You don’t have to look hard to find clips of athletes losing their cool, coaches screaming in the faces of refs, or the display of uncontrollable enthusiasm when a player scores or a team wins a game or championship. All are examples of strong emotions.
However, the most powerful role emotions play in sports, and the lives of athletes, are often those that are unseen. For instance, the emotions leading up to being recruited, the pressure to share the wealth with family and friends once a player signs, the self-talk that determines their performance and sportsmanship, or the devastation, confusion, or depression that may arise when it comes time to exit the game.
I sat down with former NFL, Carolina Panther’s safety (1997-2007), and current head football coach at Campbell University, Mike Minter, to discuss the value of emotional intelligence and resilience alongside the game of strategy and performance.
Before the interview, Mike and I casually conversed. I mentioned that this was our second encounter, as we had met back in 2003 when Mike was doing signings in my home of Salisbury, NC, before the Panther’s debut in Super Bowl Thirty-Eight. I was a mere freshman in high school at the time.
Sitting in front of Mike nearly 20 years later, he looks virtually the same and embodies the same likable charm. He’s one of those individuals who exudes a genuine, down-to-earth vibe that conveys a man who is truly content in life. As you will read or hear from our interview together, Mike is a man of wisdom, faith, and someone who sees “winning” as a lifelong pursuit with micro wins along the way, often derived from the knowledge that comes from failure — or as Mike likes to say, “failure is information.”
My focus for this conversation is not the on-field display of emotional intelligence (EI) but the impact EI has on the unspoken and unseen aspects of sports that ultimately dictates how the player enters and exits the game literally and metaphorically.
Let’s start with being signed.
Brittney-Nichole: When a player comes into the league, they are handed a large sum of money. Many of them have never seen that many zeros in their life. And then, it seems they are bombarded with family or friends, that they may not have spoken within years, that are looking for handouts.
Having been in the league for a decade, working with players, seeing all of this unfold, what do you notice is a challenge emotionally and mentally coming in?
Minter: The first thing is, you have to be able to say no. And we know what's tied to telling someone ‘No,’—the emotions that go into letting someone else down. I think that's what people play on. They play on that emotion of, ‘I don't want to let my family down; I don't want to let my friends down.’ … Getting to the point that you can say no, and there are no emotions tied to it, that's the key.
Now, how do you get a 22-year-old to do that? Because at that age, we want to be liked. We want to be in a crowd. ... When you tell people, ‘No,’ you're not going to be liked at that moment. And you got to be okay with that. You don't get to determine anybody else's happiness. If you know that, then you can say no.
Minter continues by highlighting society’s misconceptions of individuals who have significant amounts of money.
Minter: You never see anybody combining somebody dumb, or not smart, with having a lot of money. … So, the man who gets money begins to think he's smarter than he is. That's the other mistake. If I think I'm smart, and I'm not, then that calls for a lot of destruction.
This led us to talk about toxic social norms and the gravity those norms and ideologies have on our decisions and mental health.
Brittney-Nichole: Do you find that whenever you join a league, even in collegiate sports, there is a focus on mental health?
Minter: I have a sports psychologist that works strictly with my football team. She doesn't work for Campbell. She works for me. My college football players get it free [referring to psychological coaching and mental health services]. The reason why is because I believe in the mind and mental health. Like the physical part, we have to do the same type of training [mentally] in order to get somebody to unlock their brakes [referring the fostering one’s full potential].
Minter spoke of the difference between coaches who truly buy into the value of mental health versus those who see it as an obligation or ‘checking a box.’ Minter stresses the importance of integrating sports psychologists as part of the team instead of them being someone who is on the outside looking in. I ask Minter about the origin of his strong connection to mental health and sports.
Minter: I've had a sports psychologist from day one. … I have my own person that I’ve worked with throughout the league. Two [secondly], we did it in Nebraska in the 90s.
Minter refers to his collegiate football team having a sports psychologist under Coach Osborn and continues to discuss the benefits of embedding mental health in sports programs.
… The guys begin to understand the mind is not for weak people. You don't get a psychologist because you are weak; you get a psychologist because you are smart.
Brittney-Nichole: How do you see emotional intelligence playing into how an individual handles scrutiny? Do you have any specific advice that you would give a player that is facing that in the media?
Minter: I always tell people; failure is not imminent. It's only a picture of where you at today. The growth mindset says we're going to take this as information to help us change, to get better. We're not going to take this information to then judge who we are.
Most people look at it [failure] as a verdict. ‘This is who you are.’ And that's not true. And so, if you change your perspective, then you are able to now change your results.
Brittney-Nichole: Let's talk about mental health transitioning out of the league. Because I know that you made the tough decision to leave, even though you didn't want to. You felt like that's what you needed to do at the time, correct?
Brittney-Nichole: I’m sure that can be devastating to some players, and they don't know how to handle it. Especially when there's a serious injury involved where one day, they're in the game and the next day, they're gone. How can someone mentally cope with that when the game is their life?
Minter: First, people got to understand what's going on. It's like a train that's going a million miles hour, and you get kicked off the train, but the train doesn't stop. It’s still going. Imagine getting kicked off something that’s moving that fast. The ground is stationary, but you keep moving. You’re tumbling, and you’re fumbling … You don't even know where you at. You’re trying to get your bearings. That takes a while. It takes about a couple of years to figure out what just happened.
I would say, the first thing you need to do is you need to take a step back, figure out what's going on, and then make a move when you know what's going on. You could then make a move out of your heart instead of out of your emotions.
Most of us get into TV. Some of us go straight into the coaching world. Some of us try business, and some of us get into the speaking circuit.
And so, you go right from one train trying to jump on another, and that's the tough part.
Brittney-Nichole: What were some thoughts that ran through your mind as you made that decision [to exit the game and reinvent yourself]?
Minter: ‘What's next?’ It's not okay to sit around. We got to get into something. I did not have these thoughts of ‘I need to be in the limelight.’ but some do. ‘What is my mark going to be next?’ ‘What's my identity will be next?’ And whatever it is, I want to be the best at it.
Minter elaborated on the challenges of switching from one area of expertise—being a professional athlete—to stepping into a profession where others are the experts. They [the experts] and the outside world often expect retired athletes to perform at an expert level right out of the gate.
Minter: You have to spend time mastering what it is that you master. … This [switching careers and reinventing yourself] is work. When you are doing work on yourself, it’s hard. And you’ve gotta stay with it. It never stops. … It’s not like football where I get to the championship, I get to the Superbowl if I get to the NFL, I made it. … That’s not it when you talk about life, and you dealing with yourself and growing. It's constant and never ends. And I think the work is a lot harder than most people think.
Brittney-Nichole: Yes. It's more like bodybuilding. You always have to check your diet and exercise regimen, and you always have to be mindful because if you slack on any of those, you'll be Pee Wee Herman again.
Minter: That's right. That's right.
Brittney-Nichole: We’re nearing the last couple of questions. What has being a coach versus a player taught you about dealing with people?
Minter: That's a great question. Because as a player, you don't necessarily need people as much as you do as a coach. As a coach, you are coaching other people to do it. As a player, you doing it. … You really have to understand other people. You got to have the empathy. You got to have the connection. You got to have kindness. All the words behind you [referring to my EIM+ background with words such as kindness, understanding, awareness, etc.], you got to have when you're working as a coach. Because you coaching other people to unlock their greatness. It's not about your greatness. It’s about theirs.
That's the difference between coaching and playing. Playing it’s about you. You unlocking your own self. When it's coaching, it's about other people; and not just the players. It's also about your coaches. A lot of people don’t think about them. How do you unlock grown men who've been doing it probably longer than you? You were playing, and now you're their boss, and you trying to help them get to where they need to get to in life.
The older we get, the more rigid we get. And so, now you got this man telling you that you really need to work on your mentals. And they like ‘What? Man, coach, that’s soft. No. I’m good. I don’t need all that. I need to know X's and O's. Give me plays.’
I think that's the difference in coaching that I’ve learned. It's really about other people.
Minter then talks about the key components of what it takes to coach today’s generation of players—stating that being the ‘tough man’ doesn’t work anymore. You can find additional insights from Minter in the clips below.
To wrap up the interview, I asked him one last question.
Brittney-Nichole: In your own words, how would you personally define emotional intelligence? What does that mean to you when you hear the term emotional intelligence?
Minter: Know thyself so you can know other people.