MATTHEW MCKAY, 28, spends his time lifting those around him to new heights. Matthew is the founder and head coach at Raw Strength Tasmania, a powerlifting gym with a strong focus on diversity and inclusion. Matthew's work not only enables those who may not typically have the chance to be treated as athletes the opportunity to gain the health benefits of regular exercise, but also treats them as part of his family while they do so.
TOM DUNN: Who is Matthew McKay?
MATTHEW MCKAY: I like to think of myself as a family man, my daughter is everything and my primary goal in life is to leave this world knowing I was the best father I could possibly have been.
Other than that, Matthew is an athlete, who wishes to use his unique outlook to bring the joy and benefits of sport n fitness to those that otherwise can't get them.
TD: Why have you made ‘zero judgement’ such a focus at Raw Strength?
MM: I decided to go down this route due to my mother actually. When I first started looking at doing my own thing (to create a pathway for my sport) I asked her to join us as she wasn't really looking after herself. She replied with "I'm too fat to go to the gym" which made me think about the environment gyms were creating and ways to promote health to the people who did feel this way. Which turns out was a lot of people, particularly women over 40.
TD: Your youngest client is 12, oldest is 80, and the disabilities you work with can range from blindness, to cerebral palsy to intellectual disabilities. How does training your clientele differ to a more typical gym and what sets Raw Strength apart and makes it appealing to all demographics?
MM: It's a challenge that's for sure. From a coaching point of view you need to be very knowledgeable in terms of physical differences and shaping movements to suit. But you also need to adapt your behaviors to suit the age/ability groups to make them feel welcome. For example you can't demonstrate a movement to someone who's blind the same as someone who isn't, and you can't talk the same to a twelve year old girl as you can to a 30 year old man. It's about adapting yourself to suit the needs presented to you. I still find myself making mistakes from time to time and upsetting someone, but every time I do I learn from it. And that's the key. Experience.
TD: Historically sports and disability have not been a regular match. What perceptions have you been working against/trying to change?
MM: The main one we are trying to push for is that it's unsafe, or "bad" for you. We have lots of differently abled people and particularly older women that come to us with this stigma that sport and especially weight training will injure them or that they can't participate. Which is just wildly untrue. In fact as you age the statistics show a decrease in the injury rate. Especially for disabled or chronically pained people, weight training and regular exercise tends to increase energy and mobility levels and decrease pain. Not to mention the confidence they gain from learning how strong they actually are. Which is why we push so hard for the health side of sport. Not so much the competition side.
TD: With your background in the disability sector, and as a current mental health care worker, can you give us insight into some of those benefits that come from enabling every person the opportunity of physical training and education?
MM: The benefits are endless. There's weight control which can be a real challenge for people who are disabled or on specific medications. There's pain reduction which is a big issue within the disability community. There's also a big correlation between regular activity and lower depression rates. There's also the community aspect too. Being involved and being accepted is very helpful to keeping people active and happier. Plus you get more people checking in with them, which can be a difference maker when things might be going wrong. Someone might notice a change in behavior or that they haven't seen them in a while or in extreme cases marks or wounds that might indicate things aren't ok. For people that otherwise might be isolated, that can really make a difference.
TD: Competitively as a team you’ve had quite a bit of success. You’ve hosted several national powerlifting competitions including the Australian Masters Games, attended the Asia Games, and have multiple World Record holders in the team. What are the next steps of growth for Raw Strength?
MM: The next step was to win best team at the Juniors and Masters championship, and then take our team to Worlds (first time) and Asia's (once again) at the end of the year. We are one of the biggest individual teams in AUS now so it was looking promising however that plan is in shambles from Covid-19 now so honestly we aren't to sure. Hopefully we can still do that, otherwise postpone it to next year.
TD: What were the biggest challenges you’ve faced to get the gym to where it is now?
MM: The biggest challenge by far is the stigma surrounding weight training. Not just that "It's dangerous" or "I'll get fat or big" but also in regards to behaviours associated. I'm a big ish guy whose covered in tattoos that lifts weights. There's a certain stigma that comes from that, and I still get it from time to time. Anything from "he's probably big and dumb" to "I be he's a criminal", but to be honest a lot of that's improved over the last 10 years. I think the popularity of CrossFit has helped with public perception a lot.
TD: What accomplishment are you most proud of about Raw Strength so far?
MM: Easily my proudest moment has been being a finalist in the Tasmanian Young Achiever Awards 2020. I thought being a nominee last year would be as good as it got, but being nominated twice this year (Matthew was nominated individually and Raw Strength was a nominated business too) and Raw Strength making it to the final round is just incredible.
TD: What would make you consider Raw Strength a complete success?
MM: I think the only way I could consider it a complete success will be the day that it's 100% self sufficient. When I no longer need to work at the hospital to cover my mortgage, which is looking hopeful for 2021. And I think when it's being replicated by people who aren't me. Which is the plan for our current initiative with the neighborhood centre. Create a blueprint for success that others can use.
TD: What advice can you give to those trying to ensure a community initiative is truly inclusive?
MM: I think the only way to truly be inclusive is to be exactly what it sounds like. We accept all memberships and all people regardless of their past behaviours, job, appearance etc. However there needs to be strict rules applied to this. We have our "poor behaviors" clause which means if anyone is noted doing something anti social their membership is cancelled and they are removed from the group. It helps keep people aware of how they behave but also lets people lower their guard. As they know they won't get targeted for a belief or lifestyle choice they have.
TD: What can we expect to see from Matthew McKay in the next 5 years?
MM: Honestly I have no idea what comes next. I would like to increase my family size and I would like to compete internationally again. But it's day by day at this stage. So hopefully a little baby joins the family and I win the world championships. Easy.
TD: Is there any message you would like to leave us with?
MM: I think the only message I can leave is 1: You don't need to lose your morals in order to be successful in business. Never forget that. 2. Try to be nice, you never know how much a smile at a stranger can change their day.
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