlete you have to rest, recover and eat like an athlete.” To the weekend warriors, Taylor says being a multi-sport athlete will allow you greater longevity. For runners, he has a similar message: Strength training builds resilience into your body. “You have to have that,” he says.

Message for all of us everyday athletes: “Everything is better with a second set of eyes.” Taylor knows from personal experience: “I thought I was lifting with good form until I got a coach.” And that goes for nutrition and just about everything else in life, he adds.

Editor’s note: Four contenders who tried out at 24 Hour Fitness became finalists in “Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful.” Read the news release to find out who won!

Photos courtesy of Sam Taylor