Christian Ponder is Helping Ex Athletes Transition to Business
Former NFL star Christian Ponder discovered early in his career that a quarterback’s success oftentimes came down to preparation. Now as an entrepreneur, he’s parlaying those football experiences—both good and bad—and other athletic attributes to help former athletes in their transition from the field to the boardroom.
In September, Ponder launched The Post, a private membership club comprised of only professional college and former Olympic athletes. Ponder along with co-founder Jason LaRose, came up with the idea of this sports safe space with the intention of helping create a leadership network for ex-athletes to make the transition to the business world once their careers came to a close.
The adjustment from gameday to life after sports isn’t always seamless—it even affected Ponder, who had earned an MBA while playing at Florida State from 2007-2010, and was already prepared for a post-football life in finance.
“It didn’t take me long like mentally to be like alright, it’s over, it’s time to move on,” Christian Ponder says. “But there was a bit of paralysis by analysis when sports was over. You can choose any path to go down when it comes to do that next chapter, but it’s hard because it’s like, what am I good at? What am I actually interested in outside of sports and it does take a little bit of time to navigate that part of it.”
Ponder adapted, just as he did while during his collegiate days with the Seminoles. It wasn’t as if the Dallas, TX, native’s gameday preparation was ever incomplete. However, an abundance of interceptions—13 INTs as a sophomore at Florida State—as well as a whole host of admittedly bad decisions had placed Christian Ponder at a quarterback crossroads early in his career.
While calls for his benching grew louder, Christian Ponder quietly retreated to the film room, using whatever down time he had to elevate his ability to better read defensive coverages through countless hours of film study. At the same time, with the extra work, he, along with the help of then-offensive coordinator (and eventual head coach) Jimbo Fisher, was able to find and fix the multitude of “correctible errors” that had plagued his 2008 season.
The added prep was partly responsible for a complete offensive turnaround his junior and senior seasons. His interceptions had dropped significantly, his touchdowns increased, and his overall performance was not only helping silence the naysayers—he even got some early season Heisman whispers. His talents and leadership helped elevate his draft status when he was selected 11th pick in the 2011 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings. In his second season, Ponder led the Vikings to a playoff appearance.
“Coach Fisher always said the game was won and lost before you ever stepped on the field because of how you prepared, Ponder says. “So if you’re struggling you got to just reinvest much more effort and that much more time to prepare to be able to have that confidence to step on the field and play your best.”
Ponder says the ability to adapt through adversity is one of the attributes that makes athletes successful in the business world. It’s been reported that more than 90 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs played sports, and 52% of all female C-suite CEO played collegiately. With the Post, Ponder has created a club for this like-minded business types to use their skills and resources and sports skills—preparation, teamwork, and the intense commitment to competition—to help others find success in their post-athletic endeavors.
“It’s what we’ve kind of coined the athlete operating system, which is a set of intangibles—work ethic, grittiness, competitiveness and dealing with failure,” Christian Ponder says. “Dealing with it not in a depressing way, but how am I gonna learn from failure even and apply that to the next time. [Athletes are] coachable, ambitious and always trying to achieve more. And I just think those characteristics translate so well into business and sets you up for success.”
While Christian Ponder is continuing to help develop a Winning Strategy for helping other athletes achieve success, the same formula can be applied to his fitness as well. At age 35, Christian Ponder has maintained his NFL playing weight—225 pounds—relying on recycled Vikings training journals he kept for his post-football regiment.
Ponder admits to training with not quite the same intensity as he did during his playing days, when he was a member of the 400-pound bench club while starring at Florida State. These days his muscle maintenance is inspired by maintaining the good graces of his wife, ESPN host Samantha Ponder, by sticking to an agreement they made just after the couple tied the knot.
“After we got married she said, ‘Look when you’re done playing football, you can’t lose 10 pounds and you can’t go over 10 pounds from when we got married,” Christian Ponder recalls. “My playing weight was 225. So I can’t go past 235, and can’t get super skinny. So 225 was an ideal weight was to maintain. It gets harder as you get older…but I’m still right there.”
1. Most Mistakes Can Be Fixed, if You Work to Find and Correct Them
I had a lot of failures, a lot of bad picks, and just many bad plays. I think back to my redshirt sophomore year at Florida State. It was a bad season. A lot of people thought I shouldn’t be the starter for the next year. But what I did was I spent a lot of time in the film room. I spent a lot of time with my coaches, but also a lot of time by myself figuring out like, Why did you make all those stupid mistakes? What was happening? It made me a lot more confident to realize they were stupid mistakes—all preventable things, and up to me to invest in the time to get better, to study and understand defenses.
I think [former FSU coach] Jimbo Fisher had such a great perspective when it came to quarterbacks and success at the quarterback level. He would ask the question, “Why are we doing this?” “On this play, why is the pass route designed this way against this coverage and who are you identifying? Is it the corner? Inside linebacker? Outside linebacker? Safety? So spending a lot of time learning from that season really helped me have an incredible junior year. I think even after my junior year I could’ve turned pro in the NFL draft, but I had another failure—three interceptions against Clemson. The third [int] would’ve been been a pick 6, and I was so mad I tried to blow up a 230-pound safety—he barely moved and I ended up separating my AC joint and couldn’t go in the draft.
There have been a lot of failures. But what I learned from my sophomore year made me a better player.
2. Embrace Self Awareness
I appreciate feedback. There are times when it gets hard—it’s hardest when you’re not playing well and you’re not you’re confident. If it keeps piling on it can hurt your confidence. And confidence is really important, especially at the quarterback position and as you get into the higher levels where the pressure is the highest.
Losing your confidence is detrimental to your performance. But I think criticism is an important part of growth. And we have to be aware of the things that aren’t going well. One of the biggest strengths athletes have is this hyper-awareness and self criticism around things like, what went well, but also and more important, what didn’t go well with my performance and how to identify those things. Whether it’s through a coach criticizing me or any other forms of criticism, or just my own criticism against myself, I have to know the things that I can get better at and put in the effort to get better so I can perform better.
At the Post we believe in the strength of self awareness. So the resources that we offer our members include how to invest in self awareness. And then our job is to bring the resources to help our members get better at whatever they identify as things that they may be a little bit deficient in. We can help them get better and offer pathways of growth.
Obviously we don’t criticize people, we help people identify things that they can continue to get better at and how do we help them get there. That’s a part of the athlete journey. That’s a part of everyone’s journey, right? I think it’s your choice, whether you want to have some honest conversations with yourself and if you want to get better, you’ve got to figure out what you can get better at and how to do it.
3. A Strong Athletic Mindset Requires A Strong Physical Presence
What was so great about being in sports and football was that you had so much structure, especially when it came to working out. You always had a strength coach and a program. I knew that my time playing would eventually end, so I actually kept a lot of my workout books, especially during my time with the Minnesota Vikings, so I still try to follow similar things.
I belong to an Equinox in New York right down the street from me. And as much as I just hate working out in public gyms—where [many] guys aren’t used to like being in weight rooms and putting weights back or like, God forbid, you can’t go get a drink between your sets or someone’s gonna steal your bench. It drives me nuts, but I still try to get to the weightroom about five days a week. I don’t need to be as fit as I was on the football field and don’t need to be throwing around as much weight as I did while I was playing
I’ll also run in Central Park with a buddy of mine a few times a week, as well as do some anaerobic stuff like hill runs. I also play in a basketball league that’s both fun and competitive but also a great workout.
These days, however, I don’t have as much time. Back then it was your job to stay fit and you dedicated your time in the weightroom and conditioning throughout the day. It’s not the case now. I have three kids and I’m the founder of a startup. I don’t have the same amount of time, you know, to spend 90 minutes in the gym and work out.
I’ve learned that sometimes it’s OK to just get 30 minutes in and do what you can. That’s definitely different, and I’ve had to accept that. It got to the point a few years where it was like there was no point to a 30-minute workout. So I wouldn’t work out at all. So it became a change in routine and a change in mindset. I’m not trying to kill myself. At this point, it’s maintenance for me, not about throwing up big numbers. I just want to stay fit enough that I can keep chasing my kids around and live a long healthy life.
4. Why Christian Ponder Believes Athletes Need Outlets Like The Post
I got my undergrad in finance, and got my MBA while still playing at Florida State. I knew I wanted to get into finance. That’s one of the main reasons we moved to New York, it’s the financial capital world, I think on paper I had it all together. I didn’t expect the transition to be difficult, but it was. I think going through that experience was a big motivating factor for launching the Post.
We’re not trying to help athletes in transition. What we’re trying to do is build a community for athletes to transition into when they’re done. Like what I had when I transitioned to college or when I transitioned to the NFL, we kind of had this veteran locker room to step into and just like we had where you have players who were juniors and seniors in college or players in the NFL for 10-plus years, who knew what it took to compete at that level as a young person. Your building relationships. Learning via osmosis to figure how to compete at that level.
It’s the same what we’re trying to do: How do we take former athletes who are doing extremely well in business because of their athletic background. For me life [post-football] was a loss of identity, a sense of purpose, structure and routine and a loss of community. So for us at the Post, it’s about how to combat that.
Athletes shouldn’t shed their identity when they’re done—success in sports and business require the exact same qualities. In business you’ve got to work hard, you’re gonna be introspective, have great goals, and you’re gonna deal with failure— all the things that made you a great athlete.
5. Find Your Group of Like-Minded Teammates
In creating the Post, I knew I wasn’t alone. You talk to so many athletes about what they miss most about playing, and it’s usually some version of missing the locker room or the team, which is just another word for community. So I knew I wasn’t alone in those feelings, and before you know, I saw these ideas started happening. I got a lot of feedback, like, why hadn’t this been built already? It seems like an obvious ideas. And I don’t know the answer to that, but I just built it on selfish ambition because I just missed being around other athletes, so I knew I couldn’t have been the only one.
We’re just trying to build that space for athletes to reconnect with their community. Again, it’s a community we’ve been a part of for so long. And what we’re trying to do is create that sports ecosystem that we all participated in, and was created in a way to get the best out of us when it came from an athletic perspective or potential. You had teammates who were there to support you and push you along the way. You had coaches and training and all these resources to unlock as much of that athletic potential as possible. We’re just trying to take that same ecosystem, that same group of people and try to unlock or harness all of that professional business potential that athletes possess because of that athlete operating system as we call it.
So if you miss being a part of that community, if you identify as an athlete, we’re here for you. Our members go from mid 20s to mid 70s. our theme is once an athlete always an athlete, and I think one of the things about athletes is that we always thought our best performance was still ahead of us, so it will always still get better. For us, we’re trying to be that that grease on the wheel that helps you get there.