Stoicism in the NFL: Interview with Sunday Night Football’s Michele Tafoya

Michele Tafoya is one of the most familiar faces in professional football with over 200 games in her career. Since 2011, more than 20 million people tune in each Sunday night to see her as the sideline reporter for NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Though might seem like a strange credentials for an interview on DailyStoic.com considering that we typically interview writers and professors, but in fact, Michele has been a powerful advocate for Stoicism and diligent student of the philosophy over the last few years. It was partly through her influence that The Obstacle is the Way made its way through the NFL and the 2016 Summer Olympics. She is also a big fan of the Daily Stoic book and regularly shares passages from the book with her followers on Twitter.

Michele was kind enough to answer our questions and her answers are absolutely incredible. She shares the best advice she’s seen in the NFL coming from some of history’s best coaches, her favorite book recommendations, how she has overcome incredible personal adversity with lessons learned, the self-talk she uses in challenging moments, and much more.

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You’ve covered over 200 NFL games at this point, you’ve seen big wins, blown games, great teams, bad teams, and interviewed some of the most talented players and brilliant coaches. What have been the more philosophical lessons that you have observed or heard over the years?

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich often used to remind his players in the huddle, “Don’t skip steps.” As talented, practiced, and skilled as his players were, he always reminded them not to skip any part of the play, to stick with fundamentals.

More than one NFL coach often employs the following three words: “Do your job.” That sounds simple. But many players are tempted to “help” others during a play, and that can lead to a breakdown in the play.  With 11 players trying to perform an offensive or defensive play to perfection, each must do his job and his only.

 

We have you partly to thank for spread Stoicism through football, you’d heard about The Obstacle is the Way from Mike Lombardi (who we interviewed), and you passed it along to many others from there. People probably don’t immediately think sports -> philosophy or even sports -> reading, but clearly that’s a big part of what elite performers do. Have you found that athletes and coaches have a hunger for reading? Why do you think that is?

Players and coaches read more than just their playbooks. I often see books in players’ lockers and on coaches’ desks. It makes sense to me that elite athletes would want any and every edge to help them perfect their game. More and more, athletes realize that mental performance is enhanced by philosophical teachings. John Wooden put all kinds of life lessons into writing.  I recently saw that Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was reading, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Rays pitcher Chris Archer found motivation from Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable by Tim Grover. And Kirk Cousins, the Washington Redskins QB, recommended Winning by Jack Welch. Those are just a few examples of athletes searching for wisdom through reading.

 

Breaking into journalism as a woman and specifically into the mostly male sports journalism world, there must have been many moments of frustration and unfairness and adversity. How did you not let that get to you? Is there anything you learned from that that you think other people trying to make it other fields might benefit from?

Criticism is a difficult but necessary part of my job. I can remember some very frustrating and hurtful moments.  But I had a few “go-to” bits of self-talk that helped me through:

1) I’m not identifying myself as a female sports reporter. I’m a sports reporter. This notion helped me focus on the job at hand rather than what people’s perceptions of me were.

2) Life is unfair. That is a fact.  If life were fair, no child would ever die.  If life were fair, everyone would look the same.  If life were fair, cupcakes and potato chips would be good for you.  Accepting that life is not fair is liberating. It reminds you that there are some things with which you have to deal and accept. Why play the victim? It doesn’t get you anywhere.  I don’t accept illogical unfairness — like being paid less than someone doing the same job I’m doing.   But I do accept that there are people on TV who are much prettier than I am.  I accept that I have to exercise and diet to look the way I want.  I accept that I have to freeze my tail off during some games while Al and Cris sit in a warm booth with hot chocolate!  These are things I signed up for.  

3) Don’t let the dishrags get you down. My husband calls the small worries in life “dishrags.”  Someone can throw one at you, but it doesn’t hurt. Annoying, yes.  Harmful, no. What are some examples of dishrags? Someone criticizes your hair.  You give the bartender a $50 bill, and he swears you gave him only twenty. A player or coach publicly denies giving you the quote he gave you.  All of these are survivable.

4) Taking the high road is never a mistake.

 

People associate the NFL with toughness and resilience, but your own life has required its fair share of that. You’ve talked publicly about a number of personal struggles you’ve had. What would you tell someone who is going through a difficult period right now? Is there anything that you think Stoicism helps with?

I wish I had stoicism in my life much earlier.  It would have gotten me through some pretty tough times.  My advice to people experiencing difficulties is, “Read The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday”!  Seriously!  I have recommended your book to many people because of the useful wisdom it offers.  Late in the 2015 NFL post-season, I had to work a game in Minnesota in extreme cold — 6-below-zero.  I was dreading the game for two weeks.  What was I going to wear?  How could I possibly survive the entire game in that temperature?  How painful was it going to be?  Finally, about five days ahead of the game, I said to myself, “The obstacle is the way.  Embrace this challenge. Learn through the preparation.  Strengthen my mind through the experience.  Collaborate with my on-field team on creative ways to endure. And enjoy the challenge.”  My anxiety melted away.  (See what I did there??  Melted??))

As I reflect on my difficulty having children, I realize that the obstacle was the way. After many years of trying, we finally had my son.  After his birth, my husband and I decided to adopt our next child.  The obstacle — infertility — was the way to our daughter. She is one of the greatest treasures in our lives.

Stoicism is not always easy to practice consistently.  But the concepts are simple and can be applied to every aspect of life.  

 

What is your favorite Stoic quote? Or one that you think of often?

Honestly, the phrase “The obstacle is the way” is one I think about whenever I run into a problem.  When I get aggravated over the amount of time I have to spend in a waiting room, I try to find a productive way to spend that time. When I see something unjust, I look for ways to make a difference.  After I recently broke my leg, I had to put aside my active lifestyle. As frustrating as this obstacle has been, I have tried to learn from it. How can I manage my weight without exercise?  What is the best use of my time while stuck in a chair most of the day? How can I put dishes away while on crutches?? And I realized I could do more than I thought! I also gained a new empathy for others who are in pain.

Another comes from Marcus Aurelius, “You have power over your mind – not outside events.  Realize this, and you will find strength.” I preach this to my children every day!

 

And which one of the Stoics do you like best? Who resonates the most with you?

Marcus Aurelius is probably my favorite Stoic. He teaches that you, and you alone, are responsible for your happiness. I’ve learned that my mind is much more powerful than I realized.  Phrases like, “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking,” are undeniable.  He also inspires virtuosity, which I love.  “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”  “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

 

Thank you for being such a fan of The Daily Stoic but we are curious what other books would you recommend to our readers? What have been the books that have most impacted your life?

I am a huge fan of Ayn Rand. I’ve read every one of her books, and they have all impacted the way I see the world. I recently read The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, and I found that there was some intersection with Stoicism. I adore history, and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography gave me a great perspective on how difficult life was in early America, and how relatively easy we have it today. I have read most of John Wooden’s books.  I also enjoy reading (and listening to) radio host Dennis Prager, whose knowledge of all religions gives him a unique platform.  Regarding fiction, you can’t beat Charles Dickens and Jane Austen!