Student-Athlete? How About The Artist-Athlete?
There was a common thread running through my experience as an athlete. I played football at Knox College, where I was proud, humbled, and honored to have recently been inducted into their Athletics Hall Of Fame. After college, I played for two professional indoor football teams, then spent three seasons playing American Football in Europe – two seasons in Ireland, one in Spain. After my playing career I went on to graduate school, most recently at Harvard University, and started an education consulting foundation called The Good Athlete Project (501c3) to help empower future leaders through athletics. Through all of this, there was one unique and common thread: thinking like an artist. Involvement in the arts allowed me to practice three core abilities which have directly impacted anything in my life that might be called a success: 1) developing a process of close-looking, 2) staying open to new ideas, and 3) having the agency and courage to create opportunities where I saw the need.
Success in athletics – success in any field – always comes down to attention to detail. One must train, then perform, then examine the results. It’s the act of going back and examining performance that allows one to assess where improvement is possible, which then informs future training. The cycle repeats. It’s called a feedback loop. In football, you learn this in the film room; however, I first learned this through drawing.
My first practice with close looking occurred in a life drawing class taught by Jeremy Long. Examining a model, we had to notice the dimensions of the figure and how she interacted with her environment. Where did her forearm drape over the arm of the chair? At what angle did the window frame intersect with her shoulder? I became obsessed by the process, and went on to pursue a degree in Studio Art. I learned to pay attention and notice how decisions I was making on the page or canvas affected previous decisions, or informed future ones. As a studio artist, I honed the ability to look closely.
That close looking followed me to grad school, as I studied Poetry at Northwestern University and learned to notice the subtleties of the craft. Those subtleties, which came alive for me in the arts, quickly translated to athletics. As a lineman, leverage, footwork, and hand placement are essential to my success. For instance, say I’m playing defensive end and it’s 2nd and 7 – an “anything could happen” down. If I were to see an offensive tackle sitting a little high in his stance, looking light on his feet with his outside shoulder/hip subtly tilted, I would intuit that he was about to enter a pass-set, and I’d know exactly what to do. After noticing the subtle nuances in the situation, a player is able to set up his first decision. With that first decision in place, he sets up his next decision with a few simple conditionals: if the opponent reacts in a certain way, then he can choose the appropriate behavior (rip, expand, etc). Once repeated, many of these actions become second nature. The best players (and artists) eventually do it without thinking. But it begins with close looking.
Open to New Ideas
After Knox, I played professional football. To be clear, the NFL was not interested in me. Instead, I went to a few tryouts and sent my highlight video to any team who would answer my email or pick up a call. There are not many opportunities for small school athletes who don’t jump off the film athletically, but I worked hard and impressed enough people at tryouts to get myself a chance. I played for two professional Indoor Football teams, the Bloomington (IL) Extreme, and the Chicago Slaughter (for former Chicago Bear and WWF Superstar Steve McMichael). It was a fantastic experience that allowed me to play against opponents from the Big Ten, the Big East, and other major college conferences. As much as I enjoyed the experience, something was different.
Though our paychecks were meager, it was clear that for many on the team the motivation had changed. Paychecks were influenced by playing time and production. If you didn’t play, you didn’t get paid (except for a very small roster stipend). Locker room conversations included financial contracts, which other teams might give someone a better chance to play, and where an athlete would go in the coming season. It wasn’t bad, necessarily, but it felt like the purity of the game had been challenged. The incentives of the game had changed. It didn’t feel right; I needed something different.
So I went outside the box. I looked at the football being played in Europe, and sent a resume to the Limerick Vikings, an American Football team in Ireland. After my first phone call with Mark Thompson, a veteran on the team at the time, I was convinced that Limerick, Ireland would be my next stop. Mark, who is now a lifelong friend, told me that I would have transportation from the airport, a phone, and a place to sleep. He was convinced that the guys on the team would be happy to have me and that nights at the pub, day trips to castles and cliffs, and general good times would be abundant. And he was sure that the Vikings would have a chance to win a championship. Although those were the only details he could offer at the moment, I bought a ticket that night. I wasn’t sure who would be picking me up from the airport or where I’d sleep once I arrived, but I was wildly excited.
The following six months after I arrived were full of travel, football, and personal growth. And Mark was right, we won the Shamrock Bowl, Ireland’s National Championship. I’m resisting the tempting cliche of saying that the whole thing felt like an amazing dream… but it did. I often think back to that first flight, waiting in the airport before takeoff, sketching pictures of other passengers in my notebook. That was an outside-the-box moment, an off-the-beaten-path idea – one I’m not sure many would have been open to. That same open mind has defined my life after sports.
After playing football, I started coaching and became heavily embedded in strength and conditioning. Soon after, I started the first strength and conditioning program at New Trier High School, a school just north of Chicago with about 4,000 students. That program has grown from 80 participants to more than 1,400. We now have a staff of eight coaches including multiple interns. We scaled out and I now oversee the Illinois High School Powerlifting Association, which offers opportunities to hundreds of students and coaches across the state. The IHSPLA continues to grow and add depth to its messaging, scholarships to its athletes, and a continually growing amount of opportunities to compete. We consult. We conduct research. We add teams each year. As soon as I feel like I have the current workload under control, another new and interesting idea will cross my desk. A friend once told me, walk through the open doors, not enough of us do. That’s true. And whether it’s professional growth or world travel, I believe that my ability to see and accept opportunities is largely due to my time as an artist.
Confidence to Create
Before my most recent art exhibition, I was asked a simple but important question: what do you paint? The unrehearsed answer came more quickly than I expected: I paint what I want to see. I think she was expecting an answer like portraits or landscapes, but the truth is, when I feel most accomplished, when I feel like a painting is truly successful, it’s because it is a painting I want to look at. Simple. It is the sort of painting that I wish was hanging on the walls of the galleries I visit. There is a thing that’s meant to be in the world, and I try to put it there. I create what I want to see. Any entrepreneurs reading this will understand immediately. They would call that opportunity. Cultivating the ability to look closely will allow you the recognize opportunities. An openness to new ideas will give you the psychological freedom to explore those opportunities. Developing a confidence to create what you want to see into the world will give you an incredible opportunity to succeed. That was the exact recipe for the Good Athlete Project.
Let me take you back to my last college game. There was a slight rain as we gathered in the Knosher Bowl after the game finished. At this incredible liberal arts school in the heart of the Midwest, we had an end-of-season tradition that allowed each senior to address the group. When it was my turn to speak I expressed my gratitude for my teammates, coaches, parents, friends, and entire Knox community. It was at Knox College that I honed the abilities I’ve mentioned. Assistant coaches, John Wozniak and Dave Bass were early mentors. Andy Gibbons, our Head Coach at the time, continues to be a friend, mentor, and now professional colleague. They were the ones who created the culture at Knox. The life lessons I learned there were not on accident – they were embedded in the environment by intentional, dedicated coaches.
The lessons I learned at Knox College are the same lessons we teach today at Good Athlete Project. I learned that human beings are complex. We are adaptable. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We have the capacity to be both tough and kind, competitive and caring. These lessons encouraged me when I took the field that day in the rain, and they were there with me for my senior art exhibit, which was attended not only by local fans of art, but by my teammates, coaches, and mentors.
We might all be better off if we embraced the artist inside of us. I’d also recommend all artists to embrace the athlete within themselves. Bodies were built to move. Movement is at the core of our experience. And if we develop a process of close-looking, staying open to new ideas, and maintaining the agency and courage to create opportunities where we see need, we will be on an incredible path. Take the first step.