Mike Nilson strolled out of his office, located by the weight room in the Volkar Center, making his way toward the Rudolf Fitness Center.
“Mike, will you please come let us in?” asked a group of women’s soccer players, who forgot their keycards, denying them access to the athlete gym.
“Only if you work super hard tomorrow,” Nilson responded with a chuckle. The women assured him they would. Their lighthearted conversation was cut short when the athletes noticed Nilson’s shoes: a pair of low-top Jordans he bought off eBay, which were almost an exact replica of a pair he had in the fourth grade.
Nilson’s fashion isn’t a secret among the athletes. He’s actually become known for it, most famously, for his track suits.
“I prefer to call them business suits,” Nilson said. “In my line of work, when I wear them, I mean business.”
The strength and conditioning coach for Gonzaga women’s soccer and basketball along with men's tennis, Nilson’s job description seems self-explanatory. It’s in his official title. But, just like any other strength and conditioning coach, Nilson adds a personal twist to his position. And his twist is rooted in his strong belief of the No. 3.
“The three things I really focus on with my athletes are train, eat, lead,” Nilson said.
Training is the most obvious part of Nilson’s job. As a strength and conditioning coach, it is his duty to improve the strength and agility of his athletes. To do this, he focuses on another big three: the three planes of motion — the sagittal plan (front to back), the frontal plane (side to side) and the transverse plane (rotational). He then combines those notions with gravity.
“As a basketball player, gravity acts upon you differently than if you were a swimmer or a wrestler,” Nilson said. “I want you on your feet as much as possible. If you’re on the ground, something is wrong. So, I want to train you on your feet because that’s how gravity is going to be active upon you and I want to train you in all three planes of motion.”
Nilson explained that in traditional strength and conditioning training, most focus on the sagittal plane, moving front to back. Exercises like bench presses, planks, lunges, curls and crunches are all cemented in the sagittal plane. However, if you look at the demand of a sport like basketball, most of the movements are lateral or rational. This results in him making his athletes lunge at a 45-degree angle instead of straight forward or do 27 different variations of a squat or box jump.
“A lot of players come in and they can jump on a 30-inch box no problem, if they can do it the way they want to do it,” Nilson said. “But they can’t do it all 27 ways I want them to do it.”
There are differences in what Nilson does when training the women’s soccer team versus the women’s basketball team, but all of them are rooted in the same basic movements. The differences begin to arise when looking at the reasons why the athletes perform certain motions in their respective sports. For example, the need to do lunges in soccer is different from why a basketball player needs to do them.
Differences in workouts also occur because of the pure nature of each sport. In soccer, players will not be doing much catching or hands-over-the-head movements, whereas a basketball player will do a lot of that. In comparison, in basketball, you won’t be doing as many single-leg reaches where you are trying to kick the ball; in soccer, that is the primary motion.
“While everyone will squat, lunge, push, pull, the way we adjust those exercises — the speed we do them in, the range of motion we do it in, the plane of motion, the weight — those are all changed,” Nilson said. “You have these global movements but you have these subtle adjustments you make for the different sports.”
The next aspect of Nilson’s three-pillared philosophy is eat. Flyers with different food plans can be found in different athletes’ locker rooms across campus, suggesting various ways to incorporate nutrition into their lives. He tries to push back against the notion that there is only one way to eat healthy. For example, the way an athlete needs to eat in preparation for a body building competition is different than what a cross-country runner needs. To go along with his favorite number, Nilson suggests three different eating plans.
The three main reasons athletes visit Nilson for nutritional help are to work on their weight — whether it’s losing or gaining weight, improving their performance or improving their health. Many nutritionists look at these three circles as completely independent from one another. Nilson’s goal is to find how the circles overlap, identifying the three different nutritional goals as different levels of the same overall objective.
“I tell [athletes] it’s like a video game,” Nilson said. “You can’t make it to level two if you haven’t passed level one. And you definitely don’t have to worry about level three if you’re not doing level two.”
In this case, level one is fuel. For athletes, and really any person, food is fuel, and if you don’t consume enough fuel, you will not make it to where you want to go. Level two is fire — the idea of the macronutrient compositions. Here, the questions one should be asking are: am I getting the right amount of protein, carbs and fats? That leads to the third level: whole foods, where you know you are eating the right kinds of food and now try to swap out processed food for more healthy options.
“He will spend countless amounts of hours to come up with nutrition plans for us, which he doesn’t even have to do,” senior guard Laura Stockton said. “He does it because he wants to. I have gone to his office like, ‘Hey Mike, I want to drop a few pounds before next season or I just want to be in better shape,’ and he just goes ‘All right, here’s what we’re going to do: we’re gonna make a meal plan, we’ll do these workouts specifically,’ and just do whatever for whoever needs it.”
The third pillar is being a leader. Nilson’s idea of leadership comes from one simple idea: you cannot do it alone. Especially in sports.
“Just like the three planes of motion is science, it’s not my opinion,” Nilson said. “Leadership and the idea that nobody can make it on their own — for me to be successful, my teammates need to be successful — to me, that’s a truth, a principle.”
Nilson’s journey to his position at GU was not what he expected it to be. Being a strength and conditioning coach was not what he wanted to do as a kid. It isn’t what he studied in school at GU (he was a business major). He didn’t even want to go to GU in the first place. His dream was to go to University of Washington and become a professional basketball player.
A decent high school basketball player, Nilson found himself in a position with no scholarship offers. That’s when his buddy reached out and told him he could get Nilson a walk-on tryout with the Zags. Nilson took him up on the offer.
He will be the first to tell you, he played phenomenally that day.
“Some days you’re off, some you’re on, and that was a day where every bucket went in,” Nilson said.
After two years of being a walk-on, which Nilson described as two of the toughest years of his life, GU offered him a scholarship.
The plan was always for Nilson to play in Europe after school. And he did that, playing two seasons overseas in Germany. But before that, there was a little detour.
During the first game of the West Coast Conference Tournament against Saint Mary’s during Nilson’s senior year, he tore his Achilles tendon, which forced him to take a year off and completely mucked up his original plans of going abroad. Surprisingly, it was that injury that led him to strength and conditioning.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you can learn about health and fitness and nutrition and get paid for it,’ so I was in,” Nilson said.
He began studying that year, got his training and nutrition certification and struck a deal with GU: let him take free classes and he will train the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Looking back at how Nilson landed what turned out to be his dream job, he’s thankful. Even if he wasn’t in the moment of the injury. He also hopes that his story and journey will help inspire one of his athletes who recently experienced something extremely similar: Laura Stockton.
About three weeks ago, Stockton, a senior, was injured in the first round of the WCC Tournament, also against the Gaels.
“It was just so eerie,” Nilson said. “Part of me wanted to wish it away and I wish it didn’t happen and I am so sad for her … [But] if you could make it through those tough times, you’re gonna come out on the other side and you’ll be better off for it. So, it’s nice because we don’t have the choice. She tore her ACL or hurt her knee so now, I wouldn’t wish that upon her, but now that it happened, I know she’s going to come back stronger and tougher and better off for it.”
Nilson was one of the first people to reach out to Stockton following her injury, and has been by her side since, giving her recovery tips or motivational texts.
“He mostly said he’s here for me and he knows what it’s like, so I guess that’s the best thing to hear at the time,” Stockton said. “No one can make you feel better about the situation. It’s nice to have someone who really understands in the first place and is really there for you. I totally used him, going to his office, talking to him, I sat next to him on the bus in Corvallis and picked his brain ‘cause I feel like he has so much wisdom.”
Stockton’s favorite saying from Nilson is “you can do anything for a minute,” which can constantly be heard during his training sessions and practices, particularly throughout the more challenging workouts — like the 27 different squats.
In the moment — their legs burning, heart pounding and sweat dripping down their entire bodies — the athletes might not like Nilson. But then, they remember the guy decked out in matching track suits, limited edition Jordan sneakers and a stellar hat. The guy who some say is the reason they got through GU athletics or is the nicest person on campus.
“Just one minute, what do you got?” Nilson asks his athletes.
They give him their all.