Lily Abdelmalek is the secret weapon that many professional athletes lean on in the offseason for peak performance.
She’s worked with the likes of the Eric Berry, Casey Hayward, A.J. Bouye, Jaylen Brown, Dwight Howard, Jason Heyward, Takeo Spikes, Jamal Lewis, and countless other professional athletes with the goal of maximizing their potential as athletes and as people.
You can find her with a group of NFL linebackers or defensive backs, or in smaller groups with NBA or college basketball players. But Abdelmalek’s work goes deeper than just pro athletes. She is helping aspiring sports stars in the metro Atlanta area at local high schools, or at the Forum Athletic Club in Buckhead.
Abdelmalek offers glimpses into these workouts on her Instagram, where you might even catch her showing off some of her own skills. And no matter the level of athlete, she recognizes the growing importance of mental health awareness.
Abdelmalek took the time to talk to SB Nation about her passion for training, challenges she faced in her field as a woman, how her own footwork is coming along, and how she came to be one of the most trusted personal trainers in sports.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Has training athletes always been something you wanted to do?
Lily Abdelmalek: I knew I wanted to be involved in sports. Initially I was kind of on track for physical therapy, and I wanted to work with athletes, and then I kind of just took a different route and went the sports performance direction.
Being a woman in any field has its challenges, but how has being a woman in this particular field been a challenge for you? And for the people who judge you on your gender, how sweet is it in cases where you show them that you’ll kick their ass just as hard as anybody else would?
LA: Well you know, in the beginning of my career it was a big challenge. I physically ran with almost every group that I had to work with when I worked for XPE Sports. So by the time I started my own business and I started working on my own, a lot of the athletes were already familiar with how I train. And over the years, I think me working out with the guys has just kind of helped. I haven’t had too much backlash the past couple of years. I like to demonstrate, I like to show them how to do it, and explain it. I think that’s helped along the way. But definitely in the beginning of my career, I had to deal with guys that didn’t want to train with me, and didn’t take me seriously. But it’s worked out.
Have those experiences helped you when you have female clients because you’re able to relate to them on a level that other trainers might not be able to?
LA: Oh for sure. Not just with women, but all different athletes kind of go through their own struggles. But it’s definitely — I see it a lot with the women. They feel like male athletes kind of get priority with things a lot of the time. So you see that a lot just in trying to get their workouts in and dealing with other coaches, and feeling like they’re not taken seriously. It’s definitely something that’s a good bond between me and other female athletes.
With mental health awareness becoming more prevalent in sports, how do you keep your athletes in check as far as just kind of “checking in?” It’s not your job, but surely there could have been cases where somebody needed help.
LA: I mean, like the biggest thing across the board, I always check in on the guys. Even my NFL guys, I send them a text or give them a phone call to see how they’re doing. To me that goes a long way, especially with professional athletes. Sometimes people around them aren’t always around them for the right reasons.
So it goes far beyond being their trainer or showing the outside the world “look, I’m training so-and-so” and it becomes like a family at the end of the day that you really care about and who they are. And then when it comes to the kids, just because they deal with so much at school, it’s kind of taking that time to talk to them about what’s going on besides the sports aspect, besides what they’re doing with their coaches or their teams, and kind of seeing how they’re doing in school and stuff. It’s just taking the time, taking the time to talk.
A lot of times they may not want to talk to their teachers or their parents. So sometimes it’s easier to talk to somebody else.
And your clientele is vast, how do you go about keeping up with everybody, and how difficult can that get sometimes? I’m sure you enjoy it, but it also seems like a challenge.
LA: Yeah, I mean, with the NFL guys, it’s just different. They train all together a lot of the times, but you understand what everybody needs. You get so close to these guys and girls, that you just know what their strengths and weaknesses are. I keep notes on just what everybody needs. But of course, on the other side for me personally it does get tiring, but at the end of the day, having the blessing to work with all these guys is far more rewarding to me than being tired. That’s what gets me up in the morning sometimes although it’s challenging. You just have your mind set on the blessings of the day. I’m just so fortunate to be in this position I’m in.
It sure helps doing something you love, doesn’t it?
LA: Yeah [laughs] definitely.
Now, I kind of want to get into some specific athletes. You train Jaylen Brown, how long have you been working with him, and what’s it like? Because the big thing with Jaylen aside from being a great athlete is his character and his intelligence.
LA: So I’ve been training Jaylen since he was in 8th grade. He’s always just been very mature. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with how he was raised, and his coach kind of guiding him. But he’s always been just a couple years ahead of everybody else. I don’t know what it is, but he’s — I guess the biggest thing is just the decisions he’s made throughout his career. That’s what’s blown me away. Most kids coming out of high school would have gone to Duke or Kentucky or something like that. He chose a school that was kind of off the radar for a lot of people to see. So for him to make a decision to go somewhere that was completely opposite that another great athlete of his caliber would have made speaks highly to his passion for things other than basketball. He understands that basketball isn’t forever, so that’s a huge mature thing to come about.
Another athlete I’m interested in is Eric Berry. He battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was admirably able to come back from that. When did you learn about it, and how were you there to support him through that?
LA: I always tell people he’s like a freak of nature. You’ve never seen anything like it. He trains between myself and my mentor Tony Villani down in Florida. He spent a lot of time down in Florida, but he did come — I remember one time he was going through remission, and he literally came in to work out maybe a day or two days after treatment, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Ever since then, I’m like nobody can tell me they’re too tired to workout.
But I try to be very available. Not just to him, but to all my guys. That’s just my way of showing my support for them. I try to be there in any way possible, so if he needs me to go up to Kansas City, or he needs extra time late at night to get his work in, I’m there. But yeah, he definitely has a different mindset in his views of life and how precious it is and he doesn’t take his time or the workouts or anything for granted in that sense.
When he was declared cancer free, did you guys convene and develop a plan upon returning, or was he full speed ahead and ready to go?
LA: He was ready to go. Between me and Tony down in Florida, he had been doing some training, but he was just ready to go. He’s always ready to go. [Laughs]
And then of course you have a guy like Casey Hayward. He’s shown a lot of improvement over his NFL career and he’s starting to get recognition for it. What has training him been like? Because I think a lot of people would argue today that he’s one of the best defensive backs in the league.
LA: Oh yeah, he is by far. And I think it’s kind of funny he’s now just getting the recognition. Because if you’ve seen his career, he’s been doing what he’s doing now years before. He was an amazing athlete when he was at Vandy, and kind of how he’s been moving like last year and the year before and when he was at Green Bay, nothing changed from when he was at Green Bay to when he went to the Chargers. He’s the same athlete doing the same things. I think people were just opening their eyes up more to how he was as an athlete when he came to the Chargers. But he was making those picks the same way he was with the Packers. He’s an amazing athlete. He may not be the fastest one out there, but he breathes and he studies those plays so well.
You’ve also worked with athletes that aren’t doing sports as their main job now like Takeo Spikes or Jamal Lewis. Are guys like that still getting workouts in, or have they closed that chapter of their lives?
LA: Yeah, I mean they’ve definitely moved on to other things. They’re still very involved in sports, just from a different angle, you know? Whether that’s helping programs for recruiting, which Jamal Lewis is doing, or behind the scenes commentating, like what Takeo’s doing. Time to time I’ll push them to work out. Takeo still comes out a couple times during the offseason to work with my linebackers that I have now, which is great. I love it. They get to hear that old school type of training, the old school type of ways with Takeo, and they learn so much more about their position and how to look for things that I can’t tell them. So it’s great that he comes out, and it’s just that camaraderie that all the guys can get.
I’m sure that’s good for business as well, since it’s another incentive to get a workout in.
LA: Oh, for sure.
And I guess the ass kickings were good enough for Takeo and Jamal to come back for more, even in retirement.
LA: Yes [laughs] on a much slower scale.
And obviously your main goal is to improve the fitness of all of your clients, so sport specifics might not matter as much. But is there a particular type of athlete you prefer to train, whether that’s football, basketball, baseball, or otherwise?
LA: No, I like training all of them, it’s fun going from one sport to the next because they all have their own little net, and their own kind of personalities. I mean I really love training the kids because there’s so much to teach them compared to a professional athlete who’s gone through so many trainers, and they have so much experience. The kids are really fun because I get to teach them more, but at the same time it’s like great working out with the pro guys, and the basketball guys, and the football guys just because it’s a different vibe with each group.
I’m also curious what one of your workouts looks like. Not to give away any state secrets, but I know you do individual sessions and group workouts?
LA: So it all kind of depends on what we do. I mean we go through a good warmup and stretching. I’m huge on balance drills. We work on — I’m very picky when it comes to my training. We don’t just go through the motions just to go through the motions and sweat. Part of that’s big with me, is I’m so specific when it comes to movements and running form, and their footwork and change of direction. I think that’s part of the reason why they come back too, is that I’m picky, and I expect excellence.
You mention you’re picky with certain things — obviously there’s tons of trainers out there. But I’m curious if there’s a certain thing that a lot of trainers might overlook that you try to emphasize when athletes come to you.
LA: Nowadays, I feel like the footwork and change of direction is the big hype. Everybody’s doing all these footwork drills to see how quick their feet are. But I’m very — I try not to do drills that are just like moving around that don’t make sense to the way the body actually moves and the drills that are being placed on the athlete. I keep things very simple and practical. Another part of that is I’ve been thankful enough to really learn from one of the best speed coaches that I know, which is Loren Seagrave. I think a lot of people kind of — they’re not as picky when it comes to speed training and alignment and how the angles of how the body should be when it comes to footwork.
You mention the footwork, I think you’re the champ of the footwork.
I’m putting you on the spot. Go ahead and tell the world how great your footwork is, and of all your clients, what percentage of them is your footwork better than?
LA: Oh, I don’t know [laughs] I mean they have pretty good footwork, and it’s all repetition so I’ve been doing it for a really long time. But I will say, I am pretty good. I will give myself a pat on the back for that.
Kind of spinning off of that, how competitive and fun can some of those group workouts get when you get all these athletes in one room?
LA: It’s always competitive [laughs]. So they’re always trying to outdo each other. And there’s a time and a place for that. There’s times when we compete, and there are times when we slow things down and we really focus on the specifics. But slowing down drills, slowing down the exercises is a big thing that we do. And then there are times when we go full throttle, and the guys love to compete with each other. So like this past offseason with the NFL guys, A.J. Bouye and Casey Hayward would always compete when it came to their speed turns, or their DB drills and who was fastest to get in and out of their breaks and stuff like that. It was always fun and gave us good laughs.
Have you ever had to be like, “Hey guys, step back a little bit, we’re getting too competitive here?”
LA: Not necessarily, but sometimes when they lose focused I get mad and I start yelling, and [laughs] they laugh and don’t necessarily take me that seriously all the time. But they’re always working, so sometimes I gotta snap on them a little bit.
Gotta have some bite every now and then, of course.
LA: [Laughs] Yeah. Yeah.
And I’m sure there are many, but are there any moments from your workouts over the years that stand out? Whether they were funny, challenging, or otherwise?
LA: I mean, there are so many, but there are definitely — I call them “bloopers” when guys mess up, or they have pranks on each other. When they have those times where they don’t look so athletic, those are funny. But I just — I don’t even know what to say, it’s been great training all these different athletes. I’ve had the ability to travel with Dwight Howard to some of the most amazing places in the world. It was great, and I get to travel for Jason Heyward, and there’s just so many moments I couldn’t even give you just a couple.
Do you ever have any kind of moments where you just look around at what’s going on around you whether that’s at a local high school working out, or at the Forum, or traveling to another place and you’re just like, “I can’t believe this is my life, I love this?”
LA: All the time. All the time. I’m always like “thank you God.” It’s been such a blessing, the journey that I’ve taken. I would have never guessed that I ended up in the position that I’m in. It’s surreal sometimes to be in front of certain athletes, or to feel like “I’ve got 20 NFL guys out here working with me.” It’s ... it’s a blessing. I don’t even know how to describe it.
You mentioned you faced your own challenges, is there any specific advice you would give to somebody that might be trying to accomplish the same things that you have?
LA: Sometimes I’ll get messages in my Instagram inbox from other trainers. But the biggest thing is to be consistent, be persistent, don’t give up. I’ve gone through times where — when I first started there wasn’t many clients, and I just — I knew this was my path. It just kept moving in that direction, nothing took me off my path in a sense that — just persevering through all of it. Staying consistent is key, because there are times where it is hard working for yourself. I’m always like, “If I’m not working, I’m not making money” type thing when it comes to the business side. I love working, but when it comes to the financial aspect and you think about that, but you just stay consistent.
I think for everybody there’s an end result that brings you satisfaction of completing a task, or done your job. For you, what are those moments? Is it when Casey gets an interception, or Dwight has a 20 or 30 point game?
LA: I always tell people — all these athletes, they’ve been given this God given talent, you know? I didn’t teach them how to play basketball, I didn’t teach them how to hit a baseball or get an interception. But I do feel that I did give some contribution to the way they move, and how they run, and being able to make some amazing plays. So it does fulfill me when Casey gets that interception and stuff, for sure.
But when they return to come back to me, that’s when I feel the most fulfilled. Or when a high school athlete gets that college scholarship, that’s when I feel most fulfilled. Because I feel like — especially when they come back to me year to year, I feel like, “OK, they enjoyed training with me, they feel like it best fits them.” That’s when I feel the happiest I think, when I see guys return every offseason.
That’s great! And look, I’m trying to stay in peak shape for football season. I’m gonna be doing a lot of writing, sitting in various places of my apartment, eating a lot of food. Do you have exercises so I can make sure my typing speed stays high and I don’t get too big in the next six months?
LA: Yeah, no problem [laughing]. Just make sure you get up off of your feet, kind of walk around and do some flexibility moves, then take time to stretch. Get the blood flowing a little bit, and eat healthy food. That’s big. What you put into your body effects what happens with everything else.
I can’t make a promise on that healthy food, Popeyes is a little too good. But I think I can do the rest.
LA: [Laughing] I gotcha!