How Football Taught Me to Learn from Defeat

How Football Taught Me to Learn from Defeat header

I believe that learning from our failures is one of the—if not the—most valuable steps to achieving success. But our culture often tells us to avoid failure at all costs. I learned early on, though, that when I encountered defeat, failure, and difficulties, I needed to learn from those experiences and come out the other side better for it. Here is how a high school football injury taught me the importance of learning and adapting:

At fifteen, during my junior year, we had a tackling drill in which I separated my shoulder. I probably should not have played again until my shoulder had healed, but I didn’t think about not playing. I just kept playing. Before the injury, I could throw a football 75 yards, no problem. After it, for the rest of the season, I couldn’t throw more than 10 yards. Instead of standing down, however, I was determined to become the greatest ball handler who ever lived—hiding the ball, handing it off. I’d never been much of a running quarterback—quarterbacks didn’t run much in that era, not in high school or college—but I did have the instincts of what we today call scrambling: avoiding the pass rush and buying time to throw a pass. My injury gave me an urgent need to develop those instincts.

Most of all, I studied and practiced and became an outstanding field general. As I built more experience calling plays, I learned how to study the enemy, their habits, strengths and weaknesses. I spent hours with Weyman Sellers and Billy Henderson studying films of what our opponents were doing with their defense. In this way, I was able to plan to counter each and every thing they might throw at us. As a result, I was rarely surprised by anything an opponent did in a game. For me, it was a series of early lessons in innovation and creativity that would continue to serve me long after I retired from football.

In the beginning, my bad shoulder made me worry that my high school football career would be cut short and that I’d never get onto a college team, let alone into professional football. Soon, however, useless worry morphed into invaluable desperation. I simply became that much more determined to play football, and not just football, but great football. Just about everybody sees desperation as a negative. The emotional state of the truly pathetic, it seems to most something to be shed and shunned. But not to me. I embraced my desperation, let it drive me, pushing me in directions I never thought of before—like developing a running game and doing everything I could to help my teammates perform at their highest levels. With a bad shoulder, what other choice did I have?

Adapted from Fran Tarkenton’s book, The Power of Failure: Succeeding in the Age of Innovation.

Fran Tarkenton

Fran Tarkenton

Fran Tarkenton is an entrepreneur and NFL Hall of Famer, and the founder of and Tarkenton Companies. With a passion for small business, he’s started more than 20 businesses during and after his NFL career. Fran is a small business coach for entrepreneurs and business owners, providing advice and guidance through sites such as,, and more. He has written about business issues in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. New and World Report, and USA Today, along with regular appearances on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. You can follow Fran on Twitter @Fran_Tarkenton.