Trevor Harrison's Life Mission: Athlete's Health First
Ed Note: As is life in professional sports, there have been some changes since this article was first published in January of 2021. One change to highlight is the Paralympic and World Record set by Nathan Reich at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics on September 4, 2021 with a time of 3:58. Uncle Trevor Harrison was on the ground with Nate and had spent the week prior working with Canada's Paralympic Track athletes. The Harrison/Reich/Tucker family is proud of their newest Olympian, and yet another example of how Trevor Harrison gives back.
This could be a very short piece. If it were strictly about the amazing ethos of Trevor Harrison’s Athlete Health First, then the statement found on the Athlete Health First website (athletehf.com) would say it all and I’d put down my pen: “At Athlete Health First we don’t just focus on the next game, the next race or the next season. We help you play better, play longer and play healthier by finding the right balance in your body. We use evidence-based performance analysis to determine the right training solution for your body. Then we partner with you to help you achieve the range-of-motion, balance and strength your body needs to recover and find peak performance.” But this isn’t just about Athlete Health First. It’s about why AHF exists in the first place. It’s about what lead Trevor Harrison, AHF’s founder, to the desire of understanding anatomy and biomechanics at its very core. For that we’re going to need a bit more time. First of all, Athlete Health First is not a training program, as Harrison is quick to clarify. It’s a scientific approach to an athlete’s anatomy, to the unique ways we’re all built. Once an athlete is individually assessed to determine where he or she may be overcompensating – due to a tightness and/or weakness somewhere else – Trevor and the AHF team craft an individual, holistic, and unique approach to increasing range of motion, improving strength & conditioning, and enhancing an athlete’s performance after they have rehabbed an injury – but also to make the athlete more effective while helping them to achieve ultimate fitness. Don’t assume that it’s just about being game-ready. You can build muscle, and you can run and break all kinds of personal bests. But if you’re overcompensating somewhere, you possibly set yourself up for a career full of injuries or even a potential career-ending injury – much like Trevor Harrison did himself before he turned 30.
A professional rugby player for over a decade, Harrison suffered injuries as all do. He’d follow the advice of his physical therapists and trainers. He’d work hard to rehab the injury, and the therapists would work hard with – and for – him as well. But the key component always seemed to be missing: the understanding of biomechanics; the understanding of anatomy and how it relates to the individual. We know that no two people are anatomically the same; It might surprise some to also realize that no one person is built identically on both sides. If you’ve ever had one hip that just isn’t as flexible as the other, or one ankle that tends to niggle when you overtrain, then you’re likely nodding right now. We are – by our very nature – lopsided. With that knowledge — and a keen drive to continue to learn and evolve — Harrison has spent the better part of the last twenty years delving deep into the science of anatomy, to (as he puts it) re-balance bodies. So simple in theory, it’s a lot of work. And it also yields remarkable results. After being selected for both Canada and the USA (playing both 15s and 7s), Harrison found himself in a time-out from the game to rehab an injury. During this stoppage of play, he gave a lot of thought to the next chapter of his life and realized he wanted it to be meaningful. He’d been getting bigger, faster, stronger, but felt that something was missing in the equation. At the same time, he was experiencing more hamstring injuries and blew out his knee. In the back of his mind he felt it wasn’t right. It kept nagging at him. He returned briefly to the game but knew his playing career was nearing its end. “At a certain point, it felt like my life was going backwards,” Harrison says. He’d taken some time off at Christmas to help a friend open a gym in Pennsylvania, which was so rewarding that it made him consider what he’d be going back to Vancouver to post-break: Construction during the day, bartending and bouncing at night, partying on the weekend. He knew it was time to break away. He wanted more, and he wanted life to be meaningful. Retirement from Rugby was bittersweet for Harrison, but his path forward was clear. He wanted to learn all he could to help athletes stay in the game longer. Furthermore, he wanted to help them not just get through their playing careers but out the other side — without spending the rest of their lives in chronic pain. Enter former mentor Mike Clark, Phoenix Suns trainer. Clark spent two years starting Harrison on the path of learning how to treat the sum of the athlete rather than just the part. Harrison recognized that there had been elements missing in his own rehabilitation. It was a lightbulb moment that would lay out the path to his life’s work. Harrison admits that at the time “I didn’t know the basic anatomy of the human body, but I knew how to throw a weight on the bar, and how to beat athletes up and get them bigger.” LISTEN TO DALLEN & ROBIN BANTER WITH LEGENDS ON THE RUGBY HIVE PODCAST The passion for taking what he learned and expanding on it fired Harrison to get going on his own to help individuals who don’t feel ready to shelve their careers. This desire to put an ‘Athlete’s Health First’ is the very foundation of what his company strives to achieve with every single client, whether or not they’re at the top of their game. One of Harrison’s first really high-profile athletes was Shaquille O’Neal. He still remembers where he was when he received the message – in his car, as it happens – and he’s kept the message to this day. Considering the places AHF has been and the people Harrison has met, remembering that first message keeps him grounded and focussed on the ‘why.’ His ‘why’. Professional sports teams do care about their players, but their mandate is to care for 15 plus players at once. The Team. In this regard, AHF’s ability to focus on working with individual athletes rather than with entire teams makes them unique. They can train with an individual and focus on what needs the most attention.
In working with Detroit Pistons’ star forward Blake Griffin, Harrison is grateful that the Pistons organization has embraced his ethos, and he’s pleased to say he works well with their Medical and S&C team - in tandem - to assure Griffin is feeling as he should. Harrison has enjoyed this partnership with the Pistons’ staff. Their work is complimentary to one another, and he and his team have learned a lot from them. How they care for their players is top notch, and the AHF team is grateful for organizations like the Pistons who understand how the holistic approach can really put the athlete at the top of their game, and their overall health and fitness to the fore. Harrison and his AHF team have worked with Griffin for the last three (plus) years with success, and with the same organic approach they’d have with any client, no matter if just starting out, or a sport – or occasional Hollywood – icon.
Griffin says: “Trevor’s overall approach when it comes to performance and recovery is unlike anything I've ever experienced. His attention to detail, paired with his ability to identify, address, and strengthen "problem" areas, have helped me tremendously throughout our time working together.” The sentiment is echoed by Blake’s brother Taylor, his manager and also a former NBA player. “Trevor has been incredible to work with over the last several years. His communication and professionalism is unmatched, and he has been a huge aid in helping streamline Blake’s recovery, performance and strength training plans,” he says. He’s quick to add that the unique approach of putting the athlete first is what will continue to set AHF apart. “I believe there will be tons of opportunity for Trevor to continue to grow the AHF brand, but it will never be at the expense of the individual athlete and the care and attention that they need.” Staying close to his rugby roots, Harrison has also worked with elite rugby players, including Canada Sevens star Patrick Kay. As Kay says, Harrison helped at a time when the young player was preparing for a lifetime of pain. “I met Trevor in Hong Kong 2018 at a time when I had basically accepted my chronic leg pain. It was a nagging injury that would flare up at random times throughout the season. Three years I had been dealing with this off-and-on injury that was affecting my ability to perform consistently at the top level. After meeting with Trevor, he put me through some workouts and different strategies to battle this unique injury.” Of course, in true Trevor Harrison fashion, he says it was an honour to work on the young talent. Harrison has humility in spades. After working through AHF’s program, Kay saw positive results – and relief. “I am always very appreciative of Trevor because of the time and knowledge he provided to me that eventually got me into a position where my leg issue is completely gone. Trevor is one of many trainers who have helped me along the way, but I am especially grateful for him because of the time he put into me.”Kay adds that Harrison “continues to be an outlet during my pursuit to the Olympics.” If a joint doesn’t move to the degree it should move, something is going to break down. It’s a science – “and an art,” Harrison says – to what AHF does to get to the root of what’s causing an athlete pain. Harrison regularly checks in. He and his team make sure that their program continues to work. It’s part of the package – they never ‘sign off’ on a client. DALLEN & ROBIN SPEAK TO TRUE RUGBY LEGENDS ON THE RUGBY HIVE PODCAST Rugby Sevens Coach Robin MacDowell has known Trevor Harrison for years. He attests to Harrison’s approach being key to what makes Athlete Health First next level for athletic rehabilitation and performance. MacDowell knows how Harrison works, an ethos that is aligned with his own. Athlete Health First partnered with MacDowell to hold an online training camp through the Covid-Summer of 2020. They drew up S&C plans for rugby players of all ages, and were always on hand to answer questions and help tweak workouts or plans to make them optimal for the athlete. All of this was at no cost to the young players taking part. Matt Klimchuk, himself an up-and-coming rugby ‘force of nature’, is very grateful for the online coaching and attention he received when stoppage of play and one-on-one training was halted. He says “as a young athlete, AHF and its incredibly knowledgeable and friendly team has gone above and beyond in helping me develop in my sport. It is surreal knowing that I am training like some of the greats in their respective sports. I am so appreciative for what they have done with me and cannot wait to continue my development alongside the wisdom of AHF!” MacDowell would have it no other way for his athletes. He knows Harrison is on the money with his approach, and he’s seen first-hand how it can change not only the athlete’s outlook, but their entire game as well. He knows how something being off in a player’s body poorly affects their throwing, catching, and acceleration. Getting ‘tuned up’ leads to better performance, to more tries, and to increased confidence. This is what Athlete Health First brings to the table. MacDowell has been witness to his friend’s care and compassion on a regular basis. In 2017, MacDowell was in Mexico working with his talented Mexican Sevens Rugby team, preparing them for 2017 World Cup qualification. Harrison flew himself and athletic therapist Corey Bickert down to help the women with strength and conditioning. It was an act of philanthropy that MacDowell will always be grateful for. But it doesn’t stop there. In 2017, Rugby Mexico suffered 7 injuries at a pre-World Cup qualifier competition, but by 2018 – after working with Trevor and the AHF team for a year – MacDowell says “we were in great shape. We competed in the rugby 7s World Cup in San Francisco and a week later at the Central American & Caribbean Games in Columbia. Competing at two world rugby pinnacle events within 7 days with zero injuries, we claimed a bronze medal.”
The plan Harrison created for the team has since been rolled out to 149 female players across Mexico. “Trevor is at the root of all my skills training, running, tackling progressions, and rucking. The ‘AHF way’ has not only shaped me as a coach but given me an edge to approach our sport in a completely different way from a perspective of player wellness, performance, and recovery.” For the last four years, talented trainer Corey Bickert has worked with Harrison. Bickert also understands an athlete’s body. Himself a former basketball player who faced stoppage of play due to injuries, his ideology complements Harrison’s perfectly. “From day one, you could just tell how important family is to Trevor and doing what’s right for our athletes. He’s so invested in our group (AHF) and truly cares for each and every one of us. Outside of work, he'll call just to check in and see how everyone is doing and how our families are. That's just who he is.” Bickert is another who points to the level and detail of care: “From an athlete perspective, he is always going the extra mile to make sure they get the care they need, and has taught our group to do the same. Whether it’s staying an extra day to get an extra tablework session, or flying in a day early, he treats the athletes like they’re family. We are part of their everyday lives, so a family-like environment is created. ”What drew me to AHF was the opportunity to learn from one of the best in the world in the athletic health care industry, and to work with some of the best athletes in the world,” Bickert shares. But he’s quick to add that AHF isn’t all about high-paid superstar athletes. “It isn’t just the elite athletes that AHF cares for – we also have worked with middle school, high school, and college athletes who want to put their health and well-being first, to get them to the next optimal level for themselves.” I am actually in great company as a ‘client’ of Athlete Health First. I was taking part in MacDowell’s online training series in the summer of 2020 as an observer and saw how AHF worked so closely with his roster of next gen rugby superstars. During this time I happened to develop a heel injury while running, and asked MacDowell for advice on rehabbing it. Next thing I knew, I was being virtually assessed by Corey Bickert. I spent months following the program that was created for me, and to my sheer delight, by August I was running pain-free. I learned firsthand how Athlete Health First works through the approach they took with me. The issue wasn’t my Achilles at all but was actually related to one of my small glute muscles. The muscle was weaker than it should be. It therefore caused me to overcompensate, which lead to incorrect form, resulting in the strain on the heel. I was fascinated by the process. The exercises given to me were all to strengthen my glutes and hips, and to rehab the pain that was radiating up the back of my leg. I can attest that their methods work. And I learned a lot about my own anatomy in the process. It’s for this reason that Harrison finds working with Blake Griffin such a pleasure. Griffin wants to thoroughly understand the mechanics of his own body and how everything interrelates. He asks questions, he challenges, he listens intently, and he adds key input so that everything is athlete-centric. It’s an understanding that Harrison would love every athlete to have, and he’s more than willing to take the time to explain it. Blake Griffin concurs that the approach is a mark of Harrison’s success: “It’s the kind of person Trevor is that sets him apart from other trainers. He genuinely cares about his clients' health and well-being, and always goes the extra mile to make sure he meets their needs.” Again, Bickert chimes in with similar sentiment: “The reason I believe we are a cut above the rest is stated in our name, ‘Athlete Health First.’ We truly put our athletes first and will do whatever it takes to make sure they are in the right position to extend their careers, or to live a healthier, better lifestyle.” The Covid pandemic of course has changed the way AHF works with their clients. But in true Athlete Health First fashion, they have taken the recommendations of any governing body, and they put together a protocol to make sure they’re tested often, working with fewer clients individually so they can continue to put the athlete first. “We’re continuing to grow, and I think we are able to do so because we’re willing to do whatever is best for the athlete,” Harrison says.
Of his team, Harrison is humbled by their collective dedication. He’s worked with talented practitioners in the past, but his current team of individuals has really shown what putting athletes first means. Harrison can’t express strongly enough how AHF really is the ethos of his entire group, and Harrison is living his dream. “I couldn’t have imagined this,” he states, with some awe in his tone. It’s a lot of work, and he loves it, but he’s got a plan at the same time. A timeline he’s working within. In the meantime, he continues to work hard. To that end, Harrison admits that being away from his wife and three kids is never easy. His wife, Ann, is the cornerstone to everything personal and professional in his life, and he wouldn’t be able to do all he does if it weren’t for her steadfast support. “She’s an amazing mom, wife, and best friend,” Harrison says seriously. He isn’t the only one who goes above and beyond. Part of his drive is so his kids can have the kind of childhood he did as the son of professional NHL player Jim Harrison – fishing in the arctic and enjoying life together. His long-term goal is to open a fishing camp up in British Columbia. It was those family values that were instilled at a young age that makes Harrison value his clients and team and treat them all like family. His Mom, Dad, brother and sister were all high-level athletes, always supported one another, and they have been right behind Trevor with rugby and in building his business. As Harrison says, “one of the things I always tell our clients when they sign-up is you’re now part of the family and we will do whatever we can to help!”
Harrison has learned over the years that he has to be ever-evolving, always improving. But rugby is really where it all began for him. The influence of the people he met along the way in rugby is truly why he’s able to do what he does. “It directly comes back to rugby and the type of culture that it builds,” he says with pride. So that he can continue to put an Athlete’s Health First. Karen L. Gasbarino, Jan. 2021 [updated August 2021] Rugby Hive Editor Listen to the Rugby Hive Podcast and connect with us on all the socials: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Give us a click.