The Biosteel Centre, the Toronto Raptors’ training facility on the city’s waterfront, is mostly empty on a Friday in late June. With the season over, Jon Lee, the team’s head strength and conditioning coach, sits contently in his light-filled office, which faces out to an assortment of ellipticals, weights and other somewhat intimidating machinery.
“This is my time off. I don’t have to be at the office right now, but I enjoy being here, I just like being around,” says an almost serene Lee. “I’ve been here eight years and to me, I don’t think I’ve worked a day in eight years.”
Lee had just finished a morning workout with Raptors All-Star guard Kyle Lowry. As with many strength and conditioning coaches, Lee is intimately connected with the athletes he trains. He says it is the human interaction that makes his job so special.
“My proudest moment is being able to create some of the lasting relationships I have with players,” exclaims Lee. “Have you ever read Terrence Ross’ Players Tribune [story]? When he mentioned me, I was just like…that was really nice of him to do that. It wasn’t because I helped him bench 225 pounds, it was because we had a connection. That was a big moment, to get acknowledgement from a player, not as a coach but as a person.”
That idea can go both ways. Today’s approach to strength training can often be very data-driven, and a certain level of scientific detachment can become a problem if no common ground is established on a personal level. Lee doesn’t reduce the athletes he works with to mere specimens. For him, training should never be mass production.
“Every physical body is different, and every physical body that comes in here has different limitations,” adds Lee. “One workout for one guy may not work for another guy, so I have to constantly change and adapt to what their needs are. You’re almost like a chameleon adapting to all these different players, attitudes, motivations.”
Lee credits much of his adaptability to his experience as a teacher for high-risk youth. Nearly two decades ago, Lee was hired by his alma mater, Richmond High School in British Columbia, to teach life skills and math in a special program for high-risk students across the district. The challenges he faced during that time taught him principles he considers integral to his work as a coach.
“My experiences as a teacher…prepared me for what I do now and it’s really no different– you’re just communicating with people,” says Lee. “Do I see these guys any different from my students? Not much. They’re just athletes. I see this as a school but basketball school, all these guys are kind of like my students, and I have to teach them certain things.”
At Richmond, where he would regularly catch students smoking pot before heading off to work placements, Lee relied on straightforward honesty, both positive and painful, to get his kids back on the right track. That emphasis on communication carried over to his work with the Raptors, growing to become a feedback loop that has been beneficial for both parties.
“They teach me a lot of different things,” says Lee. “I’ve changed some of my philosophies of training based on what I’ve seen over the eight years, so I’m learning and they’re learning. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Whether it’s high risk students or world-class athletes, working with egos has always been an informal part of Lee’s job description. His ability to take his own ego out of the equation and see from another person’s perspective has been instrumental in his career.
“My philosophy has always been ‘do what’s best for the player,'” says Lee. “I repeat that to myself — even if a guy is being a jerk or being a really bad person, I still have to do what’s best for them.”
Every Raptor that Lee has trained has experienced his own unique journey to get there. The differences aren’t just based on physical limitations and mental fortitude, there is a deeply personal element to his approach to coaching. As he once did in a Richmond classroom, Lee considers all his athletes’ past experiences, current situations and envisioned futures, and there in, he finds their motivation.
Cover photo courtesy of Toronto Raptors.