“One of the things that separates a good athlete from a great athlete is the ability to see beyond limits.”
Before Roger Bannister broke the record of running a mile in less than four minutes, people had said it couldn’t be done. Then after that record was broken, numerous people went on to do it. Why? According to Tyler Merren, U.S. Paralympic athlete and personal trainer at 24 Hour Fitness, people no longer saw four minutes as a boundary.
It’s that “no limits” mindset that has gotten Merren where he is today. At 32 years old, he is visually impaired, is married with four kids (his wife is also visually impaired), is a full-time personal trainer and assistant fitness manager, and is currently training as a player on the U.S. Men’s Goalball team heading to the Paralympic Games in Rio this summer. (He earned his spot on the team in June.)
To some, the plate would seem too full — the challenges too hard. But when you have as much determination as Merren, you get it all done and then some.
Raised on sports
Born into an athletic family, Merren was first introduced to the sport of goalball while attending a sports education camp for blind youth athletes at Western Michigan University when he was 15. After that camp, Merren began training with a group of goalball athletes of varying levels and ages, giving him the opportunity to go head-to-head with experienced players early on. He picked up the skills quickly and played in his first international tournament only two years after taking up the sport.
“When you train with the big boys, you develop quickly,” says Merren. “They showed me no mercy, and I’m grateful for that.”
And because he is grateful, Merren gives back. He and his wife, Leanne, volunteer at youth camps to help blind kids enjoy many of the same activities that sighted kids do. And Merren serves as an inspiration to everyone around him – especially as an ambassador of the U.S. Paralympic team (he’s been on the team twice before) and of the sport of goalball.
But what exactly is goalball? That’s a question that Merren gets asked a lot. Goalball is the only sport in the Paralympic Games that isn’t an adaptation of a mainstream sport. It was created with blind athletes in mind, and it’s intense. All players wear a blind-fold (to even the playing field in case one player is partially sighted) and try to block a three-pound ball with bells in it from getting into the goal they are guarding, oftentimes using their entire bodies to block.
The road to Rio
In order to prepare for a third trip to the Paralympic Games as part of the U.S. Men’s Goalball team (he competed in Beijing and Athens), Merren is working with a strength and conditioning coach on a program consisting of three days of strength, two days of plyometric movement and skill and two days of hitting balls each week. While some of the goalball team players train while living together in a year-round training program with a coach, Merren trains on his own while taking care of his family and working full time in South Florida — but it doesn’t faze him.
“Being blind can be a huge challenge psychologically,” he says. “But sport has taught me determination and confidence.”
“When you’ve been in the final round of a championship with other elite athletes and the ball is in your hands — in those moments of challenge — you gain confidence,” says Merren. “You start to learn you can do [anything] in any situation in life.”
Training with touch
Instead of relying upon vision, Merren has established his own techniques for training clients – he uses his sense of hearing, sense of touch and modeling to help his clients understand form and technique. And he loves his job.
“I get to help people accomplish things that they didn’t think they would be able to accomplish,” he says. “It’s very personally satisfying.”
And in his fourth year of being a personal trainer (including three years with 24 Hour Fitness), Merren says that his training philosophy continues to be shaped by his athletic background. He preaches the importance of full-body and functional movements, focusing on balance, performance and even kickboxing with his clients.
“It doesn’t matter if you can bench press 300 pounds, if you can’t balance on one foot,” he says.
Motivation from his peers
Merren’s training regimen leading up to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games is incredibly intense. Even though Merren is used to working out on his own, having a community around him at 24 Hour Fitness has been helpful. During the day, his fellow trainers will often check in on him to make sure he has completed his workouts and pushed as hard as he can.
“There’s something to be said for having people around you,” says Merren. “I thought I was self-disciplined, but having support makes a huge difference.”
On nourishment, rest and recovery
Even though he has a baby and three kids at home, Merren tries to place importance on rest, knowing the detrimental effects of overtraining and lack of sleep on performance.
When he is traveling for tournaments, he’s even known to sleep on airport floors to catch some extra shut-eye. He also reserves every single Sunday as a day of rest for his body, sometimes incorporating a second day of recovery each week as well, for foam rolling, stretching and mobility work.
And when it comes to nutrition, Merren has a simple rule: “Don’t count calories. Make your calories count.” He chooses complex carbs, fruit, veggies and lean meats and stays away from processed food. As an athlete in training, he is always trying to get as much food into his system as possible, and he does that by eating close to the source and consuming foods in their whole state, as well as drinking a lot of water every day.
A no-limit approach
When asked the best advice he’s ever received, Merren says it isn’t a phrase. It’s a push. “A good coach or trainer can step in and see beyond limits and tell you you are capable of so much more.”
“Seeing no limitations has made me be a better athlete,” he says. “And being a great athlete has allowed me to travel the world even though I’m blind.”