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Karl Mecklenburg signing autograph

Heart of a Student Athlete

by Karl Mecklenburg

There is no easy or typical path to NFL stardom. Each individual must find their own strength and motivation as they overcome the odds and the obstacles that stand in their way. Along the way I learned the universal unchanging keys to success that allowed me to thrive in the competitive world of professional football and in my present profession as a motivational speaker and author.

Karl played for the NFL Denver Broncos

The first key to success is desire. As a parent we want great things for our children but unless that desire comes from within your child they cannot succeed. As a coach, a parent, and an athlete, I saw situations where parents had taken away the opportunity for their child to develop that burning desire to succeed that all top performers possess. This passion is developed in difficulty. Sacrifice, injury, losing, unfair treatment, each are crisis points where an athlete decides if they’re all in or if they’re done. When parents step in and take these decisions away from young athletes the youngsters never develop the passion and resilience that competition at a higher level demands.

Goal setting is a discipline that successful people in every walk of life practice. Sports are great places to develop the habit of goal setting. I have found that setting preparation goals is much more effective than setting game goals. After honestly evaluating a performance I would pick one or two areas that I needed to concentrate on in preparation for the next game. This type of preparation goal setting guards against complacency and insures that the competitor will continue to advance toward their desire.

Courage to try new things and to be decisive will always be keys to success. Fear of failure keeps many talented people from pursuing their dreams. How can a person know where their passions lie without the courage or opportunity to try new things? While a parent cannot supply talent, desire, or dedication for their child, they can offer opportunity. Opportunity and encouragement to try new things will allow your child to find passions to pursue. Music, theater, art, and athletics, should all be a part of each child’s experience. As school budgets tighten these experiences become more and more the responsibility of parents.

Dedication is hard work, constant learning, and refusing to quit. Each of these virtues is a function of desire. Do your children know how hard their sports heroes worked and continue to work at their passion? Is that effort something you respect and point out to your young athlete when you see it displayed at your child’s level or in the pros? Your dedication and your approval, and respect of dedication will help develop it in your child.

Honesty and forgiveness may be the most difficult key to success of all. The ability to be honest in self evaluation is a rare but necessary skill. Many people will consistently sell themselves short and set goals that cover ground they have already covered while others believe they have already arrived and fail to set goals at all. There is nothing more debilitating than the inability to forgive your own or others mistakes. Desire, teamwork, dedication, and courage are all compromised when a competitor won’t forgive.

Teamwork is a virtue that the world is hungry for. In great teams the team covers for each individual’s weaknesses while it values and makes full use of each individual’s strengths. Teamwork is obviously important in sports and participation in sports may be the best way to learn to be a good teammate. As a longtime captain of the Denver Broncos I have instant credibility in this field but the truth is that teamwork is every bit as important in the workplace and at home. 

With teamwork, courage, honesty and forgiveness, dedication, desire, and goal setting, athletes and as I’m sure you have gathered by now anyone else, will be successful. As parents of young athletes our biggest roles should be in opportunity and support as our competitors learn to overcome the obstacles of sports and life.


A Former Denver Broncos captain and All-Pro, Karl Mecklenburg rose from being a college walk-on and a 12th round draft pick to a pro career that included six Pro Bowl and three Super Bowl appearances. Since retiring from pro football in 1995, Karl divides his time between family, motivational speaking, and his ongoing charity involvements. Karl is a member of the National Speakers Association. He has enjoyed speaking to a variety of groups over the years, and his story is both humorous and inspirational. For more information on Karl Mecklenburg or please visit Email Karl at: Karl’s new book, “Heart of a Student Athlete, All Pro Advice for Competitors and Their Families” is now available – click here to get your copy at



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