I can’t speak for every player but there is something to be said about achieving a professional contract and becoming part of the 1 percent or less who can claim this title. But I also believe it’s easier to become a pro and even harder to stay on top. There is something to be said about a professional athlete who continues to drive, even when they are at the top of their game and unwilling to stop no matter the circumstances. To become a professional, you have to learn to limit mistakes and constantly be ready to adjust during a game. Everyone works hard and has a unique skillset that separates them from the rest but the ones who make it can think four steps ahead, pivot in any moment, and completely change without hesitation. This has helped me tremendously as an entrepreneur, to be able to deal with adversity and be quick to make changes when something isn’t going to plan.
As a part of our series about the work ethic lessons we can learn from professional athletes, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Chabala. Michael is a former Major League Soccer player and founder of sphere. After playing collegiately at the University of Washington and graduating with a degree in Economics in 2006, he was drafted to the Houston Dynamo — arguably one of the best teams in MLS history, winning back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007. Simultaneously, Michael put his heart and “sole” into the Houston community while biding his time to get on the pitch. Traded to Portland in 2011 and then to Washington D.C. in 2013, he found himself prematurely exiting the league in 2014 following his final season with the Houston Dynamo. When the lights went down, he struggled to connect with friends, keep inspired and maintain his physique while working through the arduous transition. After experiencing the “corporate grind,” Michael played back to his strengths and realized his true calling to #keeptheballrolling. Searching for a workout that matched the intensity, team mentality and exhilaration that soccer provided, he put his cleats back on. Learning from the field and mistakes made, Michael started to play in a different direction from his previous 25 years. He focused on quality of play instead of minutes on the field, connecting people rather than passes and doing more with a ball than just scoring goals. From that, sphere was born — a soccer-inspired fitness concept and signature game-changing workout that plays to connect people on and off the field. Learn more about sphere and get in the game at www.sphere.club.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Michael! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Fresno, Calif. with my mother, father and sister. Like most children in kindergarten, my parents threw me into soccer with the rest of my classmates, but what happened after that is something I can’t explain. It was like a flame inside my heart and some magic spell cast over me. I fell in love with the ball. I played soccer pretty much every waking moment thanks to a father who made me practice when I didn’t want to and a mother who was willing to drive me 3 hours, one way, to get me to practice because they wanted me to be on the best team. My parents were beyond selfless with time, money and resources to assist with our passion of soccer. Being one of four, my mother didn’t have many individual opportunities as a child, and my father was raised in the shadow of my grandfather’s decorated 27-year army career, which left him hungry to give me and my sister the opportunity to push ourselves past the limits they never had.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete?
There are a number of people who inspired me to pursue my career as a professional soccer player: my mom and dad, I was motivated by the idea of repaying them for all the time and money they invested in me; my grandfather, who helped raise me and my sister because my parents worked long, hard hours; David Beckham, who became my role model at the age of 8 after living in Europe where I was opened up to the global game of soccer; and the people who said I would never make it, I was fueled by all of their negative energy.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
They say, “it takes a village,” or in my case, a team. It’s hard for me to name just one single person, outside of my family, who helped me become who I am today because my path was guided by more people than I can count. As a youth player, my family didn’t have enough money or free time from work to take me to every practice all over California so I would travel with teammates and stay with guest families. There were the countless private sessions and personal trainings with several coaches. A friend’s father who helped me send out college letters. My college coach who took a shot and offered me a full scholarship to the University of Washington. The sports psychologist who saved my career after my breakup with my first love. I am the reflection of hundreds of humans who have touched my life and acted selflessly to help a boy keep the ball rolling.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I made my Major League Soccer (MLS) game debut against the New York Red Bulls. I was with the Houston Dynamo and had waited almost four years for this moment, to finally get the opportunity to play on the big stage. It was late in the game, and my coach took a shot putting me in on the flank to run the line and make something happen. Thirteen minutes after being subbed in, I was red carded and ejected from the match for a dangerous tackle, an overly excited cleats-up play that was nowhere near a red card in my opinion. It was the fastest ejection by a player making his debut in an MLS game. I cried all the way back to the locker room and couldn’t have been more embarrassed to let down my coach and team.
Like most things in life, the good and bad will come and go, but what I learned in that moment was that you can never let your highs get too high or lows get too low. My coach had a choice, to belittle me or pick me back up. Beyond devastated, he walked back in the locker room after the game had ended and said, “We tied and we get to play tomorrow, so pick your head up and play on.”
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you tell us the story of your transition from a professional athlete to a successful business person?
Alcohol. Depression. Broke. Lonely. Traumatic.
My grandfather passed just before my 30th birthday. It was then I realized that I wasn’t going to play forever, and my world changed. I knew I needed to get back to Houston because I had spent a significant amount of time there and developed a great network that I needed to lean on. I thought, if I could only play one more season to give myself a year to transition. And that’s what I did with hard work and a little luck. I played myself back on with the Houston Dynamo, the team who traded me away in 2011.
After the season I still had hopes of continuing to play professionally, but someone had other plans for me. I found myself living in Kona, Hawaii for 4 months where I was forced to transition during a World Cup year. Like the feeling I had as a child, a new wave of energy and fire was placed inside of me. Hawaii was a pivotal moment in my transition after a few life-changing stories and manifesting what is now my business today, sphere. I knew I had to stop hiding on the island, so after nearly missing a DUI, I went back to Houston with the intention of launching sphere.
As I started working on kickstarting my company, I had to find a job to support my dream. I got a few tryouts with a private equity and wealth management company but was kicked out of both after failing my series 7, twice. I didn’t study or try in my defense. Then I found myself brokering natural gas for two years until they traded me, paid me to leave basically, and forced my hand to go full time in sphere after three years.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects new you are working on now?
sphere was once just an idea of a game-changing workout concept that has now become much more than that. It’s a business that is playing to recreate the locker room and help our world stay connected. We are doing this through our unique ways of working out, which has finally been developed after four years, and now we are focusing on rolling these ways of playing out to the world.
Our partnership with Four Seasons Hotel Houston is one of the most exciting. We are looking to roll out our brand and style of play to other Four Seasons properties focusing on more than just the workout. Look for us to digitize sphere so we can kick it with our teammates anywhere they go and play. Also, look for us to expand and open a few new locations beyond our Houston flagship and host more than just one stadium workout this year outside of the Houston Dynamo field.
Do you think your experience as a professional athlete gave you skills that make you a better entrepreneur? Can you give a story or example about what you mean?
Absolutely. I can’t speak for every player but there is something to be said about achieving a professional contract and becoming part of the 1 percent or less who can claim this title. But I also believe it’s easier to become a pro and even harder to stay on top. There is something to be said about a professional athlete who continues to drive, even when they are at the top of their game and unwilling to stop no matter the circumstances.
To become a professional, you have to learn to limit mistakes and constantly be ready to adjust during a game. Everyone works hard and has a unique skillset that separates them from the rest but the ones who make it can think four steps ahead, pivot in any moment, and completely change without hesitation. This has helped me tremendously as an entrepreneur, to be able to deal with adversity and be quick to make changes when something isn’t going to plan.
Ok. Here is the main question of our interview. Entrepreneurs and professional athletes share a common “hustle culture”. Can you share your “5 Work Ethic Lessons That Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Athletes”? Please share a story or an example for each.
Let the ball do the work. As a professional athlete you learn very quickly that the ball moves faster than any player on the field. It is not possible to do all the running and work for the whole team as an entrepreneur. You have to learn to share the ball and responsibilities with your team, and trust that they are going to keep it, protect it, play it forward and score. The ones who can’t keep up or keep possession must be subbed out immediately.
Play with a purpose. There has to be meaning behind your play. What you do is important but why you are doing it is even more valuable, to not only inspire yourself through the tough times but keep your team motivated and humble during the great ones. On a soccer field, when you pass a ball it must be well thought out — how much weight you put into it, spin or no spin, into space or to feet, what side of the body if to feet and the purpose when this player receives it. What you are trying to do with your play is more important than the actual action of doing. Play for something bigger than a trophy. You’ll be surprised to see what happens.
The best defense is a great offense. Speed of play doesn’t win games, it wins championships. In soccer, some teams keep possession and play safe, only to be countered by the opposition who plays fast and strikes going the other way. Every team has weaknesses and vulnerabilities but if you play to your strengths and attack using those tools, you not only play to your advantage but increase your chance of winning.
Build a locker room. Playing professional soccer has helped me a lot as an entrepreneur but sitting in the locker room of two MLS championship teams has taught me more than any book or MBA lecture could ever. A successful organization starts before you take on the field or any competition. You have to create a safe environment and build an atmosphere full of connection and belonging where all players are equal and heard. You can have the best players on your team but that won’t guarantee success. Building a locker room culture is the greatest and most important aspect to any successful team or organization. Once the standard for the team is set and goal established, it’s game on.
Play to the final whistle. It’s a long season and no championship was won over night. There will be good games and bad days. Never let your highs get too high or lows get too low. Always stay positive, even in the worse scenarios, and be ready to adjust quickly when things are not working. The best part about playing professional soccer was that no two games were ever the same. Just like entrepreneurship, you have to be on your toes and be ready to act, not just react. In soccer, I was always told to play to the final whistle because 75 percent of most goals are scored in the very last few minutes of every game. I always remind myself to be the change I wish to the see in the game, that I’m playing 90 minutes and not getting subbed out halfway.
What would you advise to a young person who aspires to follow your footsteps and emulate your career? What advice would you give?
Be willing to give up everything. It’s easy to play when the lights in the stadium are on and 24,000 fans are cheering for you to win but that is not the case as an entrepreneur. It is dark, lonely and cold. Of course, it’s not terrible because you are doing something you love but when the fans go to sleep and the lights go down, it is just you left alone to hold yourself accountable.
Remember that in sports you get water breaks, substitutions, quarters and halftimes. It is not optional but mandatory you take care of yourself, not only physically but mentally. Be 1 percent better every day and do not look to skip the line when it comes to hard work. There is no shortcut, and it’s not a lie that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Success is measured differently person to person, and I am grateful for the experiences and opportunities I have been able to achieve. I am far from where I’ll be going on my measurement scale of success, but thank you.
I am most proud of the community and connections we are creating for our sphere, our world. I believe we are going to make a difference in the game and in a world that is losing human connection. We are defending to keep our world together. Creating sphere has been the greatest assist I’ve ever made. We all need support, and our business doesn’t just help people, or players, get in better shape but it shares a style of play that works on getting players out of their comfort zone and to light up the world.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement has already started, and it’s called, Play a Great Game (#playagreatgame)! These are more than just words but an identity in which all areas of our business and team members must operate and play by. This is the DNA of our business and our team style of play — to be a good player but be a better person. Always keep the ball rolling, pay it forward and look to create an assist rather than just looking to score while asking yourself, how would you play today if you knew you couldn’t tomorrow?
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when nobody is watching.”
At a very early age I was told it does not matter what you do when others are watching, and that progress is made when you’re alone. I’ve operated in this manner every day since and always look for moments when others rest or take their eye off the ball so I can work in silence, on or off the pitch.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Richard Branson. He is my new David Beckham.