FORT BLISS, Texas – It can often be easy to overlook or even take for granted the many opportunities available for fitness at Fort Bliss. Given that perspective, it can be even easier to forget the individuals who facilitate and implement these opportunities – the ones who strive to shape and mold soldiers into our nation’s fighting force.
One such person is John Barela, a sports specialist at East Bliss’ Ironworks Gym, who has been showcasing the Mission Essential Fitness program, a regimen tailored to meet the specific needs of the combat-ready soldier.
Barela’s dedication to fitness stems from an extensive background steeped in the study of exercise. As a youth growing up in El Paso, sports played an important role in building the tenets of hard work.
“Football and baseball were my two favorite sports,” said Barela. “I played multiple positions in both of them.”
Those formative years playing dual sports would prove to be the foundation of a continued effort to help others reach their potential.
After high school, Barela attended Arizona State University where he would earn his bachelor’s degree in exercise science. It was there he would get his first taste of training athletes. As Barela’s graduation from Arizona State grew near, he volunteered with the Oakland Athletics baseball team to broaden his knowledge.
“I would pick the strength coach’s brain and observe as much as I could,” said Barela. “I would also help set up equipment and drills. I really just tried to learn as much as I could from those guys.”
After graduation, Barela applied for an internship at Arizona State University. His first experiences as an intern were with the football program under the guidance of professionals like Joe Kenn, who is now the head strength and conditioning coach for the Carolina Panthers.
“They say that you learn most of what you use in life by the time you’re about out of first grade,” said Barela. “That concept was really true about my time as an intern – most of what I learned there, I still use now, even 13 years later. I still use some of the same coaching techniques and cues I used then.
“I learned a lot about designing and implementing a training program, proper lifting technique and how to teach it and proper coaching cues while leading a training session. Then as I showed that I was developing, the head coaches gained some trust in me and allowed me to start teaching the new freshmen that came in.”
After his internship, he went on to Utah State University. In addition to his continued studies in exercise science, he would also delve more into training and coaching athletes as a graduate assistant.
The hard work and long hours would develop Barela as a trainer. His dedication could be seen through the results of those he personally helped.
“I was working with this softball player, Brooke Smart, a freshman who had never touched a weight before,” he said. “As I worked with her, she really bought into the program I set up for her and started gaining strength and improving. Then at the championship game of that season, she actually hit the game-winning home run. Afterword, she thanked me for helping her. That felt great – it lets you know that you’re truly making a difference and helping someone improve.”
Barela’s work with college-level strength and conditioning programs would eventually lead him back to his hometown to work with the University of Texas at El Paso. His time there with the men’s and women’s basketball teams would yield division championships in both.
“I got a lot of positive feedback from the coaches there as well as the players,” said Barela. “I worked with a lot of the players since they were freshmen, and getting to see their improvement over time helped build my confidence as a trainer.”
After his time at UTEP, Barela seized an opportunity to work at Fort Bliss. His reputation preceded him as Doug Briggs, the director of human performance on Fort Bliss, was looking for fresh help in his department.
“Before I had interviewed John, I had talked to the other coaches at UTEP and they had nothing but positive things to say about him,” said Briggs. “I knew after interviewing him, and with his credentials, that he would be great here.”
Barela said there wasn’t much of a technical difference from training civilian athletes to military personnel; although he did notice a difference in how he contributed to society.
“It gives me more pride in my country,” said Barela. “I enjoy helping soldiers to hopefully reduce their risk of injury so they can do their job while deployed. If a college athlete gets injured he might be out for a few games, but if a soldier gets hurt during a deployment, it might affect his job and he might not make it home.”
“He’s very thorough and careful that soldiers are doing the exercises correctly with proper technique,” said Don Mehl, a fitness instructor at Fort Bliss. “He can be real strict in that regard, because safety is his main concern.”
From playing youth sports, to training college athletes and now soldiers, Barela’s knowledge continues to grow and develop. He is always taking a new course or working for another certification.
“He’s very open-minded and always willing to learn from others,” said Mehl.
All in all, John Barela is truly an asset worth taking advantage of at Fort Bliss. His extensive background and knowledge offers even the seasoned athlete a chance to learn and develop. As Barela continues to expand his knowledge of strength and conditioning, so will the individuals under his instruction. The capabilities of Fort Bliss’ soldiers will only be the better for it.