It’s not possible to play professional basketball forever. Hell, most of us can only dream of keeping up with professional basketball players in a pickup game. But even the pros have to stop at a certain point. Baltimore-bred Gerard Burley, aka Coach G, played professional basketball in Italy before heading back to the States to earn a master’s degree in sports and exercise, and eventually open one of D.C.’s most popular fitness studios: Sweat. We spoke with the athlete and coach about playing pro, therapy and cookies. Cookies, it turns out, are encouraged.
InsideHook: Your route to owning and operating a gym and becoming a fitness coach was not a straight line. Most people who work in this world think they’re athletes. You actually did play pro basketball in Italy before moving to D.C. How much of those basketball years inform your instruction?
Gerard Burley: My [pro basketball] years were fun, competitive, humbling and empowering, so I think I incorporate all of that in our style of training and vibe of the Sweat DC program. The thing I remember the most is for the first time I was an immigrant and in a space where everyone spoke the language and I didn’t. Most times I didn’t know what my coach or my teammates were talking about, which made gregarious G very shy and self conscious. That experience made me extra-compassionate to people in general, but especially those tackling English as a second or third language.
Do you ever miss playing overseas? Is there anything like it in D.C.?
Do I miss it? Everyday! Basketball was my second love after butter-pecan ice cream, of course. We got to wake up every day and play a game with a bunch of the coolest teammates. I also got to travel around and experience real Italy versus the expat life. I think the biggest thing I enjoyed was having dinner at my teammate’s grandmother’s house and feeling very included, like part of the family. My Roman teammates honestly culturally reminded me of my family and Black people in general. Showed me we have more in common than how we differ.
Your classes do not look like other classes I’ve attended and definitely not like something you’d see in a Peloton class. Do you make an effort to recruit folks that may otherwise not set foot in a gym?
Well, thank you for saying that. I prefer to create the wave rather than ride the wave. Honestly, we just embrace differences and lean into authenticity. If you work at Sweat, you are required to do the work and unlearning to find your most confident, authentic self. By having a team that embodies that, we then are able to allow our clients, who we call Sweat Stars, to find their most confident version of themselves. Our “come as you are” attitude allows a lot of people who don’t feel welcomed or confident at other places to feel at home at Sweat.
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Are you as busy as you were before the pandemic? Not necessarily in terms of classes or clients, but the perception of busy?
To be real with you, my pre-pandemic relationship with work was a very unhealthy time, so through the pandemic-time slowdown, and with a lot of therapy, I’ve made some shifts in my life to make it more sustainable. With that said, I’m a hustler at heart and love what I get to do and who I get to work with, so I’m still hitting it pretty hard.
You’re open about therapy on your social media channels. When you started working in fitness over a decade ago, did you think mental health would become so normalized?
I don’t even think I knew what mental health was when I started so, no way — but I’m so happy to see the shift. I had an emotional and physical breakdown from burnout that almost took me away from this planet, so I thank God every day for my therapist, who literally saved my life. I don’t want anyone to experience what I did, so I’m passionate about mentorship and coaching of fitness professionals to give them tools to navigate work and real life. I also know everyone is going through something, and I hope to do my part to make this industry more focused on the human as a holistic vessel. Coaches are healers, but healers need healers too.
I know you love cookies. Are “healthy” cookies ever any good or if you’re going to eat a cookie, should you just eat a cookie?
Just eat the cookie. Full sugar, full fat, full yumminess! I usually find when people are trying to make a change they hone in on outliers in their life and ignore the big problems. Honestly, the name of the game is calories in and calories out. Processed meals tend to trap a bunch of excess calories but have low nutritional value, so your body is craving nutrients and tells you “feed me more,” making people overeat. I tell people to drink half your body weight in ounces of water, eat three to four whole, unprocessed meals a day, then if you still have the craving, eat the cookie. Water and real food usually do everything the average person needs to tackle their goals and to be healthy.
How are your knees? Back?
[Laughs] It’s the hip now. My knees hurt a little but my hip is the latest victim of lots of sports and me being on the precipice of turning 40 years old. My brain has shifted to more longevity training. I have a chiropractor, a trainer, a massage therapist, a physical therapist and a therapist-therapist, so I’m working on being mobile these next 40 to 50 years.
Is Burley your actual last name? It seems either too good to be true or you were predetermined to work in fitness.
Oh yeah baby, I come from a long lineage of badass Burleys. Us Burleys were made to live big and bold, so Burley isn’t a physique thing. It’s a way of life.