This week’s conversation is with Greg Olsen, a football broadcaster for FOX Sports and former tight end who played in the NFL for 14 seasons.
During his time in the league, Greg was a three-time Pro Bowler, currently ranks fifth all-time among tight ends for receptions and receiving yards, and left the Carolina Panthers – where he spent a majority of his career – as the franchise’s all-time leading tight end in receptions receiving yards, and 100-yard receiving games.
Now – alongside his career as a sportscaster – Greg co-launched a media company, Audiorama, with its flagship podcast, Youth Inc., where Greg discusses the changing world of youth sports in America.
There is much more to Greg than meets the eye or what’s read on his NFL resumé.
The majority of this conversation is about what sits underneath his success. It’s about leading, learning, parenting, and how sport can play an integral role in our kids’ upbringing. We also dive into how he and his family dealt with crisis – and did it in a way that was extremely public. I think you’re going to resonate on multiple levels with Greg, especially if you’re committed to living authentically – with high standards – and deeply connected to your loved ones.
“The pursuit of being great, and having to be great to be happy, are two very different things.
In This Episode:
The vision for his podcast, Youth Inc.
It came from a lifetime of growing up in the sports world as a young child, and then of course making a career out of it. And now coming full circle as a father and now trying to help use the less that came along the way, both good and bad from my own experience. And now pass them down to my three children. And as a byproduct, the other people’s children who are on my teams, who I’m responsible for coaching and whatnot. And we talked long about those struggles that I have, where I felt such a responsibility to do this the right way. Not only for my children, but for others. And along the way, there was no playbook. There was no what’s the right path, what’s the right decision. And that was really the inspiration behind Youth Inc. as a show, and as a brand, and as a concept.
The biggest takeaway from his conversations
The biggest lesson I’ve probably learned is just how powerful the kid driven, parent supported model is. That’s the way we’ve simplified a lot of these conversations. That it’s a very common theme where if it’s parent driven and the kid’s just in the backseat along for the ride, it’s not going to work. It’s going to lead to division. It’s going to lead to animosity. It’s going to lead to conflict. And that is the exact opposite of what we all want the youth sports experience to be.
High standards and expectations from his dad
I mean, we’re extremely close. He lives three miles from me. I see him almost every day. He comes to the grandkids’ practice. We are very, very close to this minute. He was very hard on us. Right? His opinion mattered, and he was the dad that everything’s okay. There was an expectation that if you say you want to do this, we wanted to do that. We were not there against our will. But if we were there, there was an expectation for how we were going to do a practice, how we were going to do a workout, how we were going to perform, our attitude to our coach, our hustle. Whatever the case may be, the standard was very high. And to a lot of people, they thought we were crazy.
What is rewarding to him?
I’ve just always enjoyed the chase. I’ve always enjoyed learning something new, studying something new. There’ll be nights where I’ll sit for an hour in bed and fall into a wormhole on the American Revolution. You know what I mean? It’s just the kind of mind that I have that I really enjoy. I’m inquisitive. I just really enjoy the chase, the pursuit. And where the pursuit ends sometimes varies. Right? Played 14 years in the NFL. I’m never going to be a historian, but it’s still a fun journey. Right? It doesn’t mean I need to be the foremost expert on it, but I’m a naturally curious person. And I don’t mind the chase. I don’t mind the journey along the way. I’m not so much worried about the destination. Even in my football career, the end game for me was not to make a Pro Bowl. I wanted to make 10. It was never enough. I always thought I could do more.
Core values as a coach and as a parent
I believe that those core foundations of accountability, and being told the truth, and not sugar coated, and not everything’s okay. It’s okay. You’re only 10. You’re only 10. You’re 12, you’re 30, whatever it is. There needs to be a truth in the message. I take that and I take that there needs to be a bond, and a love, and a respect not only with my kids, but even the other kids that I coach where they know that no matter what, and this is hard. This needs to be constantly reinforced not only with what you say, but the way you engage with these young kids, the way you have time for them, the way you make time for them. For them to really put the barrier down and say, “This guy genuinely cares about me.” You talk about first principles. If this person genuinely cares about me, if that’s the starting point, it’s a lot easier to layer in these other elements.
It’s our jobs as adults to adapt
I have really tried hard to improve my patience, improve my messaging, improve the times I come down hard on them. And at times I put my arm around them, and we talk through it. I’ve made myself much more aware of how impactful those moments are. Not only for my upbringing, but just from my own kids and dealing with my own teams. And at times, that’s challenging for me. I’m the first to admit it. But I have gotten better. I do understand the ramifications. I do understand how at no point do I ever want any of this to ever come between me and my kids. Me and my wife. To me, it’s not worth it. So I’ve made strides in that area consciously because it is a different time. It is a different world nowadays. Kids have a lot more things going on around them. They’re a little more fragile. I understand that. It’s not 1985 anymore. And I realize that things change and move on. And it’s our job as adults to adapt and change accordingly.
His son TJ’s congenital heart defect
At two days old, he underwent what would become three reconstructive open heart surgeries to make they call him a single ventricle. He’s going to have one ventricle, one chamber of his heart that is going to do the entire cardiac process that you and I have multiple chambers to pump oxygenated and deoxygenated blood. His blood would all pool in one of those ventricles. And they would create passive air flows with the lungs. And it was a three stage process. Two days old, five months old, two years old. So he got reconstructed to a single ventricle. He lived like that for six years. So he was six years post his final surgery as a single ventricle, what they call single ventricle baby. Last spring, we’re coming up on about a year. Last May, we brought him in and he was determined that he was in heart failure. His single ventricle Fontan was no longer working appropriately. The heart function, the muscle tissue was deteriorating. And he was in pretty much full scale heart failure. We were put on the heart transplant list. And June of last year, TJ my son at eight years old underwent a heart transplant.
How did that shift his perspective?
The words that start coming back is perspective, right? Love, perseverance, adversity. I touched on earlier those lessons I learned as a tough kid that yeah, there’s going to be bad days. And no one’s coming to rescue you. No one feels bad for you. Yeah, we love you as a family and we’re here to help you, but the outside world’s moving on. Everyone, they’re going to give you your condolences. They feel bad in the moment, but they’re moving on. And if you don’t move on with them, you’re going to get stuck in this bad moment. We learn those early on. And I think when we, and it really prepared us, my wife and I to go through this with TJ, for in essence nine years. Where we had our bad days. We had our moments where I needed her to be the rock. And then I had days where I needed her to be the rock. And we kind of would take turns picking each other up. And we learned a lot about each other. You learn a lot about relationships, and family, and love when things are bad. Right? Everyone’s great when things are good. That’s easy to live, but how is your marriage when things are bad? How is marriage when you’re both on two hours of sleep in the ICU and you’re a little irritated? Can you take a deep breath and be patient with one another or are you going to jump down each other’s throat because you’re on edge?
Sometimes I gotta remind myself [when TJ is playing baseball] all right, the ball went between his legs. That’s ok. Last summer, I didn’t know if he would ever be here. So for me, that’s really hard. I’m like come on, feel the ball. But then I also am like, “Buddy, look at us.” We would lay in the hospital at night talking about what are the three things we want to do when we get home. And it was like, “I want to walk the dog.” He had these three funny things, and we’re doing one of them. He wanted to play baseball again with his buddies. He’s not going to be Derek Jeter. Who cares? He’s on the team, he’s on the field. He contributes. And he’s happy as hell to run around after the game with his buddies, and be silly, and be a nine year old boy. And to me, that’s a win.
Yes. We have a kid recovering from a heart transplant. Yes. But we also have two other kids who right now need mom and dad, because they’ve also been through a very trying time.” They’re trying to process why I haven’t seen my brother in a month. There’s a lot for them to process it every day at school, parent teachers are asking them. They’re doing special events for TJ and sending him videos. And his brother and sister are young and trying to wrap their mind. So they needed us too. And my wife and I would be like, “You know what, we’ve got to get over this. We can’t feel guilty because we’re parenting our two children who are not in the hospital. We can’t feel that burden.” But it took really working through it after a while to get comfortable with not really caring if people wanted to pass judgment on how we decided to parent at a time that was very difficult.
Why make TJ’s story public?
We chose to share this. We chose to make our son’s story public because we felt we had an obligation and a platform that we could do a lot of good. A lot of good could come out of what was in essence bad for us. And we felt like it was very fulfilling for us. It really filled the void of anger, and pity.. it gave us hope. It gave us a mission. It gave us something that we really could wrap our heads around, which is why we do the foundation, and why we do a lot of what we do… and when we hear from folks on the internet, social media. They come to our 5K, or they come to a charity event, whatever it is. And when people say, “We were in a very similar situation to you and we thought we were the only people. We thought we were alone. We thought we were the only people in the world having bad days, getting a bad diagnosis.” Felt they were in a dark place, whatever it is. “And then we came across your story on a tweet, on a Instagram,” or whatever it was. “And for the first time in the entire journey, we didn’t feel like we were the only people in the world going through it. And it just gave us such hope that we also could find a way to get through it.” And I’m like, “That’s why we share it.”
Suffering should be talked about
We live in a world where positive affirmation, and positive feedback, and look at the vacation I took, and look how amazing my life is. And look how amazing my marriage is. And my kids hit a home run. Well, guess what? That’ bullshit. Yes, we all want great times. Don’t get me wrong. No wants to suffer. But part of the human condition of existence is suffering. And the understanding that suffering doesn’t make you weird. It makes you normal, right? It’s part of the existence. It’s part of what we need to do. And I think we’ve as a society built this idea that admitting struggle, showing failure, showing defeat, showing tough times is some sort of, you get shunned or what do you mean? No, you only can post pictures that are of your best times. It’s like no, that’s not real.
What being great means
All of those things now that I’ve chosen to take up and chosen to enter into that mean a lot to me. Okay, well now that they mean a lot to me, I only know one way. And that’s being really good at it. That doesn’t mean I’m always good at everything, but I am damn sure going to push until I am. Right? So to me, that’s two different things. The pursuit of being great and having to be great to be happy to me are two different things. I have to pursue everything to its best. If I don’t have the biggest foundation in the world, it’s not going to crush me. But if I’m not the best parent, and not the best dad, that is hard for me to wrap my head around. So I’m in this constant state of what’s next. Okay. That was good. What’s next? I just don’t do good treading water.
Indifference is an insult
We talked about another word that reminds me when I had you on my show. And we talked about indifference. Right? And you said there’s no greater insult. I’ll never forget you saying this. You said, “There’s no greater insult to another person than being indifferent.” So to me, indifference, being content, satisfied to a degree. That’s not quite as a strong way to phrase it. It’s just not my style. I can’t wrap my head around it’s good enough. I can’t do it. And I want to. And we talk about the stuff with the kids and coaching youth sports. It’s like great. We won every game last week. But this Monday morning when I wake up, I’m like all right, “This week, we’ve got to get better at this, this, this.” And everyone’s like, “Well, you won the tournament.” I’m like, “Yeah, but we didn’t play great. We won, but we can be better. So let’s go get better.” I love that mission of the chase.
Does he want his kids to be the best or their best?
I can sit here and confidently say, you know me. I tell it how it is. Whether it makes me look good or bad, I hit it straightforward. The one thing that I’m very confident in and clear on is my emphasis is on their best. And all three of my kids have different levels of expectation and standard. They all three play very different levels of sports. They all have different expectations in school based on the subject, based on the grade, whatever it is. I’m a big believer in relative excellence, right? So relative to the own unique individual, their circumstances, their interest level, their skill level, their size, their demeanor. Everything about the individual directly correlates to what should be the expectation. What should be the standard?
Behavior over ability
For example, a couple weeks ago, right? My kid’s playing in a baseball game, good team they’re playing. He always pitches against the best team. And I say to him, I said, “Listen, you’re either going to learn to love that or resent that. But the only way to do it is to do it.” Not everybody wants to stand on that mound against the best team, and have to battle, and throw, and they fall, and they get a hit. I mean, there’s a lot going on in 10 year old baseball now, and you all eyes are on you. I said, “You don’t have to do it. But if that’s something you want to build, the best thing for you to do is to battle through that. And I’m not saying you need to strike every kid out, because guess what? You’re not. You’re going to give up a home run. It’s going to happen. All I ask out of you as the chaos around you gets heavier, you get quieter, you get more relaxed. You don’t show emotion. The other fans could be yelling at you. The other kids in the bench could be banging on the cause you got bases loaded and three balls. You need to learn to operate.” Those are the things that I look at. The throwing harder, the hitting the ball harder, running faster. To me, that stuff will happen. I’m more worried about the core principles of your behavior, your attitude, your ability to fight, your ability to compose yourself when things are hard.
His biggest fear: wasted potential
My biggest fear or the thing that I thought about the most maybe was – I hope I maximize my gifts, my opportunities, my talent. I just hope, and I feel very confident as I look back on my career that I was able to do this. But I think there’s nothing worse than wasted potential. I think people who don’t become their best versions of themselves, to me that’s really unfortunate. So I think my biggest fear was I wanted to make sure when I was done, there was no, “Well, you could have worked a little harder there and maybe made another Pro Bowl. You could have been a better teammate and helped get to the Super Bowl. You could have done this.” I didn’t want any of that. I wanted to make sure that I got every single ounce out of the squeeze. And the fear of one day looking back and thinking, “You could have done more,” scared me. So I made every single decision in my life that that was never going to be the case. Because I controlled that. That was not up to anybody but me.