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INTERVIEW: Aly Mazhar – Egypt’s King Fit
KingFut’s Malak Hassouna sits down with BeFit Egypt founder and ex-footballer Aly Mazhar to discuss his own ‘Transformation Challenge’ from football to fitness.
In a cozy coffee shop and after running his morning 8 AM session in the BeFit Maadi arena, we were about to have a chat with one of Egypt’s top fitness athletes and instructors, Aly Mazhar; talking everything from his football past to the fitness guru he has become today.
Mazhar boasts a pretty impressive CV. He’s the head coach and founder of BeFit Egypt, a Nike Running and Polar Fitness Ambassador, and the Middle East’s first KT Tape sponsored athlete. He is also a Rutgers University Economics and Finance graduate, a certified Level 2 CrossFit instructor, and not to mention, a former footballer who represented Egypt’s youth teams and different clubs. Mazhar previously wrote on the subject of football in Egypt on KingFut.com, highlighting the lack of professionalism he witnessed, compared to that while playing abroad. This time, we were more intrigued to learn about his rise to fame in the fitness world.
The fitness scene in Egypt is one of the fastest growing of all, and its got people from all different age groups taking part and reshaping their lives. A new culture for exercise and CrossFit is quickly emerging, and BeFit is one of the biggest contributors to that change. CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program which combines a wide variety of exercises to ensure that a total fitness level is achieved. To many, it is basically seen as a different and more efficient way of increasing your fitness than what you would normally achieve at the typical gym.
From Football to Fitness
First of all, from a football player to one of Egypt’s top fitness icons; let’s start with the football. Tell us more about your football days; how it all started, which teams you represented and the best players you’ve played with along the way?
I started – like any young kid who wants to play football – in my neighbourhood club; I used to play in Maadi club at a very young age. I didn’t even know if I had the passion for the game or the talent.
By the age of 12, I guess I surpassed my teammates. We played a friendly match against Al Ahly, then they picked me to move and that’s how it all got serious. I ended up moving from Maadi to Al Ahly at the age of 12, played there till I was 16. By the age of 17, I was a student at the American University of Cairo, used to play for the U-17 Egyptian national team, and a regular starter for Al Ahly ever since I moved.
In 2006, I succeeded in achieving a full scholarship at Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey. I played football there for three seasons while studying Finance and Economics. In 2010 after my graduation, I came back to Egypt and signed my first professional contract with Arab Contractors. I played there for two seasons; unfortunately both of them got cancelled because of the country’s jammed political situation. I also joined the U-23 Olympic national team.
In 2012, I got into a major car accident and had to stay immobile between physiotherapy and bed for around six months. That was technically during my third season with Arab Contractors, so I decided to quit [football] and shift my career completely.
I played alongside many talented players, such as Mohamed Salah, Mohamed El-Nenny – who both moved to Basel right after I quit – Alaa Kamal, Shehab Ahmed, Hesham Mohamed and Ahmed Shokry.
You were in the initial Egyptian Olympic team to participate in the 2012 London Olympics but the unfortunate accident/injury kept you out of the final squad. Would you say this was the turning point in your footballing career?
The car accident was not really the turning point because I was very reluctant to continue my career anyway, because of what was happening in the country and how it was affecting the football scene. I felt like I was wasting my time, but it – kind of – finalised my decision.
You tried some desk jobs prior to the fitness switch. What did you learn from these experiences? Would you go through that again?
I worked at EFG-Hermes as an investment banker for 10 months and at General Electric as a financial analyst for another 8 months. I learned a lot; it was a mind-opener for me on the business side of the game, so when I actually stepped out and started my own company ‘BeFit’ it was from one angle related to my passion for fitness, but from the other angle, I had the business side in order to run it properly.
From now on, it’s all fitness. I appreciate what this experience has given me in order to run my own company the way I’m running it today.
When did the switch to fitness take place? When did you first get interested in training?
I was into fitness ever since I travelled to the States. I’ve seen there how the impact of strength and conditioning on a player and I’ve experienced it myself, worked on my weaknesses and used to study in order to develop myself as a player. After that, when I came back to Egypt, the strength and conditioning industry was not very developed here.
What got you to start BeFit?
I started coaching just out of passion, I didn’t have plans that BeFit would be as big as it is today. After I saw the demand and I saw how much growth is happening, especially when I started my sessions in Kattameya Heights, I basically had no option but to start my own thing.
What were your goals initially when, two years ago, you launched BeFit? Have they changed now?
My goals had definitely changed since I didn’t have any when I started BeFit! I was only doing it as a part-time job, just to serve my passion. Not in my wildest dreams had I ever thought that it’d be where it is today. Soon after six months into the business, I saw the demand and started putting plans on paper, seeing how I am going to go with a team to serve all that flow.
BeFit went from one instructor to a team of twelve, from one program into fourteen programs, from six sessions a week into more than sixty sessions – between two locations – in the space of one year and a half. It was a very hectic and stressful process. Looking back now, I think we have moved very fast, in the right direction, and I’m happy about how it’s all going so far.
What do you think of the new fitness scene that is exponentially growing in Egypt? Where do you think it’s heading?
I think the fitness scene is growing everywhere in the world, and Egypt is just following. People thought it would be a trend that will die out sooner or later, but I think it’s growing and it’s going to continue to grow on all levels. It’s going to even penetrate the lower market segments as well. The middle class is soon going to realise that this is very important for their life. It’s going to be a fitness craze all over the country.
You recently launched KidsFit – what is the idea behind it? What role do you think it has in shaping the next generation’s lifestyle?
The idea behind it is to actually start at an earlier age, when the kids have an incredible potential to develop. By raising and preparing your athletes at a very young age, instead of starting working on them when they’ve already reached puberty which is much harder.
We started KidsFit and the BeFit Football Academy. They both are about teaching basics and foundation skills to bring those kids up the right way before realising it’s too late.
The Transformation Challenge
What has got you to start the first Transformation Challenge in Egypt? Why exactly six weeks?
When I got back on my feet after the accident, I decided to be as fit as I used to, this is how I started my journey personally into the Transformation Challenge. Soon after, I thought why not do this for the people? I knew I had a good service to offer.. I knew I could do something that can benefit them.
So, I started a very small group and we worked for six weeks together. I think six weeks is a very good duration; it’s not too long so people get bored and lose track of their progress. Also, it’s not too short that you actually don’t see enough results. It’s worked fine in the first season so I saw no reason to change anything.
How do you track your athletes’ progress?
We track them in terms of fitness, by their performance in the sessions. Also, their body composition is a key factor; so we weigh them in, which helps us analyse and see how their bodies react to the training and to the nutrition plans.
Throughout the five Transformation Challenges that you’ve went through, what are the common mistakes beginner athletes make and how can they avoid them?
The common mistakes beginner athletes make are basically not preparing for the intensity of the workout; showing up at the workout, for example, with a full stomach, without eating properly, without sleeping well… They usually take it very lightly but then when they get hit by the intensity, they soon figure out that this is a very important part of their day and they need to be well prepared for it.
They also usually have very high expectations and they’re very easy to be demotivated, so that’s why we need to show them results very fast. But in the beginning we do lots of awareness and talks about how important what they’re doing is and why they need to do it.
You are a certified CrossFit trainer; in which way do you believe that sports education is an added value to your career and welfare of your trainees?
I think sports education is an added value to your life in general. Understanding basic anatomy and what your body is capable of doing, how your body works, how your joints move is essential for everyone; technically not for instructors only.
However, once you get a hold of what the different stimuli are, how you can apply them to your clients – what works with one client cannot work with the other – how to use visual cues, tactile cues and all sorts of cues to adjust how your client is moving and so on. These are the weapons that you have to pull out of your pockets in a 20-30 seconds window to adjust what he’s doing wrong. You need to be very attentive and have a very strong eye; you need to have the ability to see the mistakes they make in a split second, before the athletes hurt themselves.
It looks from the outside like a show, a standing coach running a class with 30-40 people, like a clown running a show; but it’s much more than that. What he sees no one else sees, the way he reacts no one else reacts and that’s what makes a good coach and brings results.
Your relationship with football is eternal. What do you want to achieve from the BeFit Football Academy?
We want to help those kids develop at a very young age; teaching them the basics and then they can move on to a senior level. We have a FIFA certified youth coach, he’s actually a very good friend of mine as well. He’s teaching them the basics and we integrate them sometimes with the KidsFit program to develop their fitness level as well.
Do any current or former football players train at BeFit?
Through personal connections, yes. I have a couple of friends who show up to the sessions.
Both in your personal and professional life, who do you consider as your role model(s)?
On the personal level, it’s my father. He stood by my side every single moment of my life; whether it’s my football career, professional career or BeFit during its start. He told me that BeFit is going to be big. He passed away when we only had 20 people a day in class. I have immense faith in him and I still remember everything he has ever taught me.
On a professional level, to be honest, my career is still in a very young industry. I look up to athletes who are very good in terms of fitness, they’re very fit people and I can sometimes train the way they do. But I look up to business owners, as well, in different industries; because this is how they run their business since, in a way, BeFit is kind of the grey area in the middle. It’s between being athletic, developing your athletes and so on, and at the same time you’re still running a business and it’s a company that needs to be properly governed. There’s not really a single figure that I can say is my role model, or this person has done what I want to do in ten years. I – kind of – connect the dots between different people.
Do you have any future expansion plans for BeFit ?
We’re actually planning on expanding in a couple of different locations over the next few years, but the timeline will depend on how well we develop our instructors and how fast. We will not open a facility unless we can ensure that the quality is the same as what people are used to.
KingFut would like to thank Aly Mazhar for his time and wishes him the best in his future endeavours.