A Conversation with NFL Star Jerry Rice: 5 Lessons Construction Pros Can Learn from Football

jerry rice and construction

Believe it or not, football and construction have a lot of things in common. Much like successful athletes, the construction professionals who tend to go far are those who collaborate well with others and who make it a point to learn from great leaders.

Another similarity lies in having a solid game plan. In the same way that top-tier football players never walk into the field without well-thought out plays, the best construction teams never head to the jobsite without a game plan. 

We talked about these things in greater detail at Construction Zone, a virtual event with football star Jerry Rice.

Rice is regarded as the best wide receiver to ever play in the National Football League and arguably the greatest player of all time. As a Hall of Fame wide receiver, he has won three Super Bowls and one Super Bowl MVP. 

Rice achieved 36 NFL records throughout his 20-year career, and has scored the most touchdowns in the league’s history. What’s more, he holds just about every significant career receiving record, including receptions (1,549), yards receiving (22,895), all-purpose yards (23,546), touchdown receptions (197), and consecutive games with at least one catch (274).

Recently, Rice chatted with Jim Lynch, Vice President & General Manager of Autodesk Construction Solutions, and shared some of the actions and lessons that led to his success — and with how construction professionals can apply those same takeaways in their projects. 

1. Great Leadership Goes a Long Way

One of the most significant takeaways from the session is the importance of having good people leading an organization. 

According to Rice, a key reason he and his team worked so well together was the fact that they were led by a great team owner (Eddie DeBartolo) and an excellent coach (Bill Walsh).

Walsh, says Rice, was the type of coach who ensured that every single player was performing at a high level. 

“If someone was not living up to the standard of the San Francisco 49ers, you had a veteran to pull that individual aside and say, ‘Look, we have a job to do here. We have to work together as one. We have to be one heartbeat. It has to be brick by brick.’”

“I think that’s the reason why we had that dynasty for so long. It starts from upstairs, it feathers down into the locker room, then it’s up to the players to go out there and have that commitment to say, ‘Hey look, we want to win.’ Not just win ball games, but we want to win championships, and that was expected of us by the owner, Eddie DeBartolo.”

The same lesson can be applied to construction teams. While having top performers on the jobsite is essential, equally important is to have leaders (e.g., managers, executives, and owners) who are dedicated to the project and who set the right examples.

“I think leadership is everything,” adds Rice. “When I first came in, I wanted to be just like Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lot. I sat back as a rookie and I watched those guys and I said, ‘Hmm, so these guys, they come to work every day. They’re total professionals.’”

“So as a leader, you have to set the example,” he says.

2. Leading by Example Leads to Successful Teams

Speaking of which, setting the right example is an important step for anyone who’d like to improve a team’s performance. To build a cohesive team, you need to lead by example, remarks Rice. 

He talked about how he consistently showed up early during training camp and worked hard every day, which inspired his team members. “During practice, I was always the first one on the field and I was the last one to leave. Once you start that trend, everyone else is going to buy into it.”

How does this relate to construction? If you want to get more out of a project’s stakeholders, you achieve that not by telling people what to do, but by modeling the desired actions and characteristics yourself. 

When your team sees the drive and the example you’re setting, they’re more likely to follow suit and ultimately perform at a higher level and deliver better results. 

Recognize that winning is achieved through a team effort, and getting maximum performance starts with setting a good example and having each other’s back. 

As Lynch puts it, “Construction is very much like a sport. It’s hard to win if people are only focused on their own world. I look at the customers we serve around the globe, and the teams that work well together and have each other’s back are the ones that are really executing.”

He continues, “I think that’s true of leadership teams at Autodesk. The most successful teams are those that collaborate really well, that work together as one and they can back each other up.”

3. Planning and Preparation are Critical

Exceptional performance on the field doesn’t happen by accident. Winning games (and projects) are a result of consistent practice and proper planning. 

“In football, they’re going to put together a game plan for you,” explains Rice. 

“So a lot of these catches that you see during the game — those exceptional catches — we’ve done them over and over during a week. Preparation is everything. It’s how you practice. If you come out and you practice like it’s a game situation every day, all of a sudden you can go into that ball game and it feels natural.”

Lynch agrees, and draws an interesting parallel within the construction industry. In the same way that football teams plan their moves and plays ahead of the game, construction teams can adequately prepare for their projects by getting the planning phase — i.e., the preconstruction stage — right. 

“That way, when teams get to the jobsite, they have a plan in place,” says Lynch. “I think the analogy is preconstruction and preconstruction planning. Because without the right design information, it’s like showing up for practice and not having a plan.” 

4. The Importance of Visualization

According to Rice, visualization is an important tool that he uses when preparing for games.

“I was one of those guys who felt that I needed to take all of those reps during the week. I would get a pretty good game plan of what the defense is going to try to do in the ball game, and I would visualize the night before because we put the first 15 plays in.” 

He continues, “So I knew in those 15 plays the opportunities that I would have. I would visualize certain opportunities, then the next day I would go out and it would happen that way — I couldn’t believe it. So it’s all about the preparation, and really just loving the game and trying to be the best athlete that you can be.”

This lesson in visualizing can be incredibly useful in construction. From 3D computer graphics to AR and VR, there are numerous programs out there that provide powerful visualizations for projects — we just have to leverage them.

5. Staying Resilient in Turbulent Environments

Resilience is key no matter what industry you’re in. In sports, athletes experience tremendous wins, but they also have to deal with losses, critics, and adversity. The key to thriving in competitive and tumultuous environments, says Rice, is to have a genuine passion and interest in what you do. 

“I think you can stay resilient by loving what you do. I never looked at football as a job. It was always fun for me. I enjoyed going to work every day. I always wanted to learn something new every day.” 

In the context of 2020 and the pandemic, Rice says that the football industry demonstrated resilience by learning how to pivot. 

“I think we all have had to pivot just a little bit because I really enjoy getting out there, meeting people, shaking hands, taking pictures, and doing all that,” shares Rice.

“Now I’m doing more stuff on Zoom, but still just to have that type of interaction and to let people know that eventually, we’re going to come out of this. We’re going to come out of this and everything is going to go back to normal.”

Lynch chimed in and discussed how the construction industry has had to do something similar. 

“One thing we knew before the pandemic — and we’ve certainly seen and confirmed it this year — is the construction industry is super resilient. At first a lot of the sites were shut down, but when they reopened the industry was able to quickly pivot and get back to work. They put safety protocols in place and made sure that worker safety was priority one.”

“I live here in Boston and I see it all over the place. Teams are back to work, they’re adhering to the safety protocols, and I think it just shows how resistant this industry is.”

Lynch adds, “We’ve certainly seen them taking technology like Autodesk and applying it in ways that they hadn’t before. So honestly I think the industry comes out of this stronger. They’ve got better processes and safer protocols in place. Ultimately, I think the industry will thrive.”

Want to learn more about parallels between football and construction? Catch the full conversation between Jerry and Jim here.

Grace Ellis

Editor in Chief, Digital Builder Blog, Autodesk

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