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Thinking About Changing Careers? Self-Coaching is Key, Guest Post by Larry Fitzgerald, Jr.

This month, it’s my great pleasure to share with you the words of my friend Larry Fitzgerald, Jr., a tremendous leader in the world of sports—and in the game of life. Larry is a future Hall of Famer, who spent 17 seasons in the NFL, playing wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals. He’s an 11-time Pro Bowler, was a First Team All-Pro in 2008, earned the 2016 Walter Payton Man of the Year award, and holds 40 single-season and career franchise records. Today he runs The Larry Fitzgerald Foundation, which, in the last year alone, made grants totaling over $1 million dollars for cancer research, cancer support, and youth literacy in reading and technology. Larry was generous enough to read my new book, Take Charge of You, and to share an endorsement, and so I asked him to share a bit more about how self-coaching has helped him transition from the football field to the boardroom and beyond. I know you’ll find it insightful and inspiring, much like Larry himself.   

I’ve had a lot of coaches in my lifetime, and the best ones have one important thing in common: they don’t just see your performance—they see your potential. These coaches use every tool at their disposal—listening, motivating, encouraging, critiquing—to draw that potential out of you. Now that I’ve moved off the field into the world of business and philanthropy, I don’t have a head coach running replays of my performance back in the locker room, saying, “Larry, when you spoke up in that board meeting you missed an opportunity to get your point across. Look here—see how you side stepped around the issue, instead of tackling it head on?” That kind of feedback isn’t built into my experience anymore. I have to seek out those insights. I have to be my own coach. Not everyone has a career where coaching is part of the package. But we can all take the tools and techniques from great coaches and be intentional in how we apply them to ourselves.

Turn a “not” into a “not yet.” 

How we frame our experiences is huge. When I was drafted into the NFL, I was a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh. While being drafted was my dream, an absolute thrill, I knew it meant I would not be finishing college. Yet. In an early instance of self-coaching, I told myself that pro football was not the end of my academic career, it just presented a new timeline. Finishing my degree was important to me. I’d also made a promise to my mother, who had passed away before I was drafted, that I would graduate. It was very much a part of my identity and of the story I wanted to write for myself. If I had let that go, or said, “we’ll see what happens”, I might not have finished my degree 12 years later. Instead, I was insistent. I made a promise to myself, “I’m not going to graduate yet. But I am going to graduate.” And in 2016, after 10 years of taking classes in the off season, I graduated from University of Phoenix with a B.S. in Communication. That was a great source of pride for me, and it helped set me up for success in this next phase of my career.

Imagine how you would behave if the opposite were true.

Another aspect of self-coaching that continues to serve me well today is reframing a negative thought as a positive. I’m talking about flipping a negative upside down and asking, what if the opposite were true?  I learned this one the hard way, when I was going into my tenth year with the Cards. I had a new coach, and he told me he was going to change my position. I was devastated. Embarrassed. I had all these negative feelings coursing through my body at the time, and all I wanted to do was defy him. I’m not a defiant person, so this was new territory, and I didn’t like how it felt. But I had played my position—and played it well—at a very high level, and I felt like I was being demoted. It didn’t sit right. About two months in, I realized I needed to be more intentional with how I was approaching the situation. The coach had made his decision, and there was no changing his mind. The only thing I could change was my mind. I thought, what if I were to treat this as a promotion instead of a demotion? How would I behave then? It ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me. I became a more complete player, extending my career another seven years, when I might have been done in one. And that lesson never leaves me. When something I want today doesn’t happen, I think “maybe that wasn’t for me. Maybe the opposite of what I wanted is the best thing I could ask for.”

See yourself in more than one dimension

Early in my football career, I met a man named Frank Bisignano who ended up becoming a mentor to me. He encouraged me to think about investing my money and start imagining my life after ball. Our first conversation got me curious. We stayed in touch, and several years later, he invited me to do a two-week internship at JP Morgan. That experience opened my eyes to the possibilities for my life beyond sports. I was starting to see myself in more than one dimension. I realized that the skills I didn’t have were skills I could get by applying the same perseverance, curiosity, and commitment I had applied in my football career. I would encourage people who are thinking about a career transition, but aren’t sure what they want to do, to just follow their curiosity. Take one step in that direction. See where it leads. A big part of self-coaching is seeking advice and insights from people who know more than you, but before you can do that, you have to get your imagination working.

Take time to connect the dots

People often ask me how I stay motivated, and I have to be honest: motivation has never been an issue for me. I think that’s partly because I have a lot of passions, and I pursue them all in such a way that I never get bored or stuck in a rut. Those passions feed each other. The skills you develop in one area can serve you in another, if you take the time to connect the dots. The game of chess is a perfect example. I play chess every day. It’s a game I fell in love with when I was just six years old. The strategy in chess is no different than the strategy you apply in football, or business, or life. You have to calm your mind and center your thoughts. You have to know what moves are possible. And while you can try to anticipate what the other side is going to do, in the end, you can only control yourself.

I’ve been fortunate to have great coaches in my lifetime, all the way back to my Pop Warner football days. I’m thankful that they saw and brought out the best in me. And I’m grateful to mentors like Frank Bisignano and David Novak, who have not only offered me guidance over the years but reinforced for me the most fundamental aspect of self-coaching, which is this: the seeds of leadership are inside each and every one of us, we just need to learn how to water them.

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I’m so grateful to Larry for sharing his time and perspective with us. I love the idea of asking “What if the opposite were true?” Is there an experience or idea you might reframe in this way? Or can you think of a way to connect the dots between two seemingly unrelated skills? As always, I love to get your feedback and see how the lessons we learn together serve to make us all better leaders. To hear more great insights on success on and off the field from Larry, be sure to listen to his podcast episode from How Leaders Lead.

April 1, 2022