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Football & Business: Lessons from Emmitt Smith on Living as an Entrepreneur

The Tech Eagles team is constantly in pursuit of bettering our skills and services. During a conference in Nashville, Finance and Marketing Assistant, Rachel Montgomery and Marketing Director, Abbie Bullen had the opportunity to meet Emmitt Smith. The three-time Super Bowl Champion is an inspiration to a lot of people. It was fascinating hearing him tie football to business.  

As a child, Emmitt dreamed of being a pro football player. For 2 years he closely watched football players and imitated the actions of the players he saw. Year one, Emmitt’s coach asked what position he wanted to play. An eager young Emmitt proclaimed “quarterback!” because, “the quarterback has the ball the most”. That season, he played his heart out, taking snap after snap as quarterback, however, Emmitt rarely, if ever, threw the ball.  

In his second year playing football, his coach again asked what position young Emmitt wanted to play. Again, Emmitt expressed the desire to play quarterback, reminding his coach of his performance the season before. You see, Emmitt’s coach saw his performance the season before, recognized the skillset Emmitt had and encouraged him to change from being a quarterback to being a running back.  

Emmitt says great coaches bring out the best in you.  

So young Emmitt Smith tried out for running back. During practice, his coach set him out on the field to run a drill. He was going to pick up the ball and carry it for as much yardage as he could, toe-to-toe with a defensive lineman. Emmitt picked up the ball and started running. BOOM! The kid stepped out and hit him harder than he had ever been hit in his entire life. It knocked the wind right out of Emmitt, and he lay on the ground for a moment rethinking his choice to play football long-term.   

Emmitt sprung to his feet and the coach told him, “We need you to do it again, but this time you don’t need to let him hit you.” The drill reset right away because, sometimes you need to get up and get back in the saddle before the fear of failure really sinks in. You see, if Emmitt had time to wait in line and reflect on the failure, his fear could have caused him to stop pursuing his dream, it could have shut down his fine-tuned focus and left him skittish and hesitant.  

The drill started, the defender looked smugly at Emmitt as he clutched the ball. But you see, Emmitt was fast, he was alert, and had a mind for the game, this time he was able to dodge the defender and run the ball. And that was the beginning of a life-changing lesson for Emmitt.  

As a young entrepreneur you walk into things you’ve never experienced before so you need to surround yourself with people who HAVE been there before. People who have the wisdom to see how your skillset best serves your vision. Much like a quarterback who never throws the ball doesn’t serve his team well, when you misplace or misuse your skillset, you detract from the greatness you’re attempting to build.  

Getting hit is a part of the game, don’t find yourself on the sideline because your fears have paralyzed you! Life is not without risks, and similarly, it is not without reward. Challenge yourself to push beyond your failures and try again. But remember, “avoid contact at all costs”, just because it hit you once, doesn’t mean you have to let it hit you again.  

As Emmitt transitioned to high school, things were going to change. Not only was he joining a new program, but he was playing for a new coach who had his own unique way of doing things. One of his rules was that players should not talk to the press, which sounds a bit strict to most. However, Emmitt quickly realized why his coach had made that a rule.  

During an interview with the local press asking about their recent win, and how Emmitt was able to run for so many yards. A question that caught Emmitt by surprise, and in his youthfulness, he began to describe all the actions he took to carry the ball from point A to point B. What Emmitt learned after this exchange altered the way he viewed success from that moment forward. His coach pulled him aside and told him every chance you get; you share the spotlight with the front line. This thought-provoking statement got Emmitt thinking. But he had a good coach and at the next practice, Emmitt received a practical example of exactly WHY it’s so important to understand that success is never earned alone.  

You see, Emmitt’s position may seem like a “lone wolf” position, however, his ability to carry was dependent on the offensive line’s ability to block the defense. He relied on his quarterback to pass him the ball.  Emmitt had to learn that the football was the most important thing on the field, not him. Emmitt translates this lesson into his entrepreneurial pursuits by remaining humble. This humility allows him to analyze and self-reflect on the good and the bad as a collective and individually.  

As entrepreneurs, you need to have the ability to objectively analyze the performance of the team as a whole and your performance in your position on the team, whether good or bad. Take the time to analyze the things that cost you the game. This critical thinking allows you to move beyond the rut of your familiarity. When you do something repetitive, it becomes habitual, taking the time to evaluate what is working FOR you and what is working AGAINST you is vital to make sure you have quality habits in place. One day you’ll look back on your journey and see how your elementary processes have served your good. 

Emmitt prepared for the new challenges of collegiate football with lofty dreams and excitement. As the anticipation of his first game grew, so did his dreams. But after his first collegiate performance, Emmitt realized that eagerness to get into the game doesn’t mean you’re ready. Someone out there has more experience, skill, drive, or determination than you – you will have to compete and make adjustments to continue to get better.  

His college coach taught him that it’s only a dream until you write it down, then it becomes a goal. Once your dream is a goal, it becomes actionable. You can chase it, identify the steps necessary to achieve it, and eventually grow beyond it. To grow beyond your goals, you should never become satisfied with the way something’s going because that’s the day the growing stalls.  

After a remarkable 15 season professional football career, Emmitt made the difficult decision to retire. “I didn’t ‘make it’ that was just the beginning…I’ve got to make new goals now, I’ve got to go further”. He had to expand his thought processes and challenge himself to find what goals served his vision.  

But how do you make new goals? What is it that you truly want to do within your business? Do you just want to make money or are you there to make an impact? See something that others don’t see and have the courage to go get it. Maximize every ounce of talent you have, to become the very best version of yourself. Your talent will make room for you. Pay attention to what grabs your heart and shows you different pathways. Learn as much as you can while you have the opportunity to learn. 

What did you do with your first opportunity to save the day? Did you hide from it or were you prepared? Did you worry about the outcome, or did you ensure that every step was taken correctly and completely? Were you a person of integrity? Did you forget all of your training?  

Your ability to step outside of your comfort zone and glean from those who have gone before you is what sets you apart from the competition. Your performance is a billboard for who you are as a person. How you treat the front-line members of your team is vital to the success of YOUR goals. You’ll have to make tough decisions for the benefit of your company,  

Some days you’ll have to put your helmet back on and risk getting knocked down again and again. Other days you’ll feel untouchable. Training doesn’t equate to greatness without there also being a willingness to put in the work. A willingness to apply the most simplistic, repetitive steps. One day you’ll look back on your journey and see how your elementary processes have served your good. 

“if you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride you will be a winner, the price of victory is high but so are the rewards.”  

Paul “Bear” Bryant