Forget the scary guy in camo gear with the fierce stare and uncompromising attitude. Steve “The Commando” Willis is a lot more Zen than you’d think.
By Alison Turner /// Photographs by Fernando Barraza.
In the lead-up to my interview with Steve Willis, I made the mistake of relying on a stereotype. I thought our conversation would be limited to discussing training, and that he would be kind of intimidating and a little bit scary. What if he made me do push-ups? What if he made me cry?
Sometimes it’s great to be wrong, and this was one of those times. Willis is, in actual fact, a totally lovely bloke, full of compassion and sincerity. He’s a devoted dad of four kids (aged from 19 to one) and a dedicated trainer who genuinely cares about helping people. He’s also pretty deep.
“Being the older version of myself now, there are life lessons I’ve learned,” he says. “With anything that we do and the things that we strive for in life, I think we need to question our philosophies, our motives and our reasons for doing things.”
Willis is speaking from experience. He joined the army when he was 19 years old, with the intention of doing an apprenticeship to become a builder. But being young and impressionable, he was talked into following a different path.
“I joined the army to go to engineers and do my trade,” he says. “But when you’re 19 you’re very easily influenced – by those that are older as well as your peers. And a lot of the older guys were like, ‘There’s no point being in the army unless you go to infantry’. So being this young guy who wanted to fit in and be seen as an equal, I found myself in infantry – going from doing a trade and becoming a builder to learning to shoot guns and dig holes in the ground.”
Willis stayed in the army for 10 years, leaving in 2004. He made the conscious decision at this stage to move into the fitness industry.
“I’d always enjoyed fitness,” he says. “It was something that was there for me; something I had attached to and identified with, because it helped me cope with where I was in life at that point. So I left the army, I did my Cert 3 and 4 and started working at Fitness First. I thought it would provide the structure and the framework that I needed. Coming from a military background, that was something I have always been big on.”
Within the year, Willis got a call from an old army mate who knew a casting agent. The agent was looking for a trainer who was ex-military, for a reality TV show called The Biggest Loser.
“I thought, what have I go to lose?” he says. “I met with her and the production team. Of course, they don’t give you much feedback, so I thought okay, nothing is really going to happen here. But then by the end of 2005 I found myself on TV, walking in the front gate of the Biggest Loser house.”
Willis based the character of The Commando around the man he was while he was in the military – arms crossed, sunnies on, not saying too much. But for Willis, this presented some problems.
“I realised that by being this figure, people could use that to perceive that I’m this hard-arse; that I’m this guy who is uncompromising – because no one had ever really heard me talk,” he says. “I was just kind of this enigma – The Commando. It was just a character, but even to this day, people can be quite hesitant, being scared to train with me, because they think they’re just going to get this guy that they saw on the TV screen. Sure, I can be that person, but that was just part of it – my work ethic – but other than that, I’m this compassionate, empathetic, kind, loving guy that just wants people to be the best they can possibly be.”
Willis is also the first to admit that he has grown since his early Commando days. And we’re not just talking professionally here. He has also grown a lot as a person.
“I’ve been going through quite a big shift lately, with a lot of different things,” he says. “Being a father of four, the connections I have with my kids has really helped to ground me as a male in this world, as a human being.”
Willis also opened himself up more, even speaking to news.com.au earlier this year about his battles with depression and taking on an ambassadorial role with RUOK?
“I guess there’s this guy that everyone perceives me to be, that I’ve got it rosy and I’m home sweet, that nothing in life fazes me,” he says. “The reason I did that interview and why I’m on board with RUOK? as an ambassador is to connect and relate to people and show them that, first and foremost at a foundational level, I am human. I experience pain; I experience fear, just like everyone else.
“A lot of the time we manifest and create a lot of this unnecessary pain, suffering and fear for ourselves, and I feel that if I have the opportunity to dispel some of that stuff, it will help people to question themselves, and go to work on being the better version of who they are.”
Considering the stigma that still surrounds mental health today, a high-profile “tough bloke” like Willis speaking out about depression can go a long way towards changing society’s perception of mental illness as “weak”. It can start an important conversation. It can also give others the courage to speak out and seek help. After he did the interview, Willis was approached by members of the public who wanted to thank him for sharing his story.
“There have been plenty of people come up and shake my hand and say, ‘Hi, I’m such-and-such and I thank you very much. You’ve helped me immensely’,” he says. “It might be five seconds and then we go our separate ways. I guess that’s all I can do. Force-feeding your way of doing things down another’s throat, it’s not helping. You’ve got to allow people to figure things out for themselves, and if they’re willing to have a conversation, have the conversation with them.”
A question of why
A key lesson that Willis has learned over the years is that true health, fitness or “wellness” has to come from the inside out. You can be as physically fit as you want to be and eat all the greens in the world, but if you’re not okay with yourself on the inside, all the other pieces can’t fall into place.
“That’s what I say to people. Fitness and nutrition – they’re the dot points, they’re not the overall, complete picture,” he says. “You’ve got to work on your wellbeing, and as I said before, you have to question your intentions and your motivations behind the reasons why you do things. Are you doing it to fit in? Or are you doing it because it genuinely speaks to you?
“This is a question especially for younger people. Look at social media – it creates a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering for people. They post a photo of themselves online and they get compliments from people they don’t even know. You’ve got to ask yourself, why did you do it in the first place? Is it because everyone else is doing it? It’s very superficial. They’re not really scratching the surface and investigating what’s going on – the meaning and the purpose behind such a thing.”
The message that Willis wants to deliver is simple – look at what you want to achieve and ask why you want to achieve it. Rather than worrying about how big your pecs are or how you look in a bikini, worry about whether you’re fit and healthy. And happy. It’s all about building the right foundation and from there you can go on to achieve whatever it is you want to achieve.
“Are you human? Yes,” he says. “So you need air, the ability to breathe and breathe well in a relaxed state. You need water – a lot of people don’t take in enough water each day to flush out their system. And third is shelter and sleep. Many of us are not challenged when it comes to the shelter component, but we’re not getting enough good sleep.
“The fifth component is nutrition. How sound is your nutrition? Are you eating a lot of highly processed, refined foods? You need to cut that out and start eating more whole foods. Then you’ll start to sleep better. There’s that foundation.”
From there, you can look at the exercise component – going to work on being the better version of yourself. But this can’t be achieved just by wishing for it, or killing yourself at the gym – you have to look at it in a holistic sense.
“You might want the aesthetics, having that lean muscle mass, but if any of the other things are compromised – breathing, hydration, sleep, nutrition – the overall picture of what you’re trying to achieve is going to be an uphill battle,” Willis says. “It doesn’t matter what supplements you take, it doesn’t matter how many biceps curls you do or bench presses or squats, if your foundation is faulty, it’s going to be tough.”
When that foundation is set, you’ve got to go to work. We live in a culture now where people want everything right now – but lasting results take time, and discipline.
“It takes years,” Willis says. “I’m going into my 42nd year on this planet, and even now I’m doing things differently and finding that I’m achieving results. I do this by having the discipline and the courage to get the job done. There are many times when we just don’t want to do something, but if you’ve got that goal and you want achieve that goal, you’ve got to go to work. There’s nothing really sexy about that message, but it’s the truth.”
Live for today
It’s no surprise that an ex-military man like Willis is big on discipline. But “discipline” is not necessarily a bad or scary thing – it can bring real meaning and satisfaction into your life.
“The Dalai Lama says that discipline is protective,” Willis says. “I feel that discipline is nurturing; it can only be expressed right now, in this very moment in time. Say today you were disciplined and you got your training done and all the things you wanted to do on your priority list. Tomorrow you can look back and you high five yourself – that flows straight into your confidence and your belief in your work.”
Of course, there are days when you can’t or don’t get everything done that you wanted to. Looking back on days like this can hurt – but only if you let them.
“So you look back and you feel sorry for yourself,” Willis says. “There’s shame, there’s self-contempt, and then the thought processes and the emotions that come from that. We beat ourselves up because we’re angry that we didn’t do what we should have done yesterday. We beat ourselves up too much. Just be the better person you can be today – better from worse, better from worse.”
It’s obvious that Willis’s military experience and time spent as a personal trainer have taught him many lessons about humanity and how we react and respond to challenges, as well as how we form goals and treat ourselves and others.
“I learned from the army that we can learn a lot about ourselves by getting a pick and a shovel and going into the bush and digging holes,” he says. “A lot of us are scared of doing hard work, and we’ve created a culture that’s unwilling to commit to hard work without an expectation of something in return. We want something before we even commit.
“It’s like going to the gym – we want the pecs and the Schwarzenegger body and we set this goal, but we’re not doing the work from the moment we make that decision. It’s from hard work and dedication that the results will come.”
While the concept of hard work is certainly not tempting, it’s not as daunting as it might sound either. For Willis, helping people to become more self-aware and teaching them the benefits and rewards of hard work are key goals for his future.
“It’s not pain that will break a person, it’s shame,” he says. “So if we have a reason to endure, we will deal with an enormous amount of pain to achieve. It’s when the seed of shame is sown and we allow it to manifest and germinate and grow, then it undermines us.”
While reaching your goal of a great physique might sounds like the key to happiness, Willis stresses that true happiness doesn’t come from looking in a mirror – it comes from interaction and participation – with others and with nature.
“It brings out the best in us,” he says. “Immerse yourself and feel again what it means to be human – do the work from the inside out. I think the place a lot of people are finding themselves in these days is due to the fact that we have been outside of ourselves for too long. We believe the solution is external to us – if you buy this or do that, that’s going to be your saving grace – when really all the answers are within. They’re there already, it’s just doing the work.
You have to be aware, and that awareness can lead to great things. It’s a path that leads towards happiness and balance in life.”
Interested in communicating with Willis? Get in touch through his website at commandosteve.com or his social media handles, Instagram: @CommandoSteve or Facebook: Commando Steve