Playing football can be painful.
Ten years of football cost me a broken thumb, three hernias, a sprained shoulder, torn MCLs in both knees and countless other bumps and bruises. Nearly all of these injuries came during my college years when the speed and intensity ticked up a few notches.
And I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything in this world.
I played football from the time I was 12 until I was 22 years old. I earned a full scholarship to play safety at Charleston Southern University, and I was fortunate enough to have my education – a bachelor's degree and the better part of an MBA – paid for because of my physical abilities.
The lessons I learned from football are priceless. These lessons have helped me in my post-football career (Yes, there is life after football). I learned how to tackle people and catch a leather ball, but more importantly, I learned to lead others and the value of practice. I learned life skills that many of my peers are still trying to figure out at 30 years of age.
I was given an unfair advantage because of the time I spent playing football. Not only did I have a support group of peers who looked out for me, I was blessed with a number of mentors who cared about me and wanted me to succeed.
I concede, people get hurt playing football. But do those who ride a bike without a helmet. The media endlessly talks about the risks of this sport and the danger of collisions. What is often overlooked are the benefits that come from this game. The life lessons that young men learn while they are playing this game are priceless.
Here are 15 things football taught me that I use every day.
- How to compete. There are two types of competition: competition with others and competition with yourself. Football teaches both. When you face an opponent, you have to study film (research) and think critically about how to beat them (game theory), then you have to come up with a game plan (planning), and finally you have to make that plan come to life (execution). Sound familiar? Individually, you have to improve your body to become a better player. If you don't learn to compete with yourself and improve every day, you will be the weakest link in the chain. That in itself is pressure enough to improve.
- How to be disciplined. From the schemes our coaches drew up to the early morning workouts to the focus required to keep my grades above a certain level, discipline was needed for every aspect of the sport. By the time I was finished with football, I had no choice but to understand discipline and enforce it throughout the rest of my life.
- How to work (really) hard. 99.9 percent of resumes say “hard-working” somewhere on them. Think about your workplace, are 99.9 percent of your co-workers hard-working? Probably not. This isn't to say sports are the only way to learn hard work, but it's a great place to start. In football, you can earn a name for yourself by outworking your teammates. It's an unfair advantage accessible to everyone simply by changing attitude.
- How to lead. Leadership is a billion dollar industry. Managers pay for leadership training, and they pay to learn how to lead themselves. Coaches lead teams but only to a certain extent. Go to any high school football stadium on a Friday night, and you’ll be able to see more than a few leaders encouraging their teammates when the score isn’t in their favor. Leadership is learned in many ways. And in football it is learned early.
- How to follow. With the apparent lack of respect for others we see in the news, this is extremely important. Before you can lead, you have to know how to follow. You have to study how other leaders do it. How they inspire others. How they motivate the people around them. When to stand up for something and when to let the coach do his job. Leadership is rare, but everyone needs to know how and when to follow.
- How to be accountable. Individuals don't win football games. Teams do. To be on a team, you must learn to be accountable to the people around you. We had a "one fail, all fail" policy on one of my teams. If one person was late, the whole defense was punished. In life, if you don't carry your weight, your whole organization can potentially be punished.
- How to push others. During fall conditioning, when I was exhausted and wanted to collapse, I figured out how to get through the discomfort. I turned my focus to others and I encouraged them. Americans spend billions each year on self-help books, seminars and courses. People are in search of something or someone to help motivate them. Through sport, we can mold future generations to know how to help each other.
- The value of practice. Football requires practice. We lift weights, we watch film, we run sprints, and we practice until our legs wobble. And because of that practice, we improve. Many people have goals in life but don't know how to reach them. They search for quick answers on the internet and attempt to avoid the part where they pay their dues. Football taught me how to put in my time and learn to improve my skills incrementally.
- How to sacrifice. I didn't have a typical college experience. Many of my mornings started at 4:55 a.m., and I had sweat out my body weight in fluids by the time regular students rolled out of bed. In high school, I sacrificed extra time with friends and family because I wanted to get to the next level, and that goal required extra workouts. I learned to sacrifice that “normal” experience for something great, a chance to play college football. 6.5 percent of high school football players go on to play in college,and I was one of them. That honor was bestowed on me because I was willing to sacrifice.
- How to accomplish something bigger than oneself. When players show up for preseason camp in August we are required to leave our egos at home. In order to accomplish something larger than ourselves, we had to submit to the goals of the team. If every players had his own agendas, we would have gone all different directions. But when we all had one agenda, we were able to accomplish unimaginable feats.
- To control what I can control. Injuries are a part of sports. Football is no exception. Through my injuries I realized I could handle adversity one of three ways: I could be bitter, I could quit, or I could make the best of my situation. I saw some players quit after injuries, most of whom regretted their decision. I saw others carry a negative attitude wherever they went, like a ball and chain slowing them down. And then I saw an upper-classman play his senior year with a broken hand and enjoy every minute of it. He told me, “There’s no use in complaining. It won’t change my situation. All I can do is strap up and play the next play.” That stuck.
- How to stand for something. By working out, running sprints and watching film, we become committed to our team. We take pride in what the decal on our helmet stands for. We care about the people we’ve sweat with, and we listen to the coaches who lead us. By playing football, we learn what it means to make an unwavering commitment to something.
- That there are no shortcuts. As part of a growing program, we received a new strength coach each year. Each coach brought his own style and workout preferences. As budgets improved, the school was able to pay more qualified coaches. Each coach brought better technique and more effective training with each passing year. But one thing remained: If we didn’t hit the weight room and work hard during the offseason, we wouldn’t win games. There are better ways of doing things, but there are no shortcuts.
- How to finish something you start. I was benched for the first time in my career during my junior year. I was distraught and angry, but I didn’t allow myself to be beat by those feelings. I knew that being benched was merely an obstacle I had to overcome – no different than an opponent taking the lead in the fourth quarter. I recommitted myself to my passion and started every game as a senior before being elected captain by my peers.
- How to be selfless. Every player has his own unique talents. Some are blessed with speed, some agility, others with strength. The list goes on. I was a smart player who knew how to play multiple positions. Because of this, I was able to move around when other players were injured. I played three different positions during the course of my career because that’s where my team needed me. Had I chosen to be selfish, I could have hurt the team.
Mike McCann played football at Charleston Southern University from 2004-08. He recently published a book about his time at CSU, the lessons he learned and the incredible true story of the 2005 team. Learn more about it at “Believe EG21: Play Like There Is No Tomorrow.” Mike is an author, entrepreneur, football coach and philanthropist residing in Charleston, S.C.