10 Things Being an Athlete Taught Me About Leadership

NLP EncoreAn impactful leader in my life used to go camping with his dad growing up. His dad would always say: “Leave the campground cleaner than it was before.” While he meant it literally, he was also conveying a deeper message – leave your legacy by paying it forward for someone else. In Jesus’ words: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.” (Luke 12:48)

I’ve often asked myself: Why have I been given the life experiences I have? And while I still don’t fully know that answer, I believe a big reason is to use them to serve others. It is in this spirit that Next Level Performance was formed – to deliver elite sports performance training while paying forward the valuable leadership and character lessons athletics can teach. It is our desire that every Next Level student-athlete would use the platform of their sport to be a positive difference maker both on the field and in their schools and community.

So what are we trying to instill in our Next Level athletes? Here are 10 things athletics taught me about leadership that I hope to invest in each athlete we touch at NLP:

1. It’s not about me

I will never forget sitting in rookie meetings with the Indianapolis Colts and listening to Clyde Christensen outline that football is a brotherhood, not a family. “If we are a train going down the tracks and one of you falls off,” he began, “in a family, the entire train would screech to a halt, we would all jump off, pick you up, dust you off, and slowly start the train again. But this is not a family, it is a brotherhood. And the train is screaming down the tracks toward our first game in 21 days. So if you fall off the train it is your job to catch back up, because we have no time to slow down for you.”

It was a powerful reminder that there is no indispensable person. No one is above the team and we all have an important role and responsibility to fulfill.

2. True confidence comes from preparation

Waiting my turn to play was the most difficult part of my athletic career. But rather than wasting the time spent waiting, I had to learn to prepare for the job I wanted. I had no idea when the opportunity would come, but when it did I had to be ready, or it would pass me by. And readiness only comes through preparation.

3. Being on a team means working with people you wouldn’t choose to work with

Being an athlete made me blind to race, creed, and socioeconomic status. It helped me put my differences aside and work towards a common goal with teammates whose personalities and upbringings were completely different than mine. It taught me to connect with others across cultural barriers. To this day I am ever grateful for the diverse set of friendships I have because of the locker room.

4. You can work hard and get worse

So much of athletic success hinges on skill development and muscle memory. Repetition matters. Repetition forms habits. But I learned early on that just putting in hours and “work” means nothing if it isn’t good work. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Focused, purposeful, correct repetition – sweating the details to get better – is what produces real improvement.

5. How you handle adversity is everything

I underwent 2 major knee surgeries and a foot surgery during my collegiate career – and as difficult as it was, I wouldn’t change a thing. The crucible of injury strengthened both my character and my capacity to lead – and it also helped me earn the respect of my teammates, making them more confident in my leadership.

6. Take responsibility for your actions

I quickly had to understand that with success comes too much credit, and with shortcoming comes too much blame. From managing my time between class and practice, to facing the media after throwing interceptions in a loss, I learned that my choices were just that – mine – and that I had to be willing to be accountable and take ownership for any decision I made.

7. You can do more than you think you can

In 2007 I suffered a broken foot in training camp and was faced with a decision. Play or sit? To this day I am grateful I chose to play, but every single day that year was a mental and physical grind filled with pain. I know the only way I made it through was in God’s provision of daily strength, but the experience taught me that I am capable of far more than I ever realized.

8. Embrace change

Every single week, as football players, we hit the reset button. New opponent, new plan, and new adjustments. Over the years, I saw teammates come and teammates go. I even played for 3 position coaches in 5 years. How did this translate to life after the game? I got married. I got cut by multiple NFL teams. I moved multiple times. I bought my first home. Our first son was born. In 3 years in corporate America I had 7 managers. Life is dynamic and ever-changing, and I attribute the ability to keep an even keel despite change to my faith and also to my experiences as an athlete.

9. A little bit of pressure is good

Every single year a new, talented player at my position showed up on campus. The constant competition and healthy fear of losing your job taught me a valuable lesson – if you relax, you will get passed. Never let up. Never settle.

10. We all have a platform

A platform is simply a position of influence that can be used to make a positive difference. While platforms change throughout a lifetime, we all have positions of influence, and it is our responsibility to use them for good.

I’d love to hear some of the lessons athletics have taught you…shout them out in the comments or tweet them and tag me @timhiller3. How has being an athlete impacted your leadership journey?

To learn more about our mission of building leaders through athletics, check out this article on Next Level Performance in Encore magazine.


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Tim Hiller

Tim Hiller is a former collegiate and NFL quarterback who uses the platform of his celebrated football career to serve others—sharing his faith and experiences through speaking, writing, and his work with Next Level Performance—leaving a lasting impact on all who hear his powerful message.

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