Moving the Chains with … WIU director of strength and conditioning Jon Minnis
today at 9:26 pm
Jon Minnis has owned his own athletic training business in Iowa, served in the Navy overseas and grew up in a small town in his home state.
Now, he’s back in Macomb for the second time.
Minnis, who has a master’s degree in kinesiology from WIU, returned in March to take over as the school’s director of strength and conditioning. He works closely with the football program and has a staff of three graduate assistants. During the pandemic, he built a squat rack in his backyard to enhance his own workouts while working virtually with WIU athletes.
In this edition of Prairie State Pigskin’s Moving the Chains, Minnis discusses how a Rocky movie help shape his career, the best attributes of his hometown of Morning Sun, Iowa, and the foods he would like all of his athletes to eat on a regular basis.
As a student, you earned your master’s degree at WIU. What drew you to Western and Macomb?
I’m from the Iowa City area and I knew about Western growing up and that they had a good football program. After the military, (I knew) Western had good veteran benefits and they work well with veterans. That appealed to me very much. Western’s kinesiology program is top notch.
What was attractive about coming back to Western as a strength and conditioning professional?
When I was here as a (graduate assistant coach), I absolutely loved it. The football coaching staff and the other staffs I worked with – women’s soccer, track and field, and men’s basketball – always made me feel like part of a family when I was here. It was so close knit and easy to get along with everybody. When the director position opened up and Coach (Jared) Elliott gave me a call, he asked me if I was interested. I said, ‘I’ll be there tomorrow.’ (Laughs) I was ready to go. This was absolutely where I wanted to be.
What are the most exciting things to do in your hometown of Morning Sun, Iowa?
Probably the most exciting thing is cow tipping. (Laughs) Morning Sun is a very small community. They’ve shut down their high school, which used to have a wrestling program that was absolutely top notch. For how small they were, they were a powerhouse in the state. Because of it’s size, everybody knows everybody. The big thing there is the Fourth of July celebrations. Come Fourth of July, the size of that town is 10 times what it normally is. Everybody comes back – the families, the school alumni. There’s a parade and fireworks. It’s a huge celebration.
My dad still lives there. He was actually the mayor there for a long time. He grew up there and has lived there all of his life.
During this unique time in college athletics with the COVID-19 pandemic, what have the challenges been in terms of keeping athletes on track with their workouts?
This is a whole new realm for every strength coach. I had the football team for a week, then we went on spring break and all of this happened. Luckily, I had a relationship with the majority of the team already. Some guys have full home gyms with everything they need, and other guys have nothing. So I put out a program of everything that we’d be doing in the weight room. I also sent out an alternate home program with body weight stuff (for guys with) minimal equipment. I made them as close as I could to each other. That was the biggest challenge. We didn’t want to overstimulate them to wear their immune system down. That’s a whole other challenge.
Between myself and my three assistants, we did weekly calls with everyone. We wanted to know how they were doing (with the program) and how their mental health was. That’s a big thing because it’s a stressful time. We also need to know about nutrition. Are they eating OK? We’ve learned from it.
Within the strength and conditioning community, networking has opened up like I’ve never seen. It’s very easy to reach out to other coaches at bigger and smaller schools and ask them what they’re doing. We’re all learning from each other. A lot of us are learning from Division III programs because they don’t get their players during the summer. It has opened up some new knowledge bases.
What sports did you play growing up?
I played just about any sport I could figure out how to play. I was big into Little League baseball as a kid. In high school, I played football and I wrestled. I played baseball. Because Iowa (high schools) play baseball in the summer, I ran track for a couple of years (in the spring). I went on to college at played baseball (at NAIA Culver-Stockton College). I was a middle infielder, kind of a utility guy who played anywhere and everywhere they needed me.
How did your interest in strength and conditioning start?
That was a weird route. I grew up in the 1990s and it wasn’t as well known as it is now. I’ve always been infatuated with the process. A lot of strength coaches I know go back to the movie Rocky IV and the training montage. That’s something I remember as a kid. I always loved watching that stuff. It wasn’t about the big game. It was everything they were doing up to that moment – the training. I loved watching documentaries about that. When I first went into college, I didn’t know about the strength and conditioning field. When I was at Culver-Stockton, we had a football coach who did strength and conditioning, and I would peek in and shadow what he was doing. That got me interested.
Also during that time, the 9-11 terrorist attacks happened. So I made the decision to join the military and did some deployments. I continued to follow developments in strength and conditioning. I got out of the military in 2009 and just went from there.
I started out wanting to be a personal trainer. Then I wanted to train high school athletes. I was working for a high school as a strength coach and a wrestling coach. I opened my own facility (in Keokuk, Iowa) about 45 minutes from Macomb. It slowly evolved into getting my master’s degree and being a graduate assistant.
What did your time in the Navy teach you?
I learned a lot. There were basic things like the discipline to do things that need to be done and to deal with challenges. Obviously, there were different challenges on deployment and stateside, whether it was personal or as a unit. That’s the biggest one. From the lessons I’ve learned from my parents and being in the military, you take 5 minutes to cry about (a challenge) or whatever, and then you move on. Things that I pass on to athletes are things like being able to push yourself through physical roadblocks. When they’re training, you say, ‘I know it’s hard, but you can keep going and do the things you need to do.’
What are the three best foods for athletes to eat?
I’m a big red meat guy. I think red meat – whether it’s quality ground beef or steak – has to be in an athlete’s diet. You get certain vitamins and minerals from meat, along with protein. For a carb source, there’s white rice, which is very easily digested, or sweet potatoes. I absolutely love sweet potatoes. To be honest, I think that salt needs to be a priority. Not just table salt, but pink Himalayan salt or sea salt. It has electrolytes and sodium that you need.
What are three of the worst foods you don’t want your athletes to eat?
I tell my athletes, ‘Don’t eat what I usually eat.’ (laughs) I try not to demonize any foods because I think foods have their place. With a higher-level athlete, they can get away with eating some McDonald’s here and there or a Snickers bar. You look at (Olympic swimmer) Michael Phelps and his (highly publicized) diet. He was swimming six hours a day and burning all these calories. A lot of these athletes are doing the same thing. With college athletes, it’s hard enough to get them to eat in general, so I try not to demonize too many foods.
In every sport your staff works with, how different are the workouts?
We try to differ the workouts to some extent. One of the big reasons I like to do that is it makes each sport and those athletes feel special about their workout. You can train an athlete very similar. It’s what we call general physical preparation.
We want to make them stronger. We want to make them faster. We want to make them more explosive. You can do that in so many different ways. I want my assistants to have their own thought process.
Everything is based on whether they’re in season, out of season, or if they’re right after the season. We can also individualize it based on if a person is coming back from an injury. We have a base model and then it’s individualized beyond that.
What are your favorite spots on WIU’s campus?
I love Hanson Field. I love the way it’s set up. When I was a graduate student, I was a big fan of Malpass Library. It feels very homey. At that time, I lived 45 minutes away. So when I came to campus, I would just stay there for the day. It was easy for me to go to the library and find a nice, quiet spot. They had comfortable chairs, places with a lot of light and some places that were darker. I’d sit and study or listen to a podcast. That was a special place for me.
Who are the most inspirational people in your life?
My parents (Teresa and Bill) have always supported me in everything that I do. My dad helped me set up my business. My parents were 100% behind me when I went into the military. If it wasn’t for those two being behind me all the time — from the time I was a little kid and had some wild ideas … . They challenged me but were always behind me.
When you walk around campus, what’s playing in your headphones?
I’m not a big music guy, but I am a big podcast guy. There are a ton of good podcasts that I listen to. I like listening to (comedian) Joe Rogan’s podcast. (Retired Navy officer and author) Jocko Willink has a really good one that I like to listen to. When I was in the military, I was fortunate enough that we knew each other pretty well. There are a lot of good strength and conditioning podcasts as well. I try to be learning as much as I can while I’m relaxing.
What’s the biggest reward you get from your job?
Just helping the kids progress, whether that’s on the field or off the field. I’ve been involved with high school sports for the last 10 years, and then college as well.
As a high school wrestling coach, I had a couple of guys go Division I, which was fun. But it’s also the guys that go to technical school and bettered themselves and now are making great money and supporting their families (that I enjoy). I had several of my former athletes go into the military and are doing great things. It’s having the opportunity to guide them to something better in their lives. That’s the biggest reward for me.