“Hindsight is 20-20.“ This is a common adage that we have all heard at one point or another during our lifetime. I assume that we all believe that it is true, but have we really thought how we can use this reality to our advantage as athletes, trainers, and coaches? I’ll never forget the many pieces of advice that my mentors have given me over the years and how much I wish I would’ve used their experiences to help myself along the way, especially when I was in high school and college. I’ll never forget my high school basketball coach telling me not to get too involved with a serious girlfriend while in high school because he said I would change a lot throughout the years and it would make college much more difficult because of the distance. Of course, as a “know-it-all, things will be different for me” eighteen year old, I didn’t listen even though my coach had been speaking from experience. Instead, I kept the serious relationship and took on the challenges of managing a long distance arrangement while trying to maintain a high average at a prestigious academic school and playing Division 1 athletics. The result? A painful break-up shortly after college and a lot of lost time that I’ll never get back; time spent at home during many weekends to see her when I could have been having fun with my teammates, becoming a better football player, and or getting more involved on campus. I’m not saying that just because it happens to one person, that it’ll absolutely happen the same way again to the next. I’m merely asserting that there are odds in play in certain situations and most likely, an outcome can be predicted with a high percentage of certainty. Will you at least consider the “most likely” outcome and make decisions accordingly? I’m not going to tell you that you should or shouldn’t, but at least hear me out and maybe there is something in here that can help you make the most out of your experience.
Now that I’m no longer playing sports and have moved on to the other side of the “teacher-student” and “coach-athlete” relationships, I am constantly faced with the realization that, although I accomplished much during my prime years, there are many things that I could have done better to not only increase the quality of my play and school experience, but perhaps even to have taken my playing career further than it was. Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for everything that I have been through and feel fortunate to have played among some of the best in the business, but the perfectionist in me always analyzes the past and wonders if I could’ve been even better. I always ask myself the same questions. How could I have been better? What lessons do I want to use in my own coaching today? What advice can I give so others can use my mistakes to their advantage? Having always wanted to help others, I’ve provided seven lessons that I’ve learned along the way that I feel are very important to anybody in this business, whether an athlete and/or a coach.
Be your own advocate
Just because someone has an expensive education or has this certification or that license doesn’t mean that they are always right. Be diligent and ask questions. We always hear this in respect to medical doctors. How many times have we heard “get a second opinion“? When I was in college, I tore the extensor tendon in my right middle finger, creating a “hammer finger” effect. After having it looked at by the team doctor, he wanted to operate on it immediately, which would have secured months of pain and rehab for me to get it back to normal. When I told a close family member about the recommendation, he was skeptical and immediately set me up with a hand specialist in Syracuse. He told me to see the specialist first before agreeing to any invasive procedures because he was sure there was another option. The result? The specialist put my finger in a rigid brace for three months after the season and the tendon healed by itself. I was amazed. How could that be? Wasn’t my team doctor looking out for my best interest? Well, I’ll let you form your own opinion. The same can happen in the strength & conditioning field. You should respect the trainer for his/her interest in your improvement, but make sure you ask questions so that you know what’s being done to your body and your career. Don’t take anything for granted.
Insist on addressing your weaknesses
Everyone has weaknesses, even the most advanced among us. If you think about it, the only thing keeping us from reaching our maximum potential is the distance between where our weakness has us right now and what our individual bodies are actually capable of achieving. In a team situation, especially in football, it is impossible for the strength & conditioning staff to make an individualized workout for everyone because of the sheer size of the program. I know this was really difficult at my school because the strength & conditioning staff was responsible for over 20 different sports teams, male and female. In these situations, try to make an appointment if possible and discuss the issues that you’ve noticed during your workouts. You know your body better than anyone so don’t avoid the situation. Every day you don’t inquire about how to improve your weaknesses is one more day that you have to live with it. Ask how you can make slight alterations in your workout to best suit your needs. Going to see a professional in a private sector setting would also be beneficial, especially if they can test you appropriately and help you identify problem areas.
Of course, I have an example from my own experience. When I was preparing for my NFL pro-day (mini-combines done on a college by college basis), I started to notice that my knees were grinding and were extremely uncomfortable. However, being a hardworking kid and having little knowledge of what was causing my problem, I kept plugging along, assuming it would eventually just go away. I was wrong. This problem plagued me during training camp in Houston and during my NFL Europe experience. My knees were often sore and sometimes swollen, causing constant discomfort. When I came back home from Berlin, I finally had enough. I went to see a physical therapist/CSCS friend of mine that offered to treat me. After a short consultation, he told me that I didn’t have a knee problem but that I had weak hips and a muscular imbalance problem because of an imbalanced strength program. My hips were extremely weak compared to my quads and hamstrings and my IT band was so tight that it was actually pulling my knee cap out of the natural groove, towards the outside of my thighs at a slight angle. By the time I received this diagnosis and was able to treat it with proper stretching and corrective exercises, it was too late for me to fully take advantage of it. I wasn’t able to get back into an NFL camp after that. Knowing what I know now, I wish I would’ve spent some extra money, even if it meant working a side job, to work one-on-one with someone who could train me personally, rather than through a one-size fits all approach. It still kills me a little today because now I’m in the best shape of my life and my knees feel great when it could’ve been that way when it really mattered. I’m not saying that I would’ve made it in the pros in this situation because, realistically, I know what was stacked against me as a no name, small college player, but you never know as it is a “game of inches“.
Rest & recover…actively
Rest and recovery are essential to making gains and maintaining a high level of play. One of the biggest mistakes that I made while playing was always resting inactively. I remember being in the Texans’ training camp and going through the famous “dog days of summer“, which couldn’t have been more true in Houston where daily August temperatures are well over 100 degrees. I remember going through the grind of days that began at 6 am and ended at 11 pm which included two practices, weight training, endless team/position meetings, training room appointments if needed, and playbook studying. Every day, my body felt exhausted. I was pushing it to the limit. Every chance I got, whether it was the two hour break after lunch or on a day off, I slept to try to get my energy back. Although important for recovery, I wish I would’ve been disciplined enough to help my body heal actively as well. Even after I slept, I still felt energy-less, despite eating and drinking fluids constantly, and sore. I wish I had taken the time to do the things I do now to “work out the kinks“. First, I wish I brought a foam roller and lacrosse ball to go through my active release routine before/after practices and again before going to be at night. Second, instead of using the pool facility as a wading area on down time, I would have gone through some dynamic movements (lunges, squats, etc.) to maintain range of motion in muscles that were tightening with each passing day. Third, I would have used contrast showering more (alternating bouts of warm and cold water) to stimulate the recovery process even more. Overall, I think it’s easy to become inactive when trying to get ready for the next session of intense physical exertion but it is important to fight that urge. Get the eight plus hours of sleep that you need every night and become active in your recovery during the day. Your discipline will no doubt help your body feel better when you need to ask a lot of it.
Train your mind
As much as a well tuned body can do for us, having a finely focused mind is much more important. Josh Hewitt wrote a great article on the “Psychology of Strength” which is definitely a great resource. In any competitive situation, there are going to be ups and downs, successes and failures. How we prepare ourselves for those ebbs and flows of every day life will directly impact how we perform. Reflecting back, this was one area that I failed to achieve my potential, causing delayed reactions once certain situations popped up. One of the most important practices is to visualize various situations in your mind, both positive and negative, and practice your emotional reactions to them. If you can establish your mindset first and practice your reactions visually, you’ll be so much farther ahead. When the pressure is on, you don’t want your body going into a nervous shock but rather enter into a heightened sense of awareness that you’ve experienced over and over in your mind. Also, try to train and practice in a highly competitive and pressure filled environment so you can acclimate yourself properly. Own the pressure, don’t let it own you.
In addition, as much as we try to keep it from happening, sometimes our thoughts betray us and try to bring doubt into our minds. This is the basis of the “fear of failure” phenomenon, where we try to keep from failing rather than working towards achieving the goal. I know I’ve experienced this in my life and the reality is that it handicaps you until you learn to change your mentality. I remember walking onto the field and thoughts like “what if I drop the ball?” or “what if I miss a block?” would find their way into my mind. What I found was, when I had these thoughts, usually the unwanted outcome occurred. Why? Was it because I was a bad player and didn’t belong on the field? No. It was because that was the mental cue that I was giving my body. Our minds are powerful. If we train our minds to expect to make the big play and to want that challenge, we will probably do just that. Does it guarantee a win? Of course not, but it allows you to compete without regret.
As a quick demonstration, ask yourself if you have ever been in this situation. Looking back, I played my best football after I had been smacked in the mouth once or when something else really pissed me off. When this happened, I almost felt like I was in the zone and that I could dominate my opponent on any given play. Was it because I had all of sudden ascertained football ability at that moment? No. I finally stopped thinking and starting playing without mental distraction. My body was finally able to perform those tasks that it had always been able to do. It was just a matter of unlocking my ability and keeping my mind from getting in the way. It’s a beautiful thing when you achieve that focus, that feeling that you can handle anything. There is no doubt that there is a critical psychology behind sport performance.
Find someone better than you
This is one is self explanatory but nonetheless important. Find someone better than you and who knows more than you. Train with them if you can and pick their brain. Know everything they know. Sure, they may be a freak of nature in some cases, but it takes more than that to be a success so find out how they’ve got to be where they are now. While in Houston, I had the pleasure of getting to know Mark Bruener, a NFL veteran of thirteen plus years and one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Although he possessed many natural gifts, it couldn’t have been the whole story. There are guys bigger, faster, stronger, and more athletic than him at his position but the majority haven’t even touched the success and longevity that he has enjoyed as a professional. How can that be? Simple. His dedication to his craft was second to none. He was a master technician and he practiced perfectly. I remember picking his brain any way I could to try to learn what he knew and how much it helped me. He would show me proper hand placement and footwork which are critical, especially at the highest levels. My only regret is that I didn’t ask more or try to train with him and other veterans in the gym. I could’ve learned so much more not only as a player, but as a future coach as well. Don’t let opportunities pass you by. Be proactive and a life long learner. Grab any bit of information that you can get your hands on.
Do what you love
This one really hits home. Do NOT overlook this lesson. I learned the hard way. There is no amount of money in the world that can possibly justify you giving up what you love to do. Case in point. After I decided to hang up the cleats for good, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for sure. I always had a passion for learning and for athletics so naturally teaching and coaching seemed to be my perfect career. People I cared about always told me that I would be a great teacher because of my interests and personality. However, despite all that, I decided to go to law school and become a lawyer. Having grown up in a blue collar family that didn’t have much money, a big part of my motivation was too make a lot of money so I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. I wanted to provide everything and anything that my family desired. What I found out was that I had absolutely no desire to read law books twelve hours a day, seven days a week. It was miserable. Not because it was too hard, it was just extremely unfulfilling for me. I lasted a few months and decided that I needed to get out of there. It was very tough decision at that point because I’m not a quitter. I stick through tough times and succeed anyway. That’s what I’ve always done. It seemed out of character to not finish something I started. However, in hindsight, it was one of the best, tough choices I’ve ever made.
Whether over the summer or “in between careers“, I’ve experienced many jobs, including one in a “cubicle“, which honestly, felt more like a prison. Finally, about two years ago I rediscovered my true passion and got myself a teaching degree, CSCS certification, and two coaching assignments at my old high school. I’ve never felt more fulfilled in my life. Sure, I could be making more money doing something else, but the kind of happiness I have now doesn’t have a price tag. So, please, I beg you, find something you are passionate about and figure out a way to make a living doing it. You’ll never regret it if you do and you will regret forever it you don’t.
7. Keep perspective
All good things come to an end. It’s going to happen. Nothing lasts forever. I used to hate these remarks but unfortunately, they are very true. One day your organized playing days will be over and your athletic ability will slowly decline with age. Enjoy the time you have right now in athletics, whether it’s playing it, coaching it, or training people for it, because it is precious and limited. I remember how depressed I was when I finally knew in my heart that I wouldn’t put a football helmet on again. I still think about it constantly, despite not having played for five years now. I’d give anything to play again. However, I feel blessed to be able to continue my love for sports as a coach and I cherish all of the things that sport has helped me obtain such as many lifelong relationships, a first rate education, scholarship money for a graduate degree, and a career that I get up every morning to do with enthusiasm. Find the good in everything. Like they say, “Don’t be sad it’s over, be glad it happened“.
In conclusion, I hope there is at least one nugget of advice in this article that you can relate to and use in your own life. For myself, I just wish I had listened more to those who came before me and had taken their advice to heart. Although I’ve gotten to be exactly where I want to be in life, despite my mistakes and missteps, maybe the road would have been a little smoother along the way and I would have enjoyed it even more if I had taken one piece of simple advice.