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Steve Young - Mental Toughness & Sport Transition

After completing his career of more than fifteen years in the NFL, primarily with the San Francisco 49er’s where he received numerous awards including Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXIX, Sports Illustrated and Sporting News’ Player of the Year from 1992-1994, and the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for 1992 and 1994, Steve Young has made a successful transition to the next professional phase of his career. In 2005 Young was the first left-handed quarterback to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Young is also the highest-rated quarterback in NFL history and has the distinction of being the only signal caller to win four consecutive NFL passing titles.

Currently Young is a Managing Director and Co-founder of Huntsman Gay Global Capital. He also founded and chairs the Forever Young Foundation, which is actively involved in children charities worldwide and is currently the broadcast host as well as the former International Spokesperson for the Children’s Miracle Network which has raised over one billion dollars world-wide to benefit children’s hospitals. He remains involved with football for ESPN’s Monday Night Football pre-and post-game shows.
SZ: Steve as a professional athlete playing at the highest levels of football you demonstrated great mental toughness. In your opinion what are the qualities of mental toughness in professional football?

SY: I think like a lot of things people have a predisposition almost towards mental toughness. They just are that way. You can certainly become tougher. It can be taught. But if you really want to accomplish something, and I’m not talking about 4th quarter, down by four, but by daily looking at what you are trying to accomplish there’s a grit that I think you can really develop and accomplish by just demanding grit from yourself.  You can be mentally tough in college sports or high school, but playing in the professional game does really separate a lot of people. That highest level, it’s like anything, it’s like any super talent that you develop. Mental toughness is a talent that can be developed. Mental toughness is as much a talent as eye hand coordination.

There are supremely athletically talented people that I’ve known that lack the mental toughness and did not succeed. They stopped a level below. They could have been a great professional player but were finished after college, not due to their lack of athletic ability.

SZ: The mental toughness is it the day to day discipline?

SY: It’s a challenge everyday. You’ve got to challenge yourself everyday if you are going to get there. At the professional level you develop it and you don’t know how to get rid of it. It seems innate. All those guys with mental toughness, they don’t back down.

SZ: Nothings going to get in their way?

SY: I’m not talking about being a bull in a china shop. I’m not talking about hyper-competitiveness where you race someone to the car. Mental toughness is not being overly competitive. It’s a quiet thing in the moment a grit that 99 out of a 100 people would stop or go around the challenge or would avoid it, and the one person who goes through it doesn’t duck.

SZ: A clarity or vision of the goal?

SY: No, it’s an inner will. I know a lot of really nice guys who are exemplars of this iron will. Peyton Manning comes to mind. There’s no backing down, but it’s within a context. I’ve seen people who are hyper-competitive who want to compete in places where it’s not useful.

SZ: It sounds as though you are describing mental toughness as a type of intelligence.

SY: It is. We have to actively engage will. You are right it’s not something that’s mindless. It’s almost like I see what I’m facing and human nature kind of tells me to duck it but I’m not going to and I’ve trained myself to face challenges in this way. It’s an intelligence definitely and that’s an important piece of the puzzle. The strongest willed people are the one’s that I think have learned, have trained themselves and those are the most scary because you go into it and you say, “Wow man this is going to be tough.” That’s a unique person and every once in awhile you find a person where iron will and talent meet and you get Jerry Rice.

You don’t necessarily develop an iron will at age ten but I think it develops very young. It’s how you deal with adversity that’s around you. You can blossom in this way later but I think it’s innate.

SZ: How have these qualities which we’ve just discussed helped you successfully transition into business after a playing career?

SY: I think the thing you hit on was awareness. Because a lot of guys fall off the cliff of retirement and don’t get back up because it’s too much of a transition. I think it’s because you are aware. There is humility to it, “I was really great at something, now I’m not great at anything.” So the misstep is to hold onto what you are great at. You want to talk about it you want to have people around you who talk about it. That activity that you were great at, it’s over, and that’s the challenging part. The process is, “I better become skilled at something new.” The greatest transition I made was saying that exact thing. I began the long haul process of becoming at least good at something else.
SZ: There’s humbleness in that process.

SY: There’s no question. The core piece to that puzzle is humility. You have to have the image within yourself of starting over. The knowledge of, “I did it once in one field, I’m capable of doing it again.”

SZ: Is it an exciting process?

SY: No, it’s a grind. But like anything else that you do head on in time is the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do. You take the best things in living life, after the grind, after the struggle and there’s richness to it. That’s in relationship, sports, that’s in transitions, there’s a depth of what’s accomplished. It comes through the struggle and so that’s why I think accomplishing something worthwhile the first time, you have that resource within yourself to do it again. Though you’ve got to accept it’s going to be a trial.

SZ: What are some of the challenges?

SY: At some level it’s like going back to school at 38 or 40 years old whether it’s metaphorical or real school. It’s not something you necessarily wish to do. That’s where the humility comes in. You have to say, “I’m not that knowledgeable yet in this profession.”

SZ: You already had your law degree prior to completing your professional playing career.

SY: Right so I had a leg up. I didn’t really have to go back to school. I was grateful for that. The fact that I had gone to law school gave me competency, so people could actually hire me. Once you are in the door it’s a game of making it happen. It’s like anything else at some point you get that job, you get that opportunity now you’ve got to make it happen.

SZ: Do you have a favorite quote, story or tip that has guided you on your professional path?

SY: One of the things that really helped me as a young professional football player was my hero Roger Staubach. Roger had served in the Navy for four years then came out and went on to become one of the greatest players for the Dallas Cowboys. I found myself early mid-career saying to myself, “Roger played late, I can do it.” Roger was a role model and inspiration for me.

Steve thank you so very much for taking time out of your extremely busy schedule to take part in this discuss of mental toughness and athletic transition.

*Guests featured are not former nor current clients of Susan Zaro

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