First, let’s be clear about what mentoring is. It’s a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development. Mentoring entails informal communication, usually face-to-face and during a sustained time period, between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (the protégé).¹
This isn’t the old “on-the-job trainer” definition that some may visualize. Mentorship is about trust, empathy, connection, and courage. The last element is the courage to be real, transparent, and vulnerable for both the mentor and mentee.
Now, let’s revisit the original question of whether an athlete really needs mentors. Let’s take NFL players and do a deeper dive. In today’s path to the NFL, athletes experience a 24/7 news cycle fueled by social media and access to video, specialized training that starts in middle school, and a growing college industry of recruiting services and experts. It’s safe to say that an “identity” is built from an early age, and the athlete is quickly becoming, well, an athlete. However, what about sons, fathers, husbands, businessmen, and philanthropists? Is there time to invest in these roles? Is there a need to divert some of the energy away from a diet of football to digest some other knowledge or get some “reps” in non-sport roles?
In dozens of meaningful, lengthy, and transparent conversations with players who have recently left the game, here’s a look at what a handful of men said:
- “I wish I would have taken advantage of the dozens of team events, charity events, and networking opportunities that came my way with powerful business people, business owners, and CEOs. I just threw away all those business cards.”
- “I’m a 31-year-old 21-year-old in terms of experience outside of football.”
- “It took me 3 or 4 years to get off the couch. I was afraid that I wasn’t prepared to do something that wasn’t football.”
- “I was so concerned with getting to a second contract that all I did was train and hone my craft. I wasn’t thinking about anything else.”
- “Every single day was so scripted. I had so little time for anything else. Now I have no script and too much time on my hands.”
- “I have a business degree, but I have no idea what sort of business I want to or even can go into now that I’m not playing.”
A majority of athletes have put so much into football that it can feel like their identity is only football. Because of this, most men that play the game professionally exit with a significant identity crisis. A great mentor or set of mentors at the earliest point of this professional journey is ideal for this very reason. That is, one or more mentors, who have acquired knowledge from situations through their own trial and errors and who can serve as a life, business, and finance coach/advisor.
When should players acquire a mentor? The “best time to plant a tree” is now. Frederick Douglass, an American orator from the 19th century, once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
- Bozeman and Feeney 2007