Most of us struggle when we go through significant transitions in our lives. Part of that struggle is protecting our image and concealing our vulnerability from others. Author and former NFL player for the Dallas Cowboys, Phil Costa, shares his struggles during his major life pivots and how they made him appreciate and love his life even more now. He also talks about his new book, The Transition Playbook for Athletes, which was inspired by his own transitions and the stories of other athletes. Phil says that, while many people perceive struggle as a weakness, he believes that it’s actually not. Rather, it’s vital to share your struggles, be open with people in your life and let them know where you’re truly at. He further shares his belief that you only overcome your struggles when you can release the burden you have inside.
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The Transition Playbook with Phil Costa
I’m having a moment right here. I feel tremendous peace in this moment and excitement and enthusiasm at the same time. Sometimes when I feel peaceful, I’m a blink or two away from nodding off and going to sleep. I love that form of peace and that feels great. We created a foundation called Peace Feels Like. I’ll be sharing more about that foundation over the coming months because we are doing some amazing things with kids, teenagers and young adults. We’re helping them to complete that phrase, what peace feels like to them and to deliver a TEDx Talk-like at their high school, which is something we’re going to facilitate as well on that topic of what peace feels like. What has inspired us to get into that arena is the staggering and awful statistics around suicide. That includes very young people, kids or young adults that are in their early teens up to people in their 50s and 60s.
The largest growing demographic of people that have made that awful choice includes women in their 50s. That’s was shocking to my wife, Randi and I, and we decided we wanted to pivot our foundation into that space and provide some more awareness and be able to help in an area that we love. It’s the area of speaking and training and thought we could get into the schools and share some of that with kids who have been incredibly enthusiastic about it. I was at my daughter’s school and in her senior seminar class. I talked about that. I asked them about it and asked them to complete the statement. What does peace feel like to you? I ask them whether they’d be interested in learning how to deliver TEDx Talk, which is something we train adults to do. These kids were all hands up ready to go and want to do it even though there’s the natural fear around public speaking that many people have. I’m feeling peaceful now and excited at the same time. More or less what that feels like to me is my hardest calm, I feel very grounded and I’m wearing a Kool-Aid smile on my face.
My guest is not in the country and we don’t want to lose a word because this gentleman is truly worth listening to and learning from. He’s got an incredible life story, incredible history. He’s somebody that all of you are going to enjoy tremendously. His name is Phil Costa. He’s the former starting center for the Dallas Cowboys. Phil played in the NFL from 2010 to 2014 and after football, he worked for a medical device company assisting heart surgeons during more than 500 operations. He also earned his MBA from Columbia Business School in 2018 and he’s been traveling the world ever since. He’s traveled more than 25 countries including South Africa, Vietnam, and Japan. Now he lives and works from Madrid, Spain where he’s enrolled in Spanish language schools. This man embodies the principles of the pivot. I want to welcome you to the show, Phil. It’s great having you.
It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
I read and shared a bit about you in your bio. What’s not written in that introduction that you would love for people to know about you?
When you do all these things and when you’re done and you can put them on paper, it looks so much easier than it was. They get to the NFL, they get into the business school. The number of noes I heard along the way and the grind to get there, that doesn’t show up on paper.
These are personal private moments. It’s funny you brought that up. I was thinking that I’m sometimes described by people as tenacious, no quit, never give up and that kind of thing. In all transparency, I’ve had a thousand moments in my life where I just said, “Am I going to take this? Am I going to continue to do this? This is excruciating. This sucks.” I was having those conversations. I’m going to ask you, Phil. With all of those incredible accolades to your credit, have you had those moments where you were inches away from hanging it up?
I’ve been studying Spanish for about a year and a half. I’m close to being fluent and very conversational. At the beginning of that, I moved to Madrid. I was there the first week and you feel like a baby again. I moved there not speaking any of the languages besides “Ola.” You feel so out of place and very uncomfortable, but that’s part of it. You call pivot, we say it’s a transition. If it’s comfortable, you’re not pushing yourself enough.
In the midst of those moments, is there a certain go-to internal conversation that you have? Is it prayer? Is it God? Is it something inside of yourself? Is it something that a parent of yours or a coach of yours said in the past that you revisit when you’ve got moments where you’re prepared to say, “I’m done with this thing or it’s done with me?”
It’s not a specific phrase. It’s more of experiences. Once you’ve been there, you know how to push through and being comfortable in the uncomfortable. That was going into business school, going from college to the NFL, even from high school to the college, that changed. I was like, “I’ve been here before,” and just draws from those experiences.
Experience is the greatest teacher. Most people will abide by that. Usually, our best decisions come from experience. I believe that our best decisions come from having had the experience of making poor decisions. Do you agree with that?
That’s the truth. I’m the youngest of three and when you’re the youngest, you’re able to see your older sister or brother and a lot of great things they did to somebody or things that they shouldn’t have. You learn from that and you’re learning from others. That’s a good point there.
It’s a painful point. Why don’t we track back to some earlier time in your life and your career where you were in that challenge state and what you did to pivot out of it? You said that you refer to the pivot as a transition. I love that because there are so many words that can describe what it looks like when you make a change, whether it’s a small change or a not so small change. You’ve got a book that’s coming out on that topic called The Transition Playbook. Take us back to an early time when you were first learning about the transition or the pivot through your own experience.
My biggest transition was from the NFL to the next thing and what sparked the idea for that book originally, was how tough it was. I was somebody who did well in school, I did well in college and got good grades, but that doesn’t always prepare you for what the next thing is going to be. I thought, “I was successful in the NFL so the next step, I’ll be successful in that too.” It was that arrogance of saying, “I’ve got this. I know other guys struggled with it, but not me.” It turned out it was me too. That changes hearing three powerful words. One day I was at NFL Films in Mount Laurel, New Jersey talking to a former all-pro ten-year NFL veteran who’s now a successful commentator. During the transition, as we were having this conversation, I was probably about eight months out of the NFL at this point and he was making it look so easy. His name is Shaun O’Hara and I said, “Shaun, what’s the trick? You’re making it look so easy.” The three words he said to me were, “I struggled too.”
When he said that, it felt a million pounds were lifted off my back. Fast forward from that into twelve months ahead of where I was working a full-time job in medical device sales. I got accepted to Columbia Business School. I was doing things to have a successful transition. I got a call from a former teammate who I played with. When I picked up the phone, I could hear in his voice that he was in the same place that I was a year ago. I just said to him, “I struggled too.” When I said that to him, he let out a breath of air. He felt normal again too. A big part of it is vulnerability. Being vulnerable is such a huge part of any transition.
The openness to not have all the answers and to be a little bit of a mess. The mess could be five minutes, it could be five months, it can be any length of time. To allow yourself not only to be what it is in the moment but not to try to hide that from the stakeholders in your life. Something we talk about in pivot is the idea that there are important people in your life that we call stakeholders. They might be your spouse, your family, your kids or your close friends. There are other people who are not quite in that category but are important in your pivot like your colleagues, your peers, your friends, your professional associates, etc. To hide that stuff from them, to keep it from those people is a mistake, but it’s also dangerous not to let people in on where you’re truly at.
It’s Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability. Her work is so powerful. What’s also interesting too is that she says, “Who’s earned the right to hear your story?” It’s not about wearing your heart on your sleeve. When people hear this, they hear that word gets thrown around more and more, vulnerability. People say, “Does that mean I’ve got to tell everybody everything that’s happening and be so transparent about every crappy thing that’s going on in my world or my mind or whatever?” I would say, “That’s not the case.” I do believe there are people who have earned the right to hear your story and it’s those people who you shouldn’t be lying too. I use the word lying in this instance specifically because when you’re not telling the whole story, when you’re keeping people awake or at a safe distance because you don’t want people to think something like, “He doesn’t have it together.”
How could you not have it together? Do it as a professional athlete for crying out loud. He’s got to have the answers. My precious self-image is impacted because I tell people, “I don’t have it figured out at this moment. I am struggling. I’m looking for answers and I’m open to being guided.” There’s a vulnerability in that statement and a lot of people won’t take that step. I know you work with current and former athletes and some of them are professionals, some of them are college students, some of them are Olympic athletes. Is there more of a challenge on that side of letting your guard down and being more transparent? Is that a trend or something you see regularly?
I would say yes. If you look at football guys in a locker room, vulnerability there is tough to show. Everybody in the locker room is like a bunch of lions. We’re all in the same pack of lions, but it’s much of lions. Lions, you don’t show weakness. I think that translates and transfers over to when you’re done with sports, you don’t show pain as an athlete because that’s a weakness. That translates over to you’re done now. I don’t show pain anywhere. I don’t want to show it in any part to say I’m struggling. A lot of people perceive it as a weakness but it’s not. It’s not wearing your heart on your sleeve. It’s not telling everybody, “Here’s my sob story.” That’s not what it’s about. It’s the people that you trust and the people that are in your inner circle and being real with them. Just tell them, “This is where I’m at now.” Maybe somebody go to somebody who’s done it, somebody who’s transitioned or pivot it well, “This is where I’m at. What advice do you have?” Being open is the best way to say it.
I am born in New York, bred on the East Coast, the Northeast. I was and I am a Giants fan. My father-in-law, for the better part of 50 years was a season ticket holder in what is now known as MetLife Stadium, but it’s the Giants Stadium. You were center for the Cowboys and that’s it. I don’t know what else to say. We’re in the field of football. Those are mortal enemies. Only Philadelphia would irk a New York sports fan or a Giants fan more than the Cowboys.
I grew up twenty minutes outside of Philadelphia. I play for the Cowboys. I grew up in South Jersey. The story I always tell is my brother wouldn’t wear the hat for about a month. I was like, “I’m playing for it. You’ve got to cheer for us.” Everybody in my family, when I was done playing, they go, “Thank God I can cheer for the Eagles again.” It was painful for them. Giants are the same thing, but I have a story as my buddy was coming down and they were sitting in the family section Cowboy stadium wearing all their Eagles stuff. It’s a big rivalry.
The Eagles were suffering big time. Maybe all that pain is a bit forgotten because that was an incredible season. It’s utterly miraculous. It was great to see. As a sports fan, we all love a comeback. We all love when the underdog comes back, even if it’s not your team. That’s also an important thing. I don’t know that we’ll digress into any conversation around politics. There certainly seems to be that team spirit in our political discourse these days. Different team, different colors, all that kind of thing. I will say this with honesty. I’m not saying this because I’m patting myself on the back here. When the Eagles won, I was happy for them. I would have been happier if the Giants had won that season. They weren’t in it and they weren’t playing in the finals either. When they won, I was happy for them. Just like in 2004, as hard as this was for me being a Yankees fan on top of it, I watch the Yankees beat up three games and nothing in the independent race and championship there against the Red Sox.
I watched them come back and win four straight. It’s one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history and goes on to sweep the world series against the Cardinals and I was happy for them. I’m happy for the Sox then. I’m not happy for them now because the Eagles seem to be cursed these days. It’s important on that level to root not just for underdogs but to root for great performance. I’m going to turn this into a question somehow. I don’t know if that was the case for you when you were in the professional in the arena, whether it’s even the case for you now. Are you able to root for performance versus abiding by a team that you follow and root for only? Are those two things mutually exclusive from the standpoint of a former NFL pro?
I love when I am watching a game and I know who’s playing the game. I have someone to cheer for in the competition.
There was a great book called The Inner Game of Tennis. It’s a 1972 or 1973 book by Tim Gallwey. It sold millions of copies. This book is more about Zen than it was about sports. He was a master teacher and coach for tennis. One of the things I remember from that book was that he defined competition a little bit differently. Competition is a bit of a virus in our world and yet, part of it is because of the way we look at the competition. There’s winning one over the other and there’s a mentality of trying to even beat the other guy. What I remember from that book that was pretty cool was the idea that competition is about wanting the best out of the other team or the other person that you’re working. In business, there is competition.
There’s competition in sports clearly, yet if you look at competition from the standpoint of, “I just want the other guy to perform at his best so that when I do perform that much better, it’s not because I beat that person or that person fell down on the job. It’s because on that day, in that given situation, we were better. Our team was better or I was better.” I always thought that was an interesting way to look at competition versus this idea of you’ve got to beat the other guy into the dirt and it’s this killer instinct. I remember growing up being in sports that that was applied to the term as well. Do you have any thoughts on the difference between what competition means and in a business context even the difference between competition and cooperation or collaboration?
This idea speaks to me personally. I’ve seen it at the pro level in the NFL and then when I was working in medical device sales, I saw it in business there. I did this in my mind in college all the way on the pros and same way in business afterward. I want to win because I want to win and I perform, but not because the other person failed. I saw it. You’ve got guys making a lot of money in the NFL. I would see their approach and it was more like against the other guy compared to be the best you can be. Putting your blinders on, performing your best, that was always a track I tried to stay on. It’s the same thing in business. When I was in the medical device sale, the doctors, it was the same thing. Some guys would sell against me and that was their approach. That’s how they went at it. I never went at it that way. It was like, “This is a great product. You’re reliable or trustworthy. You do all these things and you just be as great as you can be. Put your blinders on and don’t worry about the others.”
Look down your own lane. You see some of the Olympic finishes, whether it’s on the track and field or it’s in the swimming pool. I was a competitive swimmer in college. There were people who will still be going forward, who will lose the Olympic race, who will lose the gold medal because they turn left or turn right in the last few meters of the race. They take their eyes off their own lane. It is prevalent more and more in the world that we look at other people, whether it’s the individuals or it’s the businesses or things. I’ll just say what I’m feeling, which is that we look at them with envy. We look at them as seeing what they’re doing and we get distracted by what we think is a success on their part.
I know from experience that what you see on Facebook, what you see in Instagram, what you see in any of the places that are having people to look left or right, it’s distracting people away from focusing and have their blinders on in running their own race. They’re looking at other people, not just for validation but they’re also seeing those people and thinking somehow they figured it out and then that makes them feel like crap. They haven’t figured the A and B, that maybe they should be doing what those other people are doing. Is that your take on it as well? Did you see some of that either in the business space and medical device sales or even when you were in the NFL?
My coach, when I was there, he would say to us, “Keep it on your own mat.” It was that idea mixed with control. One of the biggest ones that I love when I play is control what you can control. To me, anytime you’re going through a tough time is to repeat those words. Control what you can control and that’s all you can do. You can’t think about what happened. You can’t think about what might happen. Be in the present. Just do what you can do now.
Your position on the football field was center. I just feel that control what you can control is a great piece of advice. Did you get that from a high school coach? Let us know how you apply that as a center in that work.
The idea of control you can control, I heard that from high school and college from the same guy. He would say to me, “When things were going well or when things are going bad, control what you can control.” As a center, you go out there and you’re making the calls for the guys to the left and guys to the right putting everybody on the same page. The quarterback has the ultimate say, but the idea of control what you can control hits home. If you’re in sports having a bad game, it’s like, “Next play. You can’t control it.” Control what you’re going to do right now.
You can’t control the past, but you have some measure of control over your own mindset in the present. We were chatting about the TED Talk that we have a couple of months back. It got released and it’s this concept of, “Doing this for ten seconds can change your life.” You watched that TED Talk and you were talking to me about the embrace peace. Would you share a little bit about your thoughts on embracing change or embracing the transition or embracing the pivot?
You called it the embrace the pivot. To me, that was interesting. It jumped out to me right away because we would say with the Cowboys in the NFL, especially during campus, to embrace the grind. Embrace the tough times and go with it because that’s where you’re at right now. That’s such a huge part of enjoying during camp or during practices and you beat up. If you take that mindset, it helps you enjoy and understand where you’re at a little more.
Do you feel that that’s been applicable for you outside of training camp and that arena?
When I was trying to learn everything for the heart surgeries, how hard I had to study to be able to have a conversation with the heart surgeon who’s been in school for the past ten years, it’s the same thing with business school and the same with football. I always had to work harder than the next guy next to me and it wasn’t all God-given the ability to go play in the NFL to get good grades. That was not a God-given ability. It was hours of studying and hours of making the right choice of studying compared to going out and go into a party. There a lot of little decisions that add up.
You’ve written a book. I’d love to just ask you, what inspired you to write The Transition Playbook?
It started with the idea of transitioning playbook for athletes. We have 100 athletes in the book from college professional and we have 25 Olympians included in there. We asked them all the same ten questions. We asked them these questions and their advice is what makes up the book. The original idea and where that came from was, I struggled with the transition. When I struggled, I said, “Okay.” It came out the other end. At that point, I looked at, “What are the resources out there? What could have made it easier for me that I can hopefully pass on to the next person?” It was twelve to fifteen books specifically on this topic. After reading all of them, I felt like we found a niche in the market and something that was missing, which was the two types of categories of these books that were for athletes.
One was written by a sports psychologist who had great advice, but they used words that you’d have to look up in the dictionary. They didn’t speak to the athlete. That was the first category. The second category. A lot of great athletes who have successfully transitioned have written this book. The one issue and the one little knock I had on that was, I’m interested in the topic and I found the best advice on page 112. It’s great advice but it’s surrounded by 200 pages of biography. What we tried to do is mix both worlds. We do have sports psychologists in our book, but what we try to do is just say, “Here’s the meat.” You don’t want to go searching. Here’s hopefully one of the answers from one of the athletes that you grabbed onto. It’s advice from a lot of people and it’s the meat of the advice.
I’m going to ask you a challenging question. Do you feel that this book also has wider applicability beyond someone who is reading this going, “I would love to get this book and read this book, but I’m not a professional athlete or college athlete? Is this book for me or does it offer something for me?”
During the process, we had military individuals ask us about it. We had people who were retiring. There are so many life transitions. The one thing that I will be able to grab onto is the routine parts. What are these elite people doing? They share some of their insight, their day-to-day life and what they’re doing. With any transition, what we think is unique and special in the book is, we kept it simple for a reason. We specifically asked our athletes to be direct. We’re not using big words. We don’t want you to have to go get a dictionary. It’s direct, simple and here’s the meat of what hopefully will help you in that transition.
The transition is happening for people in all different demographic groups. You think I’d start with Baby Boomers or people who are at retirement age and there are a ton of those people that are out there. I think there are 10,000 Baby Boomers per day retiring. By retiring, they’re not really retiring. A huge percentage of those people are just moving onto a different thing in their life. They’re creating something. Maybe that’s something they always wanted to create. A lot of those people can’t afford in financial terms to retire so they’re moving onto something. The other end of the spectrum is the younger Millennial group in their 20s and early 30s who are transitioning out of a job every eighteen months on average right now. Turnover and transitions are faster and faster. It’s a big group of people that are not satisfied in their current position, their current job or the business that they’re devoting so much of their time too. It’s a very important topic.
I know we addressed it in a particular way in the book pivot. I’m very much looking forward to reading The Transition Playbook. I was an athlete long ago. I consider myself still someone who’s athletic. It will be relevant for me in business. It will be relevant for me to get some insights from these people. My next-door neighbor was Marshall Faulk who had a hall of fame career. He moved on from that into a different world or a completely different business world that were sports related, but it’s something entirely different. The transition is key. When you were in that athletic world every day that you had physical rituals, do you have rituals right now that you’ve maintained, whether they’re physical, mental, emotional or spiritual that helped you to be at your best? Maybe pick one of those and share that. Our community loves to hear those things.
I love the idea of multitasking. The idea of multitasking where the ritual is this. One of my personal goals is to be able to learn Spanish. They said the best way to learn a language is to do something you enjoy doing while you’re learning the language. Every morning, one of my rituals is I do yoga now. From being 320 pounds back to the NFL, I’m about 240 now. I never thought I’d be saying that. Yoga is my ritual, but I multitask and combine that with doing yoga in Spanish. You’re getting the workout, you’re getting the language, it’s a ritual as well. It’s hidden a lot of check marks for me.
I’m a massive fan of yoga these days. I’ve got to remind myself there are other things to do too.
What kind of yoga did you do?
I was doing hot yoga. These days, we’re doing it more of a vinyasa flow that’s not in a room that’s 105 degrees. My wife doesn’t like the whole getting so sweaty thing. I love it. It is a place for me to learn presence, to be more present, to shut my mind down. Meditation is important. I’m a crappy meditator, but I love to pray and yoga gives me access. I’ll put it in your paradigm. My multitasking when I’m in yoga is that it is a prayerful place for me. I’m praying at the same time that I’m following this moving meditation called yoga that’s being guided by some other beautiful divine soul. For people that don’t know yoga or never done it or maybe have heard things about it, it can be spiritual if that’s what you bring to it, but it is certainly not religious. There is no indoctrination going on in that space that might interfere with your own spiritual beliefs. It is ridiculously good on the body.
It is spiritually but not religious. I have my buddies who played with injuries. When I had a fracture in my back, I started doing yoga. They’re worlds and worlds apart. I can make it through a nice sleeping now, but I have buddies who would say to me, “You do yoga. I like to work out.” When they say that, I just laugh and like, “Come to a yoga class.” I do the same thing. For you, Adam, it’s the same thing. When you make it over to Madrid for a speaking event or anything, let me know and if there is a tough yoga class there that’s hot yoga in Spanish, it’s going to be cool. I think you’ll enjoy it.
That’s a date. We got that worked out. Phil, thank you so much for taking the time. I know it’s many hours ahead in Madrid. I appreciate you taking time out of your day and offering up what I believe is just sage advice to our community. People get out there to support and learn from 100 athletes who were interviewed for the book.
We have over just a hundred athletes in the book.
You don’t have to be a sports fan to get great knowledge from it, but if you are, I’m sure you’re going to love it. The Transition Playbook, you can get it on presale now. That’s cool too because I know that the presales are all going to support a foundation or a charity that Phil is supporting with the presales of the book. I will sign off as I always do in the same way because we start with gratitude. It’s a wonderful way to book in this show to begin in that space of being grateful. I started by feeling peace and being grateful for the peace I was feeling and excitement at the same time. Now I know why because this was a great conversation. I’ve learned a lot and I’m grateful for that. Phil, I’m going to ask you this question. It’s a cheeky question, but did you wake up?
I hope so.
There are a lot of people that are not so sure how to answer that. I ask it quite a bit when I’m doing corporate talks. I’ve been on the road quite a bit in Singapore and then in various places around the country. I always ask our audiences, “Did you wake up?” It gets a chuckle because there are people who are walking dead out there. I saw it in New York when I was a lawyer and I used to walk the streets of that city day after day. I saw a lot of deadness in the eyes of people walking. Waking up is a big deal metaphorically speaking and bringing your awareness and your consciousness up. I’m glad you woke up. Me too, I feel the same way. It’s a process. We’re still waking up. My prayer and my hope are that we all get to wake up again. It’s a fact that we do wake up in the morning to start a new day and take that first aware breath of the day.
There are people who are taking their very last breath at that same moment. If nothing else that you can think of them to be grateful for, realize that that’s a special moment. That’s a sacred and a holy moment. There are people who would love to have that moment and won’t. It’s three steps to begin the day and this is a ritual for waking. Wake up and be grateful. If you’re inclined to say these words, to take ten seconds to put your feet on the floor and feel that gratitude and that appreciation for yourself, say out loud these words, “I love my life, I love my life.” Phil, what are the words?
I love my life.
Thank you so much for being on the show. It’s been a pleasure.
It’s been a pleasure to be here. I appreciate it though.
Take care. Ciao for now.
Thank you. Cheers. Ciao for now.
- Phil Costa
- The Transition Playbook
- The Inner Game of Tennis
- @Costa_Phil – Instagram
About Phil Costa
Former starting center for the Dallas Cowboys, Phil played in the NFL from 2010-2014. After football, he worked for a medical device company, assisting heart surgeons during more than 500 operations. Phil earned his MBA from Columbia Business School in 2018 and has traveled to more than 25 countries including South Africa, Vietnam, and Japan. Today, he lives and works from Madrid, where he’s enrolled in Spanish language school.