Olympic mindset: Breaking through barriers

Olympic mindset: Breaking through barriers


By Greg Bach

For many young athletes these days the accolades and results can’t come quick enough.

In a culture catering to instant gratification, terms like process, journey and goals often aren’t part of the vocabulary, text messages and Instagram posts of young athletes.

So, it can be a tough lesson for coaches to teach – and young athletes to wrap their arms around – that the path to success requires patience, a lot of work, great listening skills, and time.

“We need to pause and understand that what we see on television or on social media is an end result and there’s a process that got those people there,” says Johnny Quinn, former U.S. Olympian, NFL player and author of PUSH: Breaking Through The Barriers. “If we can help young athletes understand that what we’re seeing are highlight reels, and in order to get that highlight reel in life there’s a process that you have to go through. And that process takes the time, the sweat, the dedication, the energy, and the tears – and that can be a longer process than what the media portrays.”

Quinn knows all about that process – both the heartache and euphoria that help make sports so impactful in our lives.

He played college football and ran track at the University of North Texas. After going undrafted he signed free agent deals with the Buffalo Bills and later the Green Bay Packers; and he played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian Football League.  

“By the age of 26 I was cut three times, I lost $2.6 million in NFL contracts and I blew out my knee,” Quinn says. “So there I was with this shopping cart full of failure and what I realized at that point was that I had my identity tied to my career. It’s very similar to building your house on sand – when the storm came it all came crashing down. So what I realized is that failure isn’t a destination. Failure is a process that you can actually use to springboard to future success.”

Fast forward a few years and Quinn was wearing the Red, White and Blue at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, competing in the bobsled. He’s one of just three athletes to have played in the NFL and competed in the Winter Olympics. (Herschel Walker and Jeremy Bloom are the others in that elite trifecta.)  

“To become a United States Olympian was unbelievable,” Quinn says. “Going through those failures prepared me for future success.”


Quinn has never forgotten Carl Sheffield, his track and field coach in college.

And with good reason.  

The man had a profound impact on his life. And their relationship showcases how influential coaches can be.

Quinn’s scholarship was in football, so when springtime rolled around he had football workouts in the morning and track practice in the afternoon.

“Because I had a coach who understood that I already had two hours in the weight room for football he didn’t run me into the dirt,” Quinn says. “He evaluated the situation and he understood that I was there to get better and help the team win. We would walk through what I did in the morning and then he would determine how to handle that day’s practice.”

Those interactions with Sheffield years ago still resonate.

“What it did is it made me a better athlete,” Quinn says. “It made me understand that when you go through life it’s not always black and white. You have to customize some things. It paid so many dividends now that I’m a business owner and speaker to understand that everybody is different and the good coaches, the good business leaders and the people who we call ultra-performers understand and look at situations and maximize them to their fullest. So if it wasn’t for this coach to understand where I was coming from and the type of labor I put in in the morning I would have been run into the dirt and I would have had injuries left and right. It would not have been as fruitful, so I thank him for that.”

It’s part of Quinn’s message when he’s speaking to athletic groups – the importance of being a good listener.

“One of the things that I really dial in on when I’m speaking to sports groups in general is how to be excellent listeners,” he says. “It’s something that we have learned growing up as young children that we need to be good listeners, but I’ve seen as athletes progress in their career and they continue to get better and evolve there’s a myth sort of floating around culture that when you reach a milestone in your athletic career – maybe you earned a starting roster spot or you’re leading the team in scoring, or whatever it might be – that you reached this milestone and then you just don’t have to listen to anybody anymore. It’s almost like you have arrived. And so the power of a team is understanding that when everybody is listening, regardless of your status from scout team player to starter, when everybody can be excellent listeners the team is unstoppable.”

Photos courtesy of Jenny Martell Photography

Johnny Quinn Listening Mindset Dedication

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