College of Health and Human Performance

Russell Gaither (MS APK ’22)

Working to better athlete development

Russell Gaither (MS APK ’22)

Russell Gaither, MSAPK ’22, serves as a performance specialist where he has helped players develop in performance nutrition, mental skills, and strength and conditioning. Orlando City Soccer Club competes in Major League Soccer which is the top professional soccer league in the United States.

What makes you good at your job?

The ability to listen, adapt, be empathetic, and yet lead with conviction and deep personal values. This field isn’t filled with a lot of people that have done a lot of deep character development. If you’re willing to grow in your emotional intelligence and listening skills, you will produce a more holistic philosophy of work, care, and service that will build trust between players and peers, which will serve you well in your career.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

While my job is to help players increase performance, I genuinely care about developing authentic men who feel valued and invested in. Soccer is what gets us all in the same room, but developing men who have strong character, values, and work ethic is what gets me the most excited. I’ve found that when you couple a good training program with the ability to care for players mentally and emotionally, their performance on the field also increases.

What do you consider to be your greatest professional achievement (so far)?

It would be easy to say winning the first trophy ever for our club and the city of Orlando, but it’s not. It’s walking with a young athlete who was fighting depression after leaving home at such a young age to see if he could make it as a professional. Our psychology and mental skills classes opened the door to him making some realizations about himself. I had the honor to meet with him weekly and then connect him to a psychologist that works specifically with athletes. He is doing much better and is incredibly thankful. This means more than any trophy we won this past season.

What personal characteristics must a person have to succeed in a role like yours?

  • Grit to last in a competitive environment.
  • Diplomacy when dealing with peers and people with high standing.
  • Strong values that keep you true to yourself.
  • Strong listening skills to sift through people’s needs, insecurities, and fears.
  • Empathy to understand how to care for people well.
  • Humility to know you are a servant to others in this field, not just a leader.
  • Inner drive to continue learning and for when the moments get tough or repetitive.
  • Honesty and courage to say no when people are trying to cross work and personal boundaries.
  • Boldness to lead with integrity and high standards.
  • Communication skills that can help you speak clearly and succinctly about what you want from your athletes and what you are doing to better the franchise to your bosses.

Who do you look up to most in your profession?

In this season of my life, I’m interested in people who lead with deep character and integrity. While there are so many great leaders and thinkers in this profession that I routinely learn from, I’m keen on David Cosgrave, who I’ve been following for a few years and now ironically is my boss at Orlando City. Dave is the director of high performance, and his leadership style is a balance of deep knowledge and purposeful care. I think we need to follow people that not only have the performance knowledge, but the ability to care for human beings in a purposeful way that produces trust and sincerity. These things aren’t taught in school, these are character pieces you must learn on your life journey.

In one word, how would you describe HHP?

Glue. HHP practitioners have the opportunity to be the glue that keep people’s lives healthy, happy, and whole. From a mind, body, spirit perspective we sit in the gap of these daily human needs, and we have the joy and opportunity of helping people become a fuller, more confident version of themselves no matter if they are athletes or the general population. Often within my working environment weight room conversations can quickly shift from sporting conversations to deeply personal talks about marital issues, raising children, and contract situations. The late great Markus Paul (Dallas Cowboys strength coach) while talking about caring for athletes once said, “You’re a parent. You’re an uncle. You’re a teacher. You have so many different hats. You’re a disciplinarian. You’re a brother.” In many ways, we are the glue that help people stay intact.

What’s your best advice to current students?

Become a master at communication. Your ability to coach, teach, and communicate what you want, how you want it, and why you’re doing what you’re doing will serve you well. In professional sport people are always asking what you bring to the table. Find a way to share who you are, what you do, and why what you do is needed. It will make you an asset wherever you go, and people will come to you for clarity because you can communicate in a way that people trust.

Any advice for graduating seniors?

Our field is becoming more and more popular and competitive, with fewer and fewer jobs available. You should be taking internships and networking seriously. Build a LinkedIn profile, find people you look up too and start connecting. Remember, LinkedIn is a professional network where people are looking to build out their network and relationships. Message people, ask questions in posts, be inquisitive, and people will be happy to make themselves available to you. The more people you know and build relationships with, the more successful and fulfilling your career will be.

Where do you go for inspiration?

I tend to find inspiration in:

  • Hiking
  • Journaling
  • Ted Talks
  • Music
  • Working with my hands building
  • Being active (gym, mountain biking, kayaking etc.)

Any parting comments?

I’m grateful for my time at UF and the connections it established through our rich alumni network. Major League Soccer has several UF alumni working in the field. If you are interested in soccer, professional sport, or working with athletes, I’d love to connect and join you on your journey. You can follow me on LinkedIn:

[Profile added in 2022.]

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