As a boy, Todd Sampson vividly recalls his father sitting down before him and stretching out his hands. Years of grinding away as a labourer had left Hilary Sampson’s hands broken and callused. “He showed me his hands and he said to me: ‘Todd, you don’t need to have hands like this. You can use your brain’.”
His father’s advice paid off. Sort of.
Sampson certainly used his brain, scaling the heights of the advertising industry to become CEO of Leo Burnett before starting his second incarnation as a documentary-maker and TV presenter. But his hands didn’t fare quite so well. Not only have they been ravaged by daily gym sessions – the Body Hack presenter is a fitness obsessive – but in making TV shows where he routinely puts his life on the line, his mitts have faced all sorts of punishment.
Sampson’s hands saved him when he grabbed hold of the wire after falling during a tightrope walk between two 22-storey buildings with no safety net (he tore his rotator-cuff and bicep in the process). He ripped all the skin off his fingers while enduring the special hell of jungle-warfare training with the French Foreign Legion. Those same hands also enabled him to climb a 120m rock-face while blindfolded. And protected him in the Octagon when he squared up to a professional MMA fighter. “My hands are butchered,” Sampson admits with a shrug.
The latest series of Body Hack quickly plunges him back into a life-threatening situation. In the opening episode, he travels to Gaza and is pitched straight into chaotic violence as Israel soldiers open fire on Palestinian protestors. “When I heard the bullets whizzing by and a kid got hit behind me, my heart rate was going so fast,” he says.
Sampson later attends the dead man’s funeral. “I’ll never forget that shallow grave,” he says. “But I also sat in front of that man’s three-year-son – who was totally naïve to what’d just happened – while his mother just held him and wept. As a father, I couldn’t help but empathise with the child.”
When hit with these stark reminders of his own mortality, Sampson’s thoughts often turn to his own wife Neomie (a jiu-jitsu blue-belt) and their two daughters Coco (12) and Jet (10).
“When I’m at risk, it does make me think about them,” he admits. “But I have to park it when I do what I’m doing, because that’s another thing that will distract you from your task and put you at risk.”
Certainly the dangers that Sampson confronts are often shit-your-pants real. This, after all, is the guy who embedded with Iraqi Special Forces in the battle of Mosul and allowed himself to be blindfolded, chained and tossed into a four-metre swimming pool to attempt a Houdini-style escape. He doesn’t always get off unscathed either. Sampson recently sustained two broken ribs while filming the forthcoming Body Hack episode when he trained to become a Mexican wrestler.
But the reason he embraces such risks is informed by the underlying idea behind Body Hack. “My fundamental belief, and it’s really at the heart of the series, is that we human are arguably the greatest adaptable survival machine on the planet,” he says. “What we can do is incredible. Our potential is incredible.”
Unfortunately, modern life tends to sabotage that potential by insulating us from danger. Body Hack is a testament to Sampson’s conviction that our minds and bodies have an in-built capacity to adapt to extraordinary challenges. It’s just that our safety-first lifestyles deny us the stimuli to fire them up, “so those evolutionary switches are mostly just switched off”.
Sampson believes that you can switch them back. But the only way to do that is by breaking out of your comfort zone. “We only fulfill our potential when we take risks,” he insists.
The fulfillment of potential does, of course, feature highly on any parenting to-do list. And it’s no surprise that, Sampson isn’t a “helicopter parent”, he’s more of a wingsuit kind of dad.
“I think that we are way too conservative with our kids,” he says. “I want my girls to take huge risks. These days we’re scared to let kids walk to school. And it’s hypocritical of me to go to Gaza or into the Iraq war and then be scared if my girls walk to school.”
This does not translate to a throw-them-to-the-wolves-while-you-read-your-newspaper approach to fatherhood. Contrary to how it may appear, there’s nothing at all reckless about Sampson. In the same way he methodically researches and trains for his challenges, he also takes a considered approach to fostering resilience in his kids.
“Bravery is a learned skill,” he suggests. “With the girls I’m very focused on teaching them ‘micro bravery’ – not by doing massive things, but just stuff like getting them to order their own food in a restaurant from when they were really young. Things like that give them a sense of self-confidence and control in their lives.”
Another by-product of Sampson’s full-contact lifestyle is that he’s able to pass on hard-won tactics about performing under pressure. “I’m scared a lot,” he insists. “It’s just that I’ve learned over time through life experience to better manage it.”
Recently, his daughter Coco was taking part in a school race and, in the lead-up, complained about feeling nervous. Sampson sat her down and gently asked her to analyse what she was feeling. The sensation: butterflies in the stomach.
“And I said, ‘Coco, that’s not a bad thing. It means you’re here in the moment. Now, you just have to learn to control and release that feeling. It won’t completely go away, but if you learn awareness of it, you can calm yourself down.”
Sampson then showed his daughter how taking a succession of controlled, deep breaths could lower her heart-rate and help her to feel less anxious. “She’s 12 and she did that,” Sampson said. (Footnote: Coco subsequently won the race.)
Teaching your child how to master their fears is arguably the ultimate dad-hack. But for Sampson, it’s simply logical to pass on what he’s learnt and apply his life philosophy to fatherhood.
“I’m trying to be a role model for my girls,” he explains. “Even though from other people’s perspectives on the outside, it looks like I’m taking these extreme risks and therefore risking things as a father – I don’t see it like that.
“Having children is not a reason to become something you’re not. It’s a reason to role model what you think is important.”
Luckily, for Todd Sampson’s daughters, what he thinks is important is expanding your personal horizons, stretching your limits and forever striving to reach your human potential. As family values go, they’re not bad.