Professional coach and walking inspiration, Tareq Azim, sums up his unique philosophy on life, relationships, and self-awareness in one succinct piece of advice: Prepare for your last breath.
We recently sat down with Tareq and here's what he had to say.
Let's start with your parents. Tell me some of the specific lessons they taught you that still influence to this day.
There's so much. My parents obviously have gone through a lot. The lessons I learned from my parents came from watching things. I was never really told much other than, you know, being conscious of what I represent. Coming to this country as a refugee and watching my parents go from royalty to the opposite was all I needed to see to understand what type of family I come from. I was taught principles through action and a lot of it had to do with commitment to self first, then commitment to family, and then commitment to chosen family. I saw my parents pick up a lot for people outside of just us. Growing up I always thought a lot of these people were literally my parent's brothers and sisters, and these guys and girls I grew up with were my first cousins. I was almost 20 years old when I found out that they weren't my relatives at all. So commitment was something really interesting that they taught through just practice and service. They've made their life mission about serving people and recognizing you have an ability, and that ability should never be something that is held to you but should be given to people. Recognizing you have a philosophy and a perspective should never be something you take to the bank and put in a savings account. You have to give that to people. It belongs to people. You see the foundation of my life today is based on those two things: commitment and serving. My parents never used words to tell me where I needed to go or what I needed to be. It was just watching.
You talk about being a pillar in a community like your parents were. Do you believe that a single person can make a huge difference in a community just through commitment and service?
I think this is where things change between me and normal people. I don't believe any change needs to happen. I think people need to be exposed. I think if you try and change people from who they are and what they believe in, then people aren't going to be able to carry that off because they're not being their authentic self. But I do think is that exposure is what we need to create safety for and this is where my life mission obviously leads to, this initiative around normalizing mental and emotional health. So becoming a pillar in these communities is something that I think would brand as a responsibility. It's not necessarily being a pillar, it's that I just want to be a responsible contributor to a community, and my responsibility is creating a safe place for people to be and feel and that comes by commitment and ideology behind service.
What is something that you constantly work to expose about yourself?
I'm the most insecure person you'll ever meet in your life, and I'm an individual that has no problem with changing the narrative behind what insecurity means. A lot of us try to shy away from things like this because it's an embarrassment. But the disease of fear has been paralyzing a lot of our growth and our contentment. Our last breath is what I strive for; it's how I want to feel when I die, and how I want to feel when I die is honest. And if I can't be honest with myself, then how can I be a hypocrite and try to coach folks to internal world titles? Whether it's the Super Bowl, or Tour de France, a UFC world title, an IBF world title, I've been blessed to be able to coach some of the best in the world. But how can I coach any of them if I can't embrace my own internal world title? What's preventing me from getting there? My insecurities can keep me from getting there if it's something I avoid dealing with and if it's something I avoid exposing. A lot of my confidence that lacks comes from things that prevent me from doing, like being vulnerable. Like forgiving. Like finding gratitude in things I can't control. Like having no problem saying 'I love you' to another grown-ass man or to my wife. Why restrict people from love.? Why restrict people from freedom? Why restrict people from feeling? A lot of that comes from people in our community and in my community who are suffering from the disease of fear, who let insecurity rule versus letting insecurity lead. So it's a key intention I'm extremely focused on. What do I do with my insecurity? Do I go into a rabbit hole and be depressed and angry and mad and utilize that as an excuse to get into drugs and alcohol and abuse and to bully and hurt myself? Or do I use that as a way to be able to go ask people to be in my life, to allow me to love and be embraced and supported, and find accountability and responsibility to folks?
You incorporate a lot of these beliefs into your training that we saw today. Is there a common tool you use to expose these kinds of things in people when they first walk into your gym or when you first take them on as a coach?
One of the most important things for me with building relationships with teammates inside my facilities is I don't like the word 'client'. I don't like 'members'. I don't like any of that. Everybody who comes into my life is coming into my life for me. So I'm extremely conscious that I've chosen a path and a journey that allows me to be extremely selfish, and my intention of being selfish is to serve. The neat thing with that is the only way I can get to that level of being able to serve people is getting to an underlying truth. So every single one of my teammates that have walked into Empower, in order for us to be able to have a proper working relationship, we do something called a game plan. And the reason I call it a game plan is because if I called it what it really is I think people would run away. It's called an honest conversation. I've branded an honest conversation as a game plan and the intention behind that game plan is this:
I just want to know how you want to feel on your last breath. And I want my responsibility in your life to be that feeling. I want to be the guy that helps keep you focused on that feeling you want on your last breath.
So how do you keep your teammates focused on that feeling and exposing themselves, unveiling their potential, and becoming the best that they can be? How do you maintain that motivation?
Number one, having a community of folks who are all philosophically aligned is the most important thing. This is why it's so important from the get-go to lower the waterline and say, hey vulnerability, this is a safe place for it. Where else can they feel like that? Where else can they be like that? Imagine walking in the National Football League to one of your teams and you sit there and you expose what means what to you. Do you think it's going to be utilized for you or against you? It's all because of the disease of fear. Folks don't know how to be vulnerable with one another. Well, I've created an environment where you've got some of the most elite athletes in the world who cry. You've got a place where the most elite athletes in the world have no problem making sure everybody else is eating if they're eating. We've created a space for people to be safe feeling what means what to them. If they aren't going to be vulnerable and not do these game plans, then this isn't a place for them because you're going to ruin the dynamic and the culture of what we've created, which is called truth.
Was there a single moment of realization or epiphany in your life that led you to coaching? Was there one thing or was it more of a series of events?
I was 17 years old and in high school and I realized that there was this thing that was paralyzing a lot of my community. Coming to America as a refugee and being raised on Section 8 and welfare and moving around to a new home every single year wasn't very easy for most folks. So a lot of our community and my family were rebelling against that for attention. Some of them chose routes of joining gangs, drugs, and making trouble to make noise. I got blessed by really understanding the efficacy and the power of sport and physical activity when it comes to reconciling peace. I acknowledged that what separated me from everybody else was that I wasn't fighting fear. I started to embrace it, and by embracing it, I would tackle things that the non-Muslims and the non-Afghans in my community were doing like playing different sports outside of soccer (like football, like track) or joining the SB and becoming the SB president of my class in school. In doing all these "not normal Afghan Muslim American refugee" things, I was one of the Americans, and I got a lot of backlash about always being just so whitewashed and "his American ways this and that". I wouldn't get upset about it, but I did make a big part of my purpose in my life at that time about "F*** you" performances. It was about starting to adopt new ways of life and doing things outside of my community and basically saying, "F*** you, I became SB president"; "F*** you, I'm a varsity football player"; "F*** you, I'm the sack leader"; "F*** you, I'm playing division one football." And as I was able to keep doing these things outside of the norm and keep having this disruptive mentality, I really started to realize that I was on to something. This thing doesn't just stop at the refugee community. I see this paralysis happening amongst different communities and dynamics across the world from professional sportsmen to drug addiction to alcoholism to governance to corporate wellness and so on. A lot of what's paralyzing folks is this underlining disease a fear. Everybody I know is suffering from this disease of fear and utilizing that disease of fear as a reason to not maximize their self ability. Well, there has to be a massive narrative change here and it's really simple. Versus fighting it, let's embrace it. Why? Because the whole world is also seeking the exact same thing. You know what that is? Acceptance. So fear and acceptance are the two things that I believe will bring human contentment to life. Why do we allow the rest of the world to have their finger on the trigger of those two things for our own emotional mental well-being? Why don't we take control of that? When I went to college, I saw these opportunities open up left and right for me, from individuals to teammates suffering from drug addiction and alcoholism, to really having this depth about it. Then I had this great opportunity to prepare. I wanted to move into the National Football League and I was one step away.
But I also had this massive family situation that surfaced and my father left the country. I went to Afghanistan in 2004. It was my senior year in college, and I was at a stage of my life where I really had to choose between fulfilling this responsibility I had to my family legacy or to go chase my ego. But the reason I wanted to chase my ego was that I had this mission of wanting to share this philosophy and this perspective on a massive platform one day, and I knew professional sports could get me there. But I also have this family legacy that I have to uphold. My grandfathers were both very noble figures and in history books. My parents went through what they went through to make sure we had light and electricity and water and food in our stomachs. I got pulled to the Afghanistan side of things, so I moved there in 2004 for the first time in my life, and when I got there, I was OK to do things that you and I would never be ok doing. But if it was about defending myself I had no problem killing if I was gonna be killed. I had no problem stabbing if I was going to be stabbed because that's the way life is out there in that country. That's normal. I'd got myself into a mental state of doing that and being ok with that.
When I got to Afghanistan I got extremely emotional coming off that airplane. It was really interesting because I'm not a very emotional person, but I got off that airplane at 240 pounds 6' 1" with the neck like this after four years of college football and several years of competing in mixed martial arts and I just bawled like a baby. And my dad's looking at me at the bottom of the runway like, "You're gonna be okay. Things are safe here." I said, "Dad it's not about my safety." He said, "What is it?" I said, "I'm extremely disgusted with myself. I came here with the intention to add more blood to the savagery versus contribute and serve the way I was served in America for the last 21 years of my life." And right around there, when we were driving to our home in downtown Kabul, I realized my entire purpose in this world: I was going to utilize the power of sport to reconcile peace. And that's when my initiatives began with local soccer programs in Afghanistan to women's soccer program where we won the ESPYs in 2006. And this is where I decided that I was going to create the Afghan Women's Boxing Federation. I wanted to incorporate the most male-dominated activity known to mankind and the most male-dominated society of all time. And I did. And you know who were the frontline of my security was just because I had the power of something a lot of people don't do anymore called communication? The Taliban. That was disruption, and that's when I got my first taste of disruption. That's when I got my first taste of embracing my insecurities. That's when I got my first taste of embracing fears, and I got my first taste of allowing my confidence to live. When I started that initiative and when I saw the impact and the efficacy of that, that's when I knew I was onto something. After four years in Afghanistan, with the intention of only being there for a month and a half, I decided it was time to take this philosophy and this perspective into the world. When I came back to America, my intentions won. I had the intention of wanting a platform and our creator gave me one, and that's when I started working with the Oakland Raiders through Tom Cable, my mentor, and back into the UFC and winning all these world titles. Everything I ever wanted to do through football ended up finding itself to me. And now look where I am today.
Can you point to a specific situation in your life where coaching someone else has helped you through a difficult time?
As you know coaching has helped me tremendously because I'm a very selfish human being. I coach because I suffer from these diseases more than anybody I coach. I've mentioned, and I'll mention over and over and over again, that I have no problem being vulnerable with my insecurities, with my confidence, with my inability to forgive, with my hypocrisy, and the reason I coach and who I coach is selfishly I'm trying to fight my own battles internally. I fight hypocrisy, therefore, I have to coach everybody I coach on the battles that they have because if I don't do it, I'll be a hypocrite. I don't want to be a hypocrite. Every single one of my teammates plays a very, very significant role in my own internal peace. Dion Jordan, Jalen Richard, Marshawn Lynch, Justin Tuck, Jake Shields, Luke Rockhold, Marcus Peters, Spencer Ware, Nick Bawden, Andrew Talansky, Samu Manoa...I mean, I coach the "who's who" and I coach them because every single one of them fulfills something with my patience, with forgiveness, with truth, with acceptance, with gratitude. Every single one of them is fighting one of these traits, and every single one of them is my daily dose and daily fix of "are you conscious of this?" Well, I get forced to be conscious of it for an hour at a time when I'm with them. So I can't say it's one specific situation but every single one of them is so damn valuable to everything I do on a day to day basis.
How do you know as a coach precisely the moments when to push someone, assuming they are all philosophically aligned, and when to pull back. Is that instinctual? Is it scientific? What is your approach to that?
So when it comes to pulling back on athletes or pushing, this is where responsibility is really important. I say, here's what I know, here's what I'm capable of, and you go ahead make the judgment if you think that this is enough for you. But before you go to your knees and you want to stop, look up and just tell me, "Hey, my name is X and I want to quit." Because when I do that to them, they realize they have a lot more they can actually do and because of the fear of being judged, they push through. So I manipulate their desire of being accepted for their own good. But I also want them to understand that we are a safe place. So you tell me how your body feels. You tell me how you feel. Do you want to push more or not? Listen to your body. If you don't listen to your body, who will? It's just about educating people and making decisions about what feels right. We have to get our athletes, we have to get our community, to really understand the significance of having the ability to feel.
And then one of the biggest issues obviously when it comes to fighting these diseases is trust. So you're gonna ask me how you feel and what you should do. So why do you think you need to stop? If it hurts. Stop. If it's uncomfortable, shut the f*** up and keep going. The whole goal is about embracing discomfort. But again, listen to your body. I'll push and I'll push and I'll push, but I always leave it to them to make a decision if they need to stop and breathe. If you can't do stuff on your feet, go your knees. If you can't go to your knees, then go to your hips. Just go until you can't go anymore. But you're not going to go from 100 to zero. I'm going to bring you down 90-80-70-60-50-40-30-20-10 and then you can stop.
Do you have a personal mantra or mission statement that you repeat often or that you believe in?
No, because I feel different every day. I feel different every hour, depending on if I had a good night's sleep or not, if I'm eating or if I'm not. I'll be different, I'll feel different all the time. But the ultimate thing at the end of the day, I just remind myself, "How do you want to feel when you die?" Sometimes I'll say, "I want to stop. I'm so stressed." Am I really? Is this really called stress? I think more than anything it's very, very important for me to be conscious of something called language. Words carry a lot of weight, and I'm very selective of the type of language I use, especially when it comes to playing with my own head and then playing with my own heart. The second part of that is I also understand that my heart has a time to think and act ad my head has a time to think and act. I have to separate these two pretty often because if I let these two get in a blender then really strange things happen. Stress happens, anger happens, pain happens, frustration happens, paralysis happens. So I don't get myself too caught up in any mantra that puts me back in my place or you know anything cute like that. I'm a realist with situations and it's kind of like, look there's nothing in this universe that we can't deal with. I don't believe anything gets put on us that we can't deal with. We can't deal with it the way we want to sometimes, but the good thing is that we have ways that we can deal with things.
During the workout today, there is one word that was repeated often, which was 'textbook'. Is that said often in your gym? What does it mean and what meaning does it have for you?
So as part of our gameplan process, every single individual identifies ideals physically, from wanting to be punctual, to wanting to be perfect, to wanting to have leverage under control, and balance, and all these different types of things. And every single one of them, when I draft these game plans, turn into these personal philosophies, these one-pagers: physical ideals, key mental and emotional deficiencies, what are we going to be conscious of, what are we going to name this thing. And every time they get into a position where they've been able to just take things in and not disperse emotionally or disperse technically, I'll refer to it as 'textbook'. That aligns with everything you just did because of the massive correlation between what you just did and all the key mental and emotional deficiencies that you're struggling with. So textbook is always a reminder to get this aligned with everything. Don't go for speed and just burn this thing out. If you go too fast, you're neglecting something, but when you take your time and you breathe and everything moves together, that's textbook.
What is your vision for the future of Empower, you personally, and your family?
Empower has become this really interesting tool to help strengthen the cultural thread within a handful of organizations and communities. The mission with that business, and the spin-off of that business called Form Boxing, are two businesses I've built and designed utilizing physical activity to help normalize mental health. Every single class, as you can tell, from our game plans to my coaching, to the teaching, to the philosophy the perspective, is around maximum output mentally, emotionally, and physically. And the whole goal with that business is to have a stable home in as many cities as possible, to be able to help get individuals to come in and embrace emotional deficiencies that are preventing them from maximization. So the goal is to scale and get it out and as many cities and communities as we possibly canm and be able to have these cohorts in these communities of not normal people united so they know that there's a safe place to be not normal. Family wise, the only mission I've got going on in my life right now is I'm just dying to have my children and my next mission after that professionally is to have my children have a father to be extremely proud of.
What are the lessons that you feel are the most critical about in terms of teaching your children?
I think the most important lessons of hopefully teaching my children and children of my community is that we all have the ability to impact for the better. We all have the ability to impact by exposing beauty, by exposing community, by exposing trust. Growing up in a situation where I wasn't set up to do what I do for a living now, I just want those kids and my kids to just learn the lesson that we all have the ability to impact, and the significance and the power behind having an intention with every breath.
What do you envision your last breath to be like?
I coach a ton of people around the consciousness of death. Why the consciousness of death? It's the only reality in this world. It's the only way I feel I can build real relationships, have a deeper conversation with folks, and have accountability. But I also want folks to hold me to that same thing. In my last breath, I want to feel content. And contentment is defined by living with truth, being able to maximize on every single ability and opportunity I have to serve.