Nobody has ever been as happy to be at a produce stand than Haywood Simmons seemed to be in a video posted on Facebook last week.
"Family, people, community, food, bare feet!" Simmons said while recording footage of people shopping at the South Madison Farmers' Market last Tuesday.
Simmons, a Macon, Georgia, native who played defensive line for the Wisconsin Badgers in the early 1990s, is a constant source of positive vibes on Facebook. His feed is full of thoughts about happiness, compassion and empathy.
He is a life coach and personal trainer working primarily out of Phitness Plus, a gym on Badger Road. But he takes his functional fitness instruction to fitness clubs and community centers throughout the Madison area. He frequently posts video conversations on social media and for the past three years has hosted the Tuesday edition of the "8 O'Clock Buzz" on WORT 89.9 FM.
Simmons spoke with the Cap Times last week about his approach to coaching, nutrition and staying positive.
When people ask you what you do these days, what do you tell them?
I’m a holistic health and wellness practitioner with a community focus.
I know some people call you Coach Wood and a lot of the people you work with are considered coaches. What does that word mean to you?
Someone who has been asked to provide some guidance and inspiration and another way or solution.
I have coached football, basketball, baseball. But I have done quite a bit of crossover work, too. The term others have used that I really like is modern day renaissance man. One of my clients came in with a blood disorder, an iron deficiency, and we started training and we had some fun and made friends with one another and the issue went away. I understand that food and nutrition help, but I also know that just having a friend helps.
How does your coaching approach differ from traditional sports coaching?
I sum it up with the word empathy. Because I lost 150 pounds at one time and was diabetic, high blood pressure and depressed, I have been in that place and have empathy for others who are there.
Pushing towards compassion and pushing towards empathy has not always been easy. It takes, every morning, a will be to be empathetic, to be compassionate with the world. It’s a pep talk not to go back to Macon, Georgia. With football, there’s motivation in finding a challenge and setting a plan, overcoming. That’s part of it, too.
When I played football, there were some threats made to me about size nine shoes going in places I knew they wouldn’t fit. That’s not fun. Maybe I don’t want to go to practice now! So when a coach told me “good job getting down, stripping the ball,” I respond a lot better to that treatment than I do to “you’re stupid, you’re too slow, get it together.” There are no solutions in that kind of talk.
Your show on WORT is pretty different from other shows on the radio in the morning. What are you trying to do?
Weaving a common thread so that everybody can find something even though they’re different faces from cultures, ages. Is there some way we can weave this together and come out with something we share in common? We do our TAG: Thankful, appreciative and grateful. Gratitude is this amazing, magical place. That’s the secret in the sauce where we can create gratitude, we create a higher level of cooperation. Under the surface, it creates a place where we’re now united as one. We have now just agreed to be in that place together.
What kind of feedback do you get?
The goal was to have people with real experiences in real places. We’re doing that. People questioning their thoughts. I learned about cognitions: You don’t know what you don’t know and you know what you know; the tools I have are the ones I operate with. But are those the only tools available? Having people question their biases — Where am I coming from? — that’s happened. Seeing people willingly change, without being forced, when presented with another option that feels better, that’s happened. If you present people with information to get where you never thought you’d be, they change.
You do some of your work in south Madison, where people feel many barriers to getting fresh, organic food. Maybe there are even cultural reasons why people don’t seek it out. How do you overcome those objections?
I have found as an African-American male who has had to build his way from the bottom to the middle, on his way to the top, it’s not that expensive. If we think about our worth, when we recognize that each one of us is a Ferrari, a Lamborghini. We came from a very rich set of nutrients. Eating anything else would be the equivalent of taking your Ferrari to the Hyundai dealership and asking them to fix it.
I feel like I have a different type of outlook than the Haywood who ate non-organic food who brought strain and stress and sickness and depression. I’ve now been up since 5 a.m., meditating, meeting with clients. And I’m not done! And I couldn’t do this when I was younger! I find organic foods provide a vibrance that until you try it, you might not know.
You’re very active on social media and the experience a lot of people have in that space can be negative, whether it’s due to politics or social conflicts. But you appear to be putting out positivity 100 percent of the time. How intentional are you about that?
I have a friend who says “I know you for 25 years, do you really believe in that euphoric life?” The answer is yes. It became a necessity of sorts. The passionate, aggressive, four-letter-word-using Haywood usually was not well-received or understood. It was passionate. It was truly me. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. But it was a less appealing way of expressing myself.
Do you know that until the late 18th century it was not a popular belief that happiness was something we could have in this lifetime? It was in the Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness. That was the first official state document that ever mentioned happiness. Ever! There was no belief on this planet that happiness was even possible.
Now there are studies about happiness and there is scientific proof behind choosing happiness. It’s a choice, it’s a product of education. I would rather have a world that meets and has conversations about that than when should we go to war next, what street should we burn next, who should we picket next. How about who should we love next? That’s a healthier goal to wake up with. Who am I going to go hug vs. who am I going to go chastise or ridicule?
We have heard from some African-American community leaders about a burden they sometimes feel and how it’s hard work to be out there trying to lead, trying to represent the community at all times. Trying to balance that with their personal lives and a need to decompress is a weight they feel. Has it been asked of you to adopt a leadership role like that?
First, I think it’s a way for me, not work. Our work at Phitness Plus is a way. We hug when you come in. I ask you what are you grateful for? What are you thankful for? How’s your day going? I look you in the eye and listen. I walk and smile intentionally. It’s a way of living.
Have I been asked to step up? I’ve assumed a position of sorts. I have a belief that nutrition and mindfulness, we all need a full plate of that before we even come to the party. So I have a concern in my health background that someone who is carrying a lot of stress or self-doubt or stresses about life and they show up to the table, their whole self is not there. So if we can work on gratitude, the whole self can show up. If everyone showed up in their whole confident self, believing that they always find solutions and other human beings are no better or no worse because they always find solutions, then there is no problem.
Humans like to be touched, acknowledged. I want to create an environment in Madison where people hug all the time. Their hearts send telepathic messages. A heart that feels love will change the beat of another heart. This is scientific. If you believe in lie detector tests, you have to believe in this! So when my heart says love, yours will start to pick it up.
So if we can bring a healthy, vibrant body to the table that has had an apple or oatmeal, then we take a moment to be grateful, there is no challenge. As long as you have plenty of antioxidants clearing out stress hormones, inviting healthiness and vibrance into your body and you keep restoring that, problems can’t last. It’s a fact.