• Defining Moment

    From Naysayers to NASCAR—and Beyond

    The importance of constant learning and abundant kindness.

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    When I look back on why I became a physical therapist, one day stands out. I'd gone with my dad to the gym in the small Illinois town where I grew up.

    He and I did everything together. We worked out, took bike rides, camped, hiked, fished, hunted, rollerbladed, and more. Whatever fun thing we could think of to do outside with my mom and 2 brothers, we did. When they opted out, my dad and I went anyway. He always was teaching me life lessons: The need to treat others well; the importance of family; the value of integrity, hard work, and perseverance; and how all of those things shaped the kind of person I ultimately would become. That day at the gym, my dad taught me how to use all the equipment and told me how movement and exercise helped keep him young so he could keep up with his teenaged daughter. That made quite an impression on me.

    Something else that happened that day had an even bigger impact. There was a gentleman in a wheelchair at the gym who had lost use of his legs. Yet he was using the gym equipment to put his body to the test, stretching the limits of his abilities. I remember thinking, “This is what dad is talking about! This man will stop at nothing to get where he wants to be!” He wasn't feeling sorry for himself or complaining about his limitations. Watching him, I thought about how so many people take their physical abilities for granted and get upset when a minor issue temporarily throws them off-track. The attitude of the man in the wheelchair was the opposite—he seemed believe that the world was at his fingertips.

    His example, combined with my dad's words and actions, made me realize, right then and there, what I wanted to do. My mission would be to help others see and reach their full potential in all aspects of life—and to model that in myself.

    Thus began my educational journey—which started when I was a teenager, extended through work in the fitness industry, PT school, and clinical practice, and will never stop. Over the course of time, I explored exercise science and physiology, the psychosocial aspects of the mind-body connection, manual therapy, dissection, sports performance and coaching, physical therapy, and how best to develop a lifestyle that addresses all the variables of human performance and longevity. I came to understand that the more knowledge and experience I gained, the more I learned about preventing and treating injuries, enhancing performance, and improving overall quality of life.

    I made sure at the same time to practice what I'd learned and what I was preaching. How can you speak with authority on a subject if you haven't experienced all the aspects associated with it, and if you haven't tried to achieve the goals you've set for others? By making my own fitness and wellness a priority—by adding personal experience to my skills and my knowledge base—I enhanced my ability to anticipate results; modify training and exercise programs; detect common trends related to movement mechanics, injury, posture, and prevention; and recognize people's potential to move and perform at higher levels.

    But I also had to learn how best to share everything I'd learned in a way that was easy for my athletes and patients to understand and incorporate into their lives. I discovered that continuous learning and growing is, in a sense, a communication technique in its own right. People see my passion for what I do. When you give off positive energy, you inspire others to recognize their own potential and their ability to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

    Not that my journey was easy. As I tried to build my career, there were beautiful times and tough times. I was told that I'd never be able to work with pro athletes because I was female. I was told, “Insurance won't cover preventative care, so you're dumb to consider it.” But I figured, if you're going to do something, why not give it your all? Why not educate yourself and master your field—ensuring that you deliver quality services to everyone, regardless of their gender or age? You owe it to yourself and your patients. Put people before profits. The money will come as long as you treat people from your heart.

    That reinforced another message my dad always conveyed: Be kind. Look past people's faults and frailties. Try to see the good in them. In fact, treat them as if that good is the essence of who they are. You never know what someone else is going through, or the impact that a few sympathetic words or a helpful gesture can have. That's a realization I carry with me through all aspects of my life. Am I perfect in making kindness my default? No, not any more than any of us. But that's my aim. We all can grow and be better together. There's no place for negativity or judgment.

    We know that the brain develops nerve connections as we feed it new information to learn and analyze. Conversely, it's been shown that nerve connections that aren't stimulated stop being activated. “Use it or lose it,” in other words, is not just a figure of speech. The pattern extends to muscle length, movement patterns, motor control, and development of the central nervous system. So, why not use it? Why not learn as much as you can about your body and efficient movement? Why simply accept injury and aging? Why not, instead, try to optimize what you've got? Those are messages I share with people and model in my own life. Be kind to your body by educating yourself on how to keep it health and functioning efficiently.

    Remember how I wrote that early in my career I was told to give up my dream of working with top athletes? I didn't listen! I became the first full-time female physical therapist and strength coach in NASCAR and professional motocross, gaining 4 championship rings in the process. I traveled to races every weekend and worked with drivers such as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr. Since then, I've built a patient and client base that includes the likes of college star and professional football player Saquon Barkley, as well as notable entertainment figures such as actor Mark Wahlberg and film and television director Peter Berg. My practice is thriving—the product of hard work, passion, and modeling the ethics and values that my parents taught me.

    My life has evolved in incredible ways since I encountered that gentleman in the gym more than 15 years ago. He never knew it, but he ignited my passion for exploring the biomechanics of movement and the horizons of human potential. Each of us can have the same impact on others if we keep pursuing knowledge and spreading kindness and love.

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    Jena Gates, PT, DPT, LMT, is the owner and chief executive officer of Scientific Fitness in Huntersville, North Carolina. She also is a certified strength and conditioning specialist.  

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