NBT Olympians: Alex O’Brien [transcript]

Written by Christopher Kelly

Sept. 26, 2018


Chris:    Alex, thank you so much for joining me today.

Alex:    You bet. Thanks for having me. This will be fun.

Chris:    Good. Alex is a client of ours that we've been working with for a while now and it's been a lot of fun to work with him. Alex is very good at playing tennis. Alex, can you --

Alex:    I was very good a long time ago.

Chris:    Could you tell us about how you got into playing tennis? Can you talk about the first time you picked up a racket?

Alex:    I was always a kid that was left in the corner who watched his older brother play. My career in tennis started just by watching my older brother and I wanted to be out in the court. I wanted to be the one playing, so I watched him long enough and finally I was like, well, I'd like to get into this too. My parents actually ended up hiring a coach out of Houston, Texas and brought him to Amarillo, Texas to help my brother with his tennis career and ended up helping me a ton. He was one of these guys, sort of the Russian style that just fed you millions and millions and millions of balls. I had the personality that I like that and I like to hit millions and millions and millions of balls, so I hit so many balls that I got better and better. I've never had a dream of being a professional tennis player, but just wanted to get better, so he was the perfect guy for me to help me.

Chris:    Who was deciding this? Was it your parents that were the motivator for you to do well?

Alex:    That's an interesting question because as a parent, I obviously think about do I want my kids to play tennis. You see all kinds of kids. You see the kids who clearly it doesn't come from them. It comes from their parents. You see the kids who I think are a fewer in numbers who just feel it in their heart and they love being out there. They love competing. I was one of those kids. My parents definitely gave me the avenue or the venue to play, but it came from me. I really loved it. I loved getting out in the court. I loved competing. I loved running around. I loved the training. I loved the mental, the physical. I liked all aspects of it. So I would say I was one of the fewer kids where it really came from me internally and from my heart.

    I mentioned my brother earlier. He was a super talented player, but he didn't love the game of tennis. He could've been a lot better than me probably, but he just didn't want to dig in and grind it out. I think that everyone has their own path and I chose to dig in and grind and enjoy that part of it.

Chris:    What was your brother's passion instead? Did he have one?

Alex:    Yeah. My brother, he's one of these guys that's a natural athlete at anything he does, so he ended up going in your field. He's a bike rider and loves it and trains not as hard anymore. He's 54 and so he's not training as hard as he used to, but he still loves it and still gets after it and at one point was a really good biker around the amateur level. Please don't ask me the stats because I'm the worse at those.

Chris:    It's okay. How old were you when you realized that you had potential as a professional tennis player?

Alex:    I was lucky because I was able to get into Stanford and when I went to Stanford, my game improved tremendously. I was a good junior player, but I was short and I didn't have a very big serve. I grew about six inches in college. I grew a lot in college and I just developed a big serve and developed a volley game, and also had the privilege of working with Dick Gould and John Whitlinger as coaches who were -- Dick Gould won 16 out of the 32 years that he was there at Stanford, so we had a pretty amazing college team.

    I won three out of the four years and won the Triple Crown my senior year at the NCAA title, so it was one of those deals where you looked on the court next to you and you didn't want to be the guy letting everyone down. So I had to work extra hard to catch up with those guys and I worked hard in the gym and lifted a lot of weights, maybe too many and maybe not in a smart fashion, but I got bigger and stronger and was able to compete on that level.

    Then I think I played the summer of my junior year and realized that I didn't think the guys were that good on the pro tour and I thought I was really good. Now, I may have been a little delusional, but I felt like, well, why not? I'll give this thing a chance and give it a run and see if I can do it. I didn't know if I could do it or not. I wasn't one of those kids who was like, "I'm going to be a professional tennis player for sure. I'm so good." I was more one of these type of people that was about the process and if I could get this piece better and this piece better and this piece better then it would allow me to get better at the whole, and that's part of the reason that I like your program. It's kind of about the process.

Chris:    Interesting. What was your college career like at that time? You're clearly showing potential as a professional athlete. What happened to your college career when that happened? Did you still carry on doing courses? How did it work?

Alex:    For me, it was the perfect situation because I grew six inches in college, so I was a late bloomer.


    I was late physically learning my body, and so college was perfect for me. It was a great training ground. After my junior year, I thought I was big stuff and I think I got my ranking up to 180 in the world that summer by playing in pro tournaments, but I knew also -- I was realistic and I thought, "Why not finish my last year?" I love college. I have so many great friends, so I finished my last year and played for Stanford one more year and finished it up. I wasn't like this prodigy or amazing tennis player who's like, "Oh, I'm for sure out of here. I'm going pro." I was at least smart enough to know I need to stick around and finish up school and I'm glad I did looking back.

Chris:    So when did the moment come that you decided that you're going to be a professional tennis player rather than anything else? What did you study in college? What were the options?

Alex:    I was an American Studies major and it's more of a fluffy major. I like to read a lot, and so it was a major that gave me a very well-rounded education, but not really a specific career. I think that really that summer of my junior year when I played well in the pro tour, I knew at that point I was going to go pro. I think the decision was made then and then the question became do I go back and finish my senior year or do I just head out then, and I made the decision to finish my senior year and then take on the tour.

Chris:    How does it work? What are the logistics of being a professional tennis player? Is there ever a moment where you signed a contract and you get a deal or do you have to find the sponsors? How does it work?

Alex:    The way it worked for me is I played that summer and I had a pretty good summer. I ended up playing a match against Courier first round. Courier is a contemporary of mine. Jim Courier is a contemporary of mine. We grew up together and played together, and we ended up playing first round in the US Open. He was number one in the world. He went pro at age 16. I took the college route and went to college, so we met back and kind of went back on that lane, but it was quite a different scenario. I'm a no name. He's number one in the world and I'm playing him first round in the US Open.

    I took him to four sets and lost to close four set on Stadium Court, television match, night match, and that helped me a lot because the sponsors were all like, "Oh, this kid could be pretty good." Now, looking back, they may have changed their minds, but I ended up signing a contract with Asics and with Prince Tennis Rackets, and so it was a really great deal for me. It gave me money to play with and house money that I could travel with. The biggest expense in tennis is traveling, so you travel around the world and you're paying for your flights. Now, once you get to the tournament, they pay for your hotel and the food and everything, but you have to get there and you have to achieve a certain level of tournament and ranking to where you can get everything taken care of and paid for. It's a big deal for me to get those sponsorships because it gave me a little bit of breathing room to go out and play and get after it.

Chris:    So you're not profitable from the outset. When did profitability come for you as a tennis player?

Alex:    I would say probably my first year. I'm pretty tight, so I'm pretty frugal. I kept it pretty tight and I made sure I made my reservations ahead of time. I tried to plan as best as I could, so I was profitable probably my first year, but those contracts were a big part of that. You get that upfront money, so that's a big deal for a young tennis player who has no clue what he's doing and just starting out in the tour, and it's rough. You're not treated in a nice fashion when you start out in the tour and it's a pretty dog eat dog world and nobody is saying, "Hey, welcome aboard."

    I do have one funny story. John McEnroe was obviously a Stanford guy and he came up to me and said, "Hey, welcome to the tour. I'm glad you're out here. Good luck!" That's a huge deal as a kid growing up watching McEnroe onboard. To have John McEnroe come up to you in the locker room and say something like that, that helped me a lot out. I also had a buddy who knew Ivan Lendl really well, and so I was able to practice with Lendl at his house before that summer that I played Courier for a week and a half, and man, this guy, you talk about training hard and not taking excuses. He wore me into the ground and I thought I was really fit and in great shape.

    We trained in Connecticut at his house, 95 degrees, 90% humidity. We're out there for two and a half to three hours in the morning and then another hour to two hours in the afternoon going running or biking in the evening and then waking up and doing it again. That's when I realized this is for real. If you want to play the sport, you're going to have to train hard. You're going to have to be committed and go. I thought I was until I saw that show.

Chris:    Was that typical for the pro tour tennis players at that time with Courier and McEnroe working that hard?

Alex:    You know, it's interesting because I don't think McEnroe worked that hard, but I had the good fortune of training with Courier quite a bit and he was a huge grinder. We trained in Palm Springs and we would go two-on-ones in the morning for two hours and it's run until exhaustion, and then you go to the net and go on the net side. You do that for two hours in the morning and then you would come back and work on technique and matches and match play for two hours in the afternoon and then you would train for an hour and a half to an hour depending on whether it was running or weights.


    To answer your question, it was typical for the guys that were doing well, the guys who were doing well and the guys who were excelling and the guys that weren't getting tired in matches and that were more physically fit than the other guys who were doing that. Like in any sport, you've got your talented guys who don't work that hard. You've got your hardworking guys that worked really hard but can only get to a certain level, so you had to figure out which guy were you and how did you want to lace them up.

Chris:    Tell me about the strength component. Was everybody doing strength training at that time? Was that well-known that it was important to be strong as well as --

Alex:    It's very depressing thinking about it right now because -- you probably remember this. It was more lifting heavy weights and getting big and strong, and as a tennis player, you want to get strong in your legs and have a strong core, but your upper body should be a little leaner and more supple. I've made the mistake where I was one of these guys that put on muscle if I lifted my pinkie and I made the mistake of lifting a lot of heavy weights, so I got really big and I was really fast, but then I would wear down because I wasn't an efficient mover because I was one of those guys that muscled everything, and so if I played long matches, that gave me a lot of trouble.

Chris:    When did that insight come? When did you realize that it happened?

Alex:    Sort of at the end of my career. It's interesting because I remember I would see guys -- you probably don't remember Gustavo Kuerten, but he was a Brazilian guy that made it to number one in the world and won the French Open, a super nice guy. He was in the gym and he would have one of those stretchy bands like the swimmers use and he was doing functional exercises like using his hips and his arm and everything in unison. He was using the chain to develop power from the ground up, so legs, the hips, the arm. He was doing forehand swings and serve swings.

    I remember looking at him and thinking, "This guy is wasting his time with his little bands." It's so dumb what he's doing, but that's what I should've been doing and I was the one who's really dumb and not thinking through, "Hey, I'm a big guy. I need to lengthen out. I need to do more yoga." I didn't realize that probably until the last three or four years of my career. It's hard at that point because you have a real rigid mindset and you -- at least I did because I was trying to protect myself because everyone in the tennis world would come and say, "Hey, did you change that?" or "I notice this is different" and they're always trying to jack with you, so you had to be real careful on who you listen to and who you trusted. I was pretty insular on who I trusted.

    When I did change and I started trying to lengthen out, it made my game a little different, so I wasn't supple enough in my mind to realize that that was good and that I needed to adjust and I needed to get a little length and I needed to mellow out on how I move and get a little more flow in my game, so it was a hard adjustment for me. I probably took it on a little late, but it still would help me.

Chris:    Do you think you've embodied that growth mindset in other areas of your life? It's something I think about a lot. We've talked about it on the podcast, this idea of the growth mindset, embracing failure as an opportunity to get better. "I'm not the best tennis player in the world yet" is perhaps a good way of stating it, but usually people, they have the growth mindset in some areas and then the fixed mindset in others. For example, I might think that everybody who plays a musical instrument was born musical, which is not correct. That's the fixed mindset, but do you recognize these ideas and do you think you're in the growth mindset in some areas of your life but not tennis? How did it work?

Alex:    Well, it's interesting. I was really open to change and really open to trying things, but you get in this mode when you've seen something work in your limited experience. As you know with age and with life and with reading and with understanding, you grow and you see things a lot more clearly. How many announcers are calling the match and saying, "Oh, I can't believe he missed that shot?" It's a lot easier from the sidelines to say hey, but I was open to change and I did it after my tennis career and I've tried a lot of different things, but to a point I kind of resisted it and I wish I wouldn't have resisted it. I feel like one of the things that tennis does teach you is I lost probably every week of my career, so if you didn't realize it, you have to learn from your losses and that it's not the end of the world. So every time I lost a match, I tried to think it through and think through, "Okay, what could I do better next time? How could I change my training?" When I got towards the end of my career and started realizing that I wasn't maybe that good and that I was losing matches then that's when I realized okay, maybe I need to just try something else and move on.

Chris:    That's some really fascinating insight there. You need to get good at losing. That's really interesting. You just reminded me, I have to spend some time with some friends in Vancouver and their boy is about to start his first school and that's exactly what the school said to him. "He needs to get better at losing because when he starts our school, he's going to be losing all the time because all the kids are going to be bigger than him, and at the moment, he doesn't seem like he's going to be very good at losing," so I think that's some really interesting life lessons there.


Alex:    Well, I guess "good at losing", maybe we could rephrase it and say good at learning from your losses.

Chris:    Yeah, that sounds better.

Alex:    I never was good at losing. I was a huge baby. I would get so mad. I remember when I was younger, I would take it out on the wrong people and I would cry when I was a little kid when I would lose. I hated losing, but as you get older, you realize I could play 100% of my ability and play [0:15:33] [Indiscernible] and he could play at 70% and still beat me, so you have to look at it also in somewhat of a realistic fashion. You don't want to get too realistic because if you start saying, "Hey, these guys are better than I am" then that's when you need to stop, but I also think that if you lose a match and you stick your head in the sand and you refuse to acknowledge anything then shame on you because you're not growing and you're not learning and you're not trying to get better from that experience.

Chris:    Talk about your coping strategies for pressure. I can't really imagine -- I mean, there probably are others, but it seems like tennis, there's so much pressure from all different angles, the person you play tennis against, the crowd, the commentator. Did you have any coping strategies that you had used to handle that pressure?

Alex:    Yes, absolutely. I would talk to a lot of my buddies that I respected and I was close to and asked them how they handle things. One of the most important things that I learned probably later in my career was to really have a clear plan and a clear idea of when you get in that situation of what you want to do and what you want to accomplish because the biggest problem is everyone is going to choke. I don't care, Federer chokes, the best in the world choke, but the problem becomes when you choke and you let it turn into more than one point and another point and then a game and then a set and then all of a sudden, you're walking off the court and you're like, "What happened there?" That choke on that big point turned into the whole match and ended up disrupting the whole flow of everything, so one of the things that I tried to really focus on is keeping a simple plan. When I would get in that tight situation and I'd miss my first serve, I knew the guy's weakness. I knew I was going to go to his weakness and I knew I would try to make him beat me with his weaker shot so that I wasn't just rolling over and giving it away. If I knew that the point was going to last longer or I wasn't going to serve in volley, I would try to develop a picture in my mind of a three-shot plan of here's how I want to win this point.

    I think that if you can see it and visualize it and then try to just keep it simple, that helps a lot because then you're not going out there and just hitting the panic button and saying, "Oh boy, here we go again. I choke every time in this situation," which I've done that one too. I've done them all. I just think that the simpler you can make it -- and even when I play in these exhibition events now, you get into a tight situation or a big point, I still get nervous. I feel nervous and I'm still thinking, "Oh boy, I don't want to do this or that" but I try to just go back and think, what can I do? Where can I hit it? How can I focus on my toss and get it in the right place, hit my serve clean, picking my spot, and just focus on that. If I get nervous and I miss it, so what? I can't do anything else about it.

Chris:    What did you think about John McEnroe's coping strategies? He was quite famous for blaming external things. He would blame his shoes or he blamed the racket or he blamed the umpire. It was always something other than him. What did you think of that at the time?

Alex:    Well, I think that McEnroe's one of those classic examples of "anything but me is a problem". He claimed that motivated him, getting angry and freaking out and going nuts. I personally think it hurt him and I think that if he would've learned how to control that better, I think it would've helped his game. The guy was obviously an amazing player and did amazing things, but I think it probably overall harmed his game more than it helped him. I played Davis Cup for McEnroe twice and he was a pretty tough coach. He saw the game one way. He saw it how he played it and he didn't really like -- he couldn't get into your head and say, "Okay. Well, how do you see it?" so he would go out and coach you the way that he saw it. I think that he was just of that mindset that he was so stubborn and so set in the way that he did things that I'm sure people told him all the time, "Hey, settle down."

    He told us a great story of one of the Davis Cup Masters where he said he was playing Borg and he loved Borg. He had a real big -- not crush on Borg, but just really liked him as a person, as a human, as a competitor and as a player. He said he was playing Borg and he was in the third set. It was five all on the third set and he got a bad call. He said that he starts going crazy in his typical fashion, yelling at everyone, throwing his racket, and he said he looked up and Borg was at the net and Borg was waving him to the net. He said he was like, "What's Borg doing? This is very strange." He said that he walked up the net and Borg put his hand on his shoulder and he said, "It's going to be okay." He turned around and he walked off.


    That story still gives me chills when I hear it because it's kind of true. It's going to be okay. Unless you can have that attitude in sports and realize we're all competing and we want to win, but at the end of the day, it's going to be okay, so that story resonated with me. Borg did keep a lot in and kept a lot trapped in. He was the icing and everything, but he played very even-keeled and I think it helped him a lot.

Chris:    Talk about how you became better known as a doubles player. Was doubles something you've always been playing or did you just transition to it somewhere along the way?

Alex:    I have a huge chip on my shoulder about that because I tried really hard in singles. My goal was to be a good singles player. People say, "Wow, you're a good doubles player" and I was kind of like, "You know, I've played singles also" but I wasn't a great singles player. I think it was part of the explanation that I gave earlier. I saw the ball really early and I had really good vision and I was really fast, so I was really explosive. So covering half a court and not exerting as much physically by covering the whole court was a lot easier for me. I think that my game maybe fit that style a little better because I got so big and so muscly and strong that I was super explosive in a short area, but then if I was covering a longer area, that explosiveness would wear you down.

    When I was covering more of the court, I think that I tired up more quickly. When I played my best singles, I wouldn't even warm up for Masters. I had eight months in my ten-year career that I played where I felt like I've seen it like the Matrix. It was easy. I was winning matches. I was beating whoever I played. It was interesting because I didn't have to warm up because I knew that I was just -- I was relaxed. I was covering the court smoothly. I was real loose. I had a real [0:21:46] [Indiscernible]. I think that it was from all the hard training that I finally kind of let go and just said okay, I'm just going to play. It was a pretty moment for me. For me, I had to use max capacity to get to that level.

Chris:    Did you always have the same doubles partner or did it vary?

Alex:    I played with three guys well. I played with a French-Canadian guy named Sébastien Lareau who's super talented and kind of a lazy guy, but like --

Chris:    What do you mean by lazy? Define lazy.

Alex:    He was the type of guy that I would hit a ball to him and it was three feet away, so I'll say, "Hey, you [0:22:29] [Indiscernible]" and he's like, "No." He was also the type of guy that we played Becker and Agassi first, our third round in Stuttgart in a big, huge, indoor stadium. Becker serves 130. He hits a return in 140 past Agassi and didn't move his racket, so it's hard to criticize him when he does something like that. Basically, I was always the solid guy and I've played with guys that were more talented. Jared Palmer that's a Stanford player also that I've played with, we made it to number one in the world together, and then Sandon Stolle, Fred Stolle's son was --

Chris:    Was the Stanford all-boy network a part of how you ended up playing with a specific player? Is that how it worked?

Alex:    For sure, yeah. You had good buddies that were part of your network, and so I think at one point, we played together and we played well together, so we're like, "Well, let's give it a shot," so we gave it a pretty good run. He's a guy that I played in the -- we played really well together. Actually, we played a match in Palm Springs and we played Wayne Ferreira. They're both talented guys. My partner played this match. It was just unbelievable. Jared Palmer was my partner. We played an unbelievable match and I was just trying to hang in there.

    After the match, he walks up to me and says, "Hey, buddy, you're looking at the number one player in the world." He didn't tell me before the match, but that match put him in the number one position and I'm glad he didn't tell me because I probably would've gotten nervous and tried to play better for him and probably would've done poorly because I was trying to do well for him. So it's a neat moment and I think maybe like four or five months later, I took over the number one position because we had both played with different partners a year before, so we both had different points. His points dropped off and I took his place at number one, so it was kind of a neat story and the Stanford network was definitely a big part.

Chris:    What was it like to win the US Open? In 1999, you won the US Open in the doubles. What was it like in the doubles?

Alex:    It was very validating because I've made it to three grand slam finals before that, two Australians and one US Open. I started thinking maybe I'm just a guy that's like second place. I'm kind of the guy that gets the job done and maybe that's [0:24:47] [Indiscernible]. When we won that, we played a really solid match and been a really good team at the time, so it was just one of those where I felt -- it was almost like I was so happy, but I was also like, man, I'm going to just etch a little spot in history.


    It's not a big spot, but it's a little spot and it means something, so it made me feel proud of myself and happy. A lot of the hard work that I've done over the years was validated in a way, so I guess proud, happy, the full gamut of emotions.

Chris:    How did your family respond?

Alex:    They were really happy. Everyone though it's really cool. I think they had a party for me in my hometown when I came back. It was really cool. It was a fun time. Looking back on it, now I look back and think I was lucky that I had pro sports, but looking back on that, that was a neat [0:25:43] [Indiscernible] in my career that makes me feel like I really was a part of it.

Chris:    Was that the result that paved the road to the Olympics?

Alex:    [0:25:53] [Audio Glitch] because the next year, my partner and I who I've played with, that French-Canadian guy that I told you, was a real -- he ended up dropping [0:26:03] [Indiscernible] to play with the Canadian guy so they could get ready for [0:26:06] [Indiscernible]. So I chose to play with an American guy and go for the [0:26:09] [Audio Glitch]. We ended up losing second round and my French-Canadian talented partner won it, won the gold. Listen, I'm happy for him. It's so cool and I think that's so neat and I wish we would've done better, but you can't win them all. We didn't play a great match. We lost. There are so many matches and I feel lucky now to have even gone to the Olympics. It's pretty neat.

Chris:    I bet. What was it like? What was it like just being there as an athlete? It must have been incredible.

Alex:    It was crazy. It was so different from being a pro tennis player and walking into the stadium. I remember there's a kid from my -- not a kid. He's a little younger than I am from my hometown who was [0:26:52] [Indiscernible] wrestler and I remember walking into the stadium with him, a little square guy, bow-legged and you could tell he's a wrestler by just looking at him. He looks at me and says, "Hey, do you realize you're about to walk in front of more people than you'll ever walk in front of in your entire life? Look around and enjoy this, buddy." I was like, that's pretty cool. It was a fun, crazy, neat experience that I'll never forget.

Chris:    That's amazing. Was this the opening ceremony you're talking about?

Alex:    Yes. Also, this guy was hilarious. His name is Brandon Slay. I asked him. I said, "What do you think your chances are of winning here?" and he said, "Good. I'm going to win." I'm thinking to myself, this guy is nuts. Say I'm superstitious, all the clichés that you can throw out like if things go well -- and he's saying, "I'm going to win" and guess what? He won the gold.

Chris:    Oh, wow. That's amazing.

Alex:    I know. It's pretty awesome, really cool.

Chris:    How was your tennis career after that? Were there any highlights that came after that?

Alex:    I started in 2001, so I'd say I peaked up pretty good around there. I could've played doubles quite a bit longer. My shoulder was a little weak. I had a torn labrum cartilage my whole tennis career and I just got stronger. I could kind of see the writing on the wall. I always liked being a participant in singles and not just playing doubles, so when I saw that my singles career was kind of on its last thread and I looked around and I thought these guys are good, I knew that mentally that's not sustainable, so I just made a decision to pack it in in '01 and I stopped at the US Open in 2001.

Chris:    Oh, wow. That was must've been a difficult decision surely. Did you not have feelings for and against?

Alex:    I got a little teary-eyed when I took a shower after my last match at the US Open just thinking, "Wow, this is over. Who knows what I'm going to do? I don't know where I'm going to go from here." It's a strange position to be in and a scary position. Also, a lot of emotions just because I'm thinking to myself, well, I only know tennis. That's what I have done. Where do I go from here? It was extremely emotional for me and I'm not that emotional of a guy. I just remember thinking this is a pretty big moment.

Chris:    How old were you then?

Alex:    Let's see here, 31, so that was a pretty good age to pack it in.

Chris:    Where did you go from there? What options were on the table for you?

Alex:    I was living in Los Angeles at the time. My whole pro career, I was very serious and didn't get to go to that many weddings. I trained really hard and probably over-trained, looking back on it. Maybe I needed a little more relaxed time, downtime, rest time and would've benefited from it, but I didn't understand that. I thought that the harder you work, the better you got. I probably could've benefited a lot from work smart and not hard. I worked really hard and probably not as smart as I could have, so I took a little time off and I started -- my dad is in the cattle business, so I started an online steak company and that was a great experience for me to learn how business runs. I answered the phone. I shipped everything. I took care of logistics, so it was kind of a one-man operation. I did the books, so that was a great experience.


    I also invested the money that I made from tennis in the market. Well, 2001 to 2007 as you know is a pretty good run, so I thought it was pretty to invest, just tried to focus in on something new and different. I also started in on the bank and I was always the member of the board of this bank that I'm now running and the president of, so I started getting more involved in the bank and looking at ways to grow the bank. That was what took up my time, but I also just had a lot of fun. I lived in LA and I just said, hey, I'm just going to relax. I'm going to go to weddings. I'm going to go to friends' parties. I'm going to enjoy myself. That was a strange experience for me too because I didn't do that easily. I'm too Type A. I started playing a little golf and I've always hated golf. Now, I love golf. I just tried some things that I wouldn't have done when I played tennis.

Chris:    When was the start of your health challenges? I thought maybe you're going to tell me that the arduous pro tour career was what was the undoing of your health and that was how we came to meet, but perhaps not. Perhaps it was the leisure period, the partying that came afterwards.

Alex:    Yeah, I think so. I was always not the greatest eater. When we're playing tennis, it was like pasta and carbs and I wish I would've had you back then because --

Chris:    No, you don't. Trust me. I don't mean to interrupt you, but back then, I can remember watching the opening ceremony for the Sidney Olympics and you wouldn't have wanted anything to do with me at that time. All my learning came much, much later.

Alex:    Well, if you just think about the model and the model that you guys were promoting, it's a good holistic model and it looks at all parts and all aspects. I wish I would've been been smart enough. When I played tennis, I never was able to breathe through my nose and I thought it was because I had a deviated septum. I didn't think that maybe I'm allergic to something that I'm eating like all this pasta and gluten and dairy. I wasn't smart enough to figure that out and that's pretty depressing looking back on it.

    Anyway, I'd say my poor eating and maybe not partying as much, maybe drinking a little too much, kind of a combo, just bad, lazy habits that I got into and that I didn't monitor at all, eating too much sugar. At age 42, my body -- I was sitting at my desk in my office and all my muscles were flabby. Mentally, I was in a fog and my testosterone feel like it was nonexistent. I think I hit a wall and that's when I was like, okay, I need to do something here. This is not fun anymore and it's getting serious, so that's when I think I heard your podcast and thought, "This sounds really cool" and that's when I started digging deeper into it and got more focused on taking care of myself.

Chris:    Was there one defining symptom that you think tipped you over the edge? For me, it was erectile dysfunction. That was the thing like it's being kicked off of somebody's stoop for not being able to get it up. It's a pretty powerful motivator for most men. I don't want to accuse you of that, but was there one thing that was more motivating than others?

Alex:    One of the things that I would say that was equally disheartening is when I was sitting at my desk and I got up, I realized that every muscle in my body was just flab and it was just shaking. I've always been the guy that could build muscle really easily and had a lot of testosterone. When I got up, I just knew this is not right. I'm doing something to my body that's poisoned my body. I think I listened to you guys talk to Ben Greenfield and go through all of his stats and that really resonated with me. That podcast where you guys went through and talked about the blood work and the different stats and what are they doing and how are they affecting other things and there could be several different paths that these things could follow, to me, that was a big turning point for me as well besides my body just quitting on me. It completely quit.

Chris:    Yeah. I think looking inside and doing some testing and figuring out what's going on is really important, but lately I've been thinking so much about behavior change and really all chronic health problems that are just a behavior problem. Was it just the food you were doing incorrectly? I'm just wondering how much of your problems at that time were a deficiency of knowledge and you just didn't know what to eat and how much of it was you knew what you needed to be doing. You just weren't doing it. I know that sleep is important. It's just somehow I'm not finding the time to make it happen.

Alex:    I had C. difficile and H. pylori.


    I just finished my last protocol for getting rid of these two parasites. I think that my gut was in such a state of disrepair that I think it was a combination. I think my body was depressed. My mind was depressed. I wasn't getting the nutrients to my cells. I think it fed off of each other it's maybe the chicken and the egg at that point, but I agree with what you're saying. I think a good attitude and a healthy mind and a healthy spirit as well as taking care of things is as important as just looking at the physiology.

Chris:    I think that's absolutely the right answer. Trying to get motivated and be consistent and find time to do things that are obviously going to benefit your health is really hard when you're not feeling good, so you almost need to break that vicious cycle by addressing multiple key points before you can really hope to see improvement.

Alex:    One hundred percent agree. I think when you get in that funk, can you get down in the well? What's the thing that's going to take you out of it? What if you starve? That's what I liked about your program, is I just got back to the process and just started trying to knock pieces of the puzzle off and I slowly started feeling better and slowly started feeling better. Just day by day, I could tell the difference. I see these visions of my mind working like it did when I was 20 and I was like, wow, please bring that back. Bring that light back on. Let's go.

Chris:    How close do you think you've got to that?

Alex:    We've talked about this a little bit when we talked last time, but I feel like I've improved. If I put it on a scale, I would say I was around 45%. I'm maybe at 80% now and I feel like I think I have another 20% to go. I think that if I can get these parasites out of my body then I could just get back to somewhat of a norm of eating and just sitting -- I meditate a lot now and that helps me a ton. I think that this holistic approach has really helped me quiet my mind and quiet my body and get things working properly again.

Chris:    You're definitely a classic example of peeling the onion when it comes to fixing the gut. You do an initial test and you find one bug. It seems to make sense. It fits in with your history and the symptoms, and so it makes sense to go ahead and treat that. You do that and then you do another test and sure enough, the first problem is gone, but now there's a different one, so you start playing this game of whack-a-mole. I'm not sure that we fully understand what's going on, but it certainly makes sense that biofilms, peeling the onion, we've seen it a lot in terms of very similar personas like the same people having the same problems and it takes a while and multiple gut protocols and multiple tests to get to the point where you're seeing a normal result. You have now finally seen a normal stool result, which is very encouraging.

Alex:    Yeah, and the thing that -- my brother gives me a hard time. He's like, "You know, everyone's different." I said listen, you have to come up with a philosophy and something that you believe in and I think that if you look at the results from the blood tests from when I initially started with you guys and then you look at my blood tests now, I think I scored a one on your longevity thing or something like that, but it changed significantly, and not only the blood tests, but just my mind, I feel better. So if something works for you and you see progress then you're telling me to go and beat my head against the wall three times a day and that brings me progress then maybe that's something that's good for me. The process that you have everyone going through right now is a right-minded process. For me, it just helped me. I feel a lot better mentally. I feel a lot more clear. I can get a lot more done. I'm not falling asleep when I'm reading to my kids at night. I just feel like I have more energy and better clarity.

Chris:    That's fantastic. It was very encouraging to me as well. Our blood chemistry calculator software, one of the numbers it produces is this five-year wellness score that was developed independently of ours. We're just implementing somebody else's algorithm and I really like that number because it reduces the complexity of a blood chemistry down to a single number that you can track over time. It took me a while, but I have now got a perfect 100 score. Alex, you're also in that, somewhat elitist club.

Alex:    I said one, so I guess that's kind of the bottom of the barrel. I didn't realize it was 100, but you know, I'm a big believer in algorithms and I think that if you look at a certain amount of markers in your blood -- and I've read a lot about heart disease and people saying cholesterol is not the main thing, I'm kind of a believer in that. I think that there are several factors that go into causing problems for people and if you have all those factors and they're all bad, guess what? You're probably going to have some problems. So if you can eliminate two or three of them, great!


    It makes me happy that I'm heading in a better direction now and just the progress of how I feel also makes me a lot happier.

Chris:    Yeah, I'm far more worried about glyco marks. A glyco mark is one of the things that we can predict with the blood chemistry calculator. What it predicts is postprandial blood glucose excursions and I think it's very good at predicting the loss of the first phase insulin response. You're supposed to have some preformed insulin stored in the pancreas that gets released before you've even really started digesting anything. In a constant grazing, we don't really have that preformed insulin because you're constantly using it and then you may see some really high blood glucose excursions that come as a result of that, so changing your dietary habits, eating three square meals a day might be helpful, but then also experimenting with different types of carbohydrates and seeing how they affect your blood glucose. Is that something you've gotten good at now or do you think you've managed to crack that without being too religious about measuring it?

Alex:    I kind of do a little mini-fast and I stopped eating around eight and then don't eat until lunch and I don't feel hungry at all anymore. Before, I was eating all the sugar and bread. Like you're saying, I was over-carbed and then my blood sugar levels were just spiking. I feel like now, I'm a lot more even-keeled and I'm a lot more -- throughout the day, I don't have these big jumps and dips. That allows me to concentrate better, allows me to play with my kids more. It's something that allows me for a much better quality of life. I drink a smoothie every day. I realized I have the MTHFR gene and then I had something that was not allowing me to get rid of toxins well also that was a deficiency, so I don't eat folic acid anymore. I eat folate. I eat a lot of leafy greens. A lot of these little things that I learned through your protocol have helped me take a step in the right direction towards realizing what my body can take in.

    Before when I was in that crapped out stage, I could eat anything. It didn't matter. I was swollen. I was jacked up. My body didn't even react to it. It was just like, "Oh, great, some more garbage. Throw it in." Now, when I do that and I eat garbage like that, immediately I feel it. So to me, that's saying something as well. That's saying hey, your body actually is working a little cleaner now. You can't keep throwing garbage at it or it's going to tell you that it's going into shutdown stage.

Chris:    Right. I absolutely relate to what you're saying and sometimes I wonder if it's just the signal-to-noise ratio. There's so much noise before. You could add in two pints of beer and yeah, I'll feel shit the next day, but I was going to feel shit the next day anyway, so where was the signal and the noise there? You couldn't find it, whereas now -- recently, I've been over-caffeinating a little bit and I've started to notice that in my sleep and then I noticed that in the way that I feel the next day and I'm like, you know what, I don't really need that much caffeine. I can cut back quite easily. It's just trying to find and get that signal-to-noise ratio to the point where you can find the signal in all that noise.

Alex:    I feel like I'm picking up on this thing a lot better. I still have my bad days where I'd lose it and go eat several Reese's Peanut Butter Cups or something just stupid, but then I'd pay for it also because my body will say, "Hey, slow down there, big fella."

Chris:    Yeah. It was interesting as well. The MTHFR mutation is something that I don't think we take very seriously anymore. It's like a mutation that so many people have. What do you really know by looking at just a handful of snps from this 23andMe test? I think the answer is not very much, but one of the things that we did see was a prediction for elevated homocysteine. Homocysteine is recycled into methionine and B12 and folate are connected to that cycle, so if there's a problem there then you may have trouble recycling methionine to homocysteine. Then we followed up with an additional blood test and measured homocysteine directly and we saw it was 11.9, so at that point, you're like okay, this guy probably should do something about that. As you said, it's folate rather than folic acid, maybe trying to reduce methionine consumption and getting small glycine. How have you been with organ meat? It's one of the things that I think is hardest to create, that behavior change or dietary change, I should say, getting people to eat the whole animal rather than just the muscle meat. I know you enjoy a good steak, so how have you been able to find that?

Alex:    The bone broth and the choline is the thing that I think -- I feel like I've been getting some more of that and I'm struggling -- my daughter loves organ meat. I struggle on that one.

Chris:    Sorry to interrupt you, but how did that happen? Is it just that you started her at a young age?

Alex:    I don't know. No, she just likes it. She just really enjoys it. It's pretty amazing. I struggle on that one big time.


Chris:    Do you have any coping strategies? Another thing that I've been thinking about a lot lately is that I think a lot of people out there, they know what they need to do. They know what kind of diet is going to work for them. They know how much sleep they need. They know they feel better and make better decisions when they meditate. They know they need to move their body. They know they feel better when they have more muscle mass, so lifting weights is good, but then life comes along and gets in the way. You could get sick and you end up in the emergency room, or maybe you get injured on your mountain bike, or maybe some shit storm emerges at work and you have to take care of it. What do you do? Are you going to meditate more, which is probably what you need, or do you meditate less? I'm just wondering. Alex, do you have any coping strategies that you use when life gets difficult?

Alex:    I've gone into meditation quite a bit and I try to do it twice a day when I feel that my monkey mind starts working, which it works a lot. It seems to have an overdrive button. I try to just go to the meditation and put the earphones in and I listen to it like a tonal meditation that my cousin created and it just slows everything down and then it makes me realize that is not that big of a deal. I don't need to stress out about that one. Just let it go and move on. That's helped me a lot. I think that's helped me maybe more than anything. I'm more empathetic with people at work. It helps me see when I'm saying something to someone and they're making that face like, "Oh boy, this guy is an asshole." I feel like I can see that a little bit better and I can recognize it more, and the more I meditate and the more I slow things down -- I'm a Type A personality. I want to get things done. I care about efficiency and I don't want to hear your nine reasons why you're not efficient. Let's get it done and crank it out. It's helped me slow down and the meditation has been a big one for me, a really big one.

Chris:    How did you develop the habit? This is something that's come up quite a lot recently. It's not always easy to develop a habit of meditation. I know that the apps, especially Headspace has got some really great functionality where you can set calendar reminders. It integrates fully with your calendar and you've got notifications on the lock screen and all that kind of stuff, but that's not necessarily going to happen when you need it, but you made it sound there like you developed some habit. Something happens at work or you feel that monkey mind getting going and then that's a trigger that leads you into the routine of meditation. Would you say that that's true or have you got some other strategy that you've used for developing the meditation habit?

Alex:    Your whole business appeals to athletes and I think that we're habit-forming creatures. I think that from back when I played tennis and felt like, "Oh crap, here I go" into that nervous, bad, funk area and you had to come up with something to slow you down and then you realize let's go into this. So now with just living and life, I think it was pretty easy for me to do it. One thing that really helped me a lot is this meditation tape that my cousin created. It really resonated with me literally. It was easy for me to do. I wasn't the type of guy that could just sit down and cross my legs and think about one word. There are so many different kinds of meditation and ways to block out the rest of the world and slow things down. This particular method really resonated with me and really worked for me, and so it makes it a lot easier for me to say, "Let me take that step to go there."

Chris:    Yeah, that makes sense. I was going to say is this tape available online, can I link to it in the show notes, but maybe I'll be missing the point that it's finding something that works for you.

Alex:    Yeah, because everyone is so different and people need different types of meditation and there are so many different types of meditation. I think that the one lucky thing that happened with me is that I came on this type of meditation that fit me, so it makes it a lot easier for me to do that whenever my monkey mind gets going. I don't have to go cross my legs and sit with some Buddhas around me and hold my fingers out and take deep breaths and think nothing. I can just put on the earphones and just sit down and just slow down. It's a nice way for me to get back to reality.

Chris:    Well, Alex, you've been incredibly successful both in sport and in business. Obviously, I greatly value your opinion. Could you think of a way that I could make Nourish Balance Thrive better? Is there somewhere where I could be doing better than I am today?

Alex:    If you can get the word out to more athletes, and not even pro athletes, but just athletes, period, because I think that your business and what you're promoting takes a certain amount of discipline. Like you said with the protocols, you have to really stick with those protocols and you have to believe in them and stick with them and stick through it and realize that this is all about the process.


    If you can realize that and if you can reach out to the people in the world of athletics, and not even like professional athletes, just people that are trying to become more physically fit oftentimes later in life that have the knowledge of realizing every little thing is going to help me because at this point as you get a little older -- and it works for young, old, whatever, but I think that the philosophy behind what you're doing is looking at your puzzle and everyone's puzzle is a little bit different, and then figuring out how you can reach out to these people that are trying to pick up that extra. That's what resonated with me when I listened to your podcast and I think it was with Ben Greenfield. It really resonated with me what you guys were trying to do and what you're trying to accomplish and it's worked for me as well. This is not a paid promotion. I believe in it. This is something that I believe in what you're doing and I think it's right-minded and it's really helped me. I think that the more you could appeal to athletes or people that are trying to gain more athletically, I think that that's where you could really make some leaps and bounds.

Chris:    Yeah, I very much appreciate that. It's true that for the most part, we've been working with athletes and I realize that we've had it very lucky because athletes are really good at following instructions, so you just give them the plan and they execute it like the rest of their plan and they get shit done and they get great results. Maybe you don't strongly identify as an athlete yet, so you're maybe an athlete in waiting. I know the British use of the term -- you're thinking about track and field events when you call someone an athlete. Athletics, that's what it is, it's track and field events, but the dictionary definition that I have in front of me here is just someone who's proficient in sport and other forms of physical exercise, so maybe you don't identify as an athlete yet would be my comment on athletes.

Alex:    I think that anyone that's trying to improve themselves -- you need people that are free thinkers because I feel like boxed or canned medicine is broken so badly right now and what you're doing is refreshing. It's a tough gig because I think that most of the people would rather take a pill and say, "Oh, I feel so much better. It's gone away," whatever my problem was, as opposed to finding out why is this a problem and then let's solve why it's a problem and let's fix it internally as opposed to just going and saying what Western medicine does, "Just take this and it'll make it go away." It's a tougher battle that you have to fight from your side of trying to figure out what's the problem and where is it originating, but I also think it's a much more gratifying win when you win that way because you're winning that way and your body is repairing itself and getting back to where it should be like you were when you were a kid as opposed to going and taking some drug and masking whatever symptom you have.

Chris:    For me as an engineer, there's a tremendous pleasure in finding things out. I love the lab testing and all of that because you get to find things out. You do some experiments and you try things and you figure out what was going wrong and there's tremendous pleasure in that.

Alex:    Yeah, absolutely, and I think the algorithm thing you're doing is really right-minded that you're using that. I think that makes so much sense. The direction that you're going, you seem to be constantly changing and improving and that's also awesome. I think what you're doing is great and I think that a lot of people would benefit from it. It's just a matter of getting the word out and spreading the word. I think that the best way to spread the word is the way you're doing it right now. Just have a podcast and talk to people who've done it and they can tell you, "Here's what's happening with me."

Chris:    That's awesome. Well, Alex, you've been truly wonderful. Thank you so much. Can I come and visit you with my kids on your ranch one day?

Alex:    Absolutely, yes, absolutely. Yeah, that's an easy one. That's no problem at all. We'll roll out the red carpet for you.

Chris:    Thank you.

Alex:    We'll go horseback-riding and we'll have a good time for sure.

Chris:    Also, a random question. Is the ranch open to the public or is it very much a working ranch?

Alex:    My dad's one of these guys that he's very focused on work and getting things done, so it's a private ranch. He runs cattle on it and it's a working ranch. I think there are four cowboys that live out there and work the ranch all the time. It's going. It's going and running and they're using it as a working ranch. Now, we still go out there and have fun and have some friends out and have some parties. It's a ton of fun to go out there, camp out. It's cool.

Chris:    That sounds awesome. Could you buy the meat online still or is it sold --

Alex:    I sold the business. It was called Little Field Ranch and I sold it to a guy -- I sold it maybe like ten years ago. It was great.


    It was the best experience. It's helped me so much in the banking business now that I have startup businesses come to me and ask me about a loan.

Chris:    You understand them. Okay, I get that.

Alex:    I'm like, "Yeah, I know what you're going through. I've been there. I've answered the phone and I shipped it out. I took the customer care calls. I've seen that show and I know what you're going through," so it helps me a ton of my business now.

Chris:    Well, this has been fantastic, Alex. Thank you so much. You are truly wonderful. Is there anything else that you'd want people to know about?

Alex:    I'm happy for you and happy for what you guys are doing. I appreciate you helping me. That's pretty much the word that I'd like to spread and I think keep it up. Keep cranking. Keep grinding.

Chris:    Thank you. I really appreciate it. Thanks, Alex.

Alex:    Okay. Talk to you soon.

[0:55:46]    End of Audio

Join the discussion on the NBT forum when you support us on Patreon.

Register for instant access to your FREE 15-page book, What We Eat

© 2013-2024 nourishbalancethrive