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Nine Zero Plus - Amobi Okugo

Amobi is an American soccer player with over 10 years of professional playing experience. A mainstay on the US youth national teams, experience with the Philadelphia Union, Orlando City, Sporting Kansas City, and Portland Timbers, Amobi currently plays for Austin Bold FC in the USL Championship.


Amobi is equally active off the field as on it. Amobi is the Founder of A Frugal Athlete. He is also the Founder of the Ok U Go Foundation, an organization that helps children from low-income backgrounds unearth their talents and passions to build a better life for not only themselves, but also for their families and communities. He is an avid learner, having pursued educational programs post university through the Crossover into Business Program at Harvard Business School and Executive Education Program at Columbia Business school.


Amobi is someone that you can as easily talk about the future of soccer as brainstorm entrepreneurial concepts with. We cover a lot in our conversation, including:

  • What playing 10 years of professional soccer teaches you.

  • Why you have to be your biggest cheerleader.

  • Why athletes should be on LinkedIn.

  • Why you should know about A Frugal Athlete and Ok U Go Foundation.

  • How to make it on the Forbes 30 under 30 list.

You can learn more about Amobi on Wikipedia his personal website and at A Frugal Athlete.

This conversation was edited into written form to make it easier to read.

Enjoy!


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Richard

What was your first memory of soccer?


Amobi

My first memory is with my dad. He used to take me to the park, and I would just run around, kick the ball till I was tired everyday. My first official memory was my first soccer game and my mom, uncle, and whole family were there. I scored 7 goals or something crazy like that and it was such a great feeling. I remember my mom cheering for me and everything.


Richard

How old were you?


Amobi

I was in kindergarten. That was the first game I can remember. From there, I played for my school team through the fourth grade and then I went to play for the local club team. My parents didn't know anything about competitive soccer, that direction came from my school when they told my parents that their son needed to be playing at a higher level.


Richard

When did you realize you could pursue soccer as a career?


Amobi

Growing up your parents and friends encourage you and tell you you're going to go pro because you're the best on the team and that was great. But knowing how big the world is and how hard it is to go pro it wasn't until I got invited to residency at the IMG Soccer Academy when I realized it was a real opportunity. At that time, I was playing for the youth national soccer team and had the opportunity to travel the world to ultimately compete for the U17 World Cup. I realized I was pretty good but knew I had to figure out a way to not only sustain but also take it up another notch. The exposure to that level of soccer and opportunity increased my love for the game and the motivation. It was a sacrifice at a young age of 14 or 15 to go to residency but it was a unique opportunity and I just embraced it. I loved it. And at the time soccer wasn’t a clear path in the US, there wasn’t the clear path you see in other sports where if you were good at basketball or football you did whatever it took to have a chance at playing college or going pro. For soccer, it was a much more personal decision because the notoriety of the sport wasn’t quite there. I think that’s changed now.


Richard

Who were some of the biggest influences in terms of teammates, coaches or those immediately around you?


Amobi

There's so many coaches to name. One of my coaches back home, Ruben Mora, was a big influence. When I came home from residency he took it upon himself to make sure that I continued to play at a high level of competition and get the practice I needed to develop. I was 16 or 17 years old and he’d bring me to his men’s league practice to help push me mentally and physically. John Hackworth was another big influence. He was the coach that invited me to residency. He gave me a chance at residency and was a big influence by always pushing me to keep developing my game and developing different skill sets.


Richard

During your development and into your professional career, what disciplines, philosophies or routines did you develop?


Amobi

What stands out to me are the management skills, organizational skills, discipline that I developed over time. A routine and balance is so important. In order to perform at the top level, on a week to week basis, I need to make sure my checklist is in order. Outside of training and playing, there is nutrition, stretching, meditation, recovery. Being organized is critical. When it comes to the game itself, I'm kind of superstitious. I have a ritual. I call my parents before every game, read my book, listen to my music, and make sure I have good meals and drink water. When you see results over and over again, you tend not to stray. Obviously there's going to be good weeks and bad weeks, but consistency tends to lead to more good weeks than bad weeks. It’s important to know that you may need to switch some things around based on your form or how your body is feeling but for the most part, I have guidelines, and I go by them.


Richard

If you’re willing to share, what is it that you talk about with your parents before every game?


Amobi

My mom says a prayer for me and my dad would give me a whole rundown on the game, the other team. Sometimes we talk for a while, sometimes it’s short, but it’s something I do.


Richard

Is there anything specifically that you’ve taken from the game of soccer and being a professional athlete and applied to your approach off the field?


Amobi

I feel the game of soccer is like the game of life. I compare it to chess. You can learn so much about yourself through playing chess just like you can learn so much about yourself through playing soccer. And it translates to life off the field and in the corporate world. I mentioned time management, organization, discipline, and with that comes goal setting. As an athlete on the field, you have to have goals. I’ll set goals for any given game and I do the same off the field. Another good example is learning how to work in a team setting and responding to people. This is critical in life. How do you respond to people giving you criticism? How do you give criticism? What motivates you and how do you motivate others? These are all critical on the field and off the field.


As I’ve developed, another element of soccer and life is how do you brand yourself? There are so many people all over the world that want your spot so how do you set yourself apart, how are you a differentiator. Not only on the field through your performance, but what do you bring off the field. Are you a good locker room presence, are you a good leader, are you a good role model, are you going to be additive to the team or a distraction? And beyond that are you going to fight for yourself and negotiate for yourself? At the pro level, even though you're playing, it's a job, you need to make money, you need to support your family. So you have to learn how to brand yourself, to put yourself in the best position to negotiate for yourself. You have to brand yourself in a way the GM, the President, the Coach, the team knows that if they lose you they're going to be losing a valuable piece to the organization and to the team. And that is a lesson for life too.


Richard

Touching base on that briefly, about negotiations, you are a part of the USL PA and were a part of the MLS PA, correct?


Amobi

Yes. I'm a part of the newly formed USL PA and I've previously been with MLS PA. I think it's important to get involved to protect yourself and protect the players. I'm happy to do my part in whatever capacity.


Richard

With the career and experiences you’ve had, what advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?


Amobi

I would say embrace every opportunity you get because you never know when it's going to be gone. You won't realize how quick it goes by till it’s gone. Do the extra sessions, the extra workouts, all that, embrace it, do it, because it's going to help you. Treat every game like it's your last. You have to take advantage of it.


Richard

Before we discuss your entrepreneurial pursuits, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane, what is a memory of one of your greatest or most fun soccer moments?


Amobi

There's one game that’s a fun memory. We had a stacked team and were playing at the Dallas Cup, one of the top youth tournaments. We were playing the Bolton Wanderers. They were the favorites and thought they were going to beat everybody. Our team just came out and smacked them around. I had one goal in that game that my dad and I joke around saying, “If people saw that game you would be in Europe!” Scouts weren't looking at American players back then the way they are now. Professionally, it was the first game I played. It brought all the sacrifices that my parents made to fruition and made it worth it. The countless drives, the countless tournaments, all the work we all put in came through in that first professional game. That was a blessing.


Richard

What about one of the hardest moments?


Amobi

The lowest moment was getting injured. I immediately got traded to Kansas City and it led to a combination of things that compounded and was really hard. When they released me it impacted my ability to get back on the field because now I was labeled as someone that got injured a lot. And that was literally not the case. That was the one injury that I've dealt with my whole career. That was a tough moment. The year I was a free agent was another hard moment. No team wanted to sign me. I thought I was coming off two playoff appearances where I played well. It was really interesting to see who's really in your corner. Who’s for you and who's against you. That was a whole year. No legitimate offers. It was a tough moment, especially with your family and friends asking you what's going to happen. Through the grace of God and the people in my corner, I finally found the right situation and got back to playing.


Richard

Starting to shift gears a bit, when did you start preparing for your post playing career? You're involved in a number of initiatives but when did you start to lean into your entrepreneurial spirit?


Amobi

I left school early to play, but I promised my parents I'd finished my degree before I retired. So fortunately, that always had me in the mindset of doing something else outside of playing soccer. Once I finished school, I was already trained to be working outside of soccer and now had time for everything else that I wanted to do, everything I was passionate about. If you wait till you retire, it might be too late. And you can use the leverage you have as an athlete to start building.


Richard

How did you land on A Frugal Athlete, what is the story behind A Frugal Athlete?


Amobi

Growing up, I was always interested in business and finance, but it wasn't really until I saw the 30 for 30 ‘Broke’ documentary where I realized what athletes at a much higher level monetarily were going through. I told myself, which athletes can I follow to avoid what they're going through? I was finding athletes like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady, Serena Williams. These are of course the anomalies, so I can't really compare myself to them but I can still learn from them. As I did more research into what I was trying to avoid, going broke, I kept finding athletes that lost it all similar to the documentary. A Frugal Athlete started off with my curiosity to learn about these athletes, how to help these athletes, how to help myself, and build a roadmap to be prudent with your finances, be smart with your career decisions. That’s what started it. People always used to call me cheap so it was a play on words that I'm not cheap, I'm just frugal.


Richard

Taking that a step further, what do you think of when you hear the phrase “more than an athlete”?


Amobi

I love it. People say you retire from sports, but you can't really retire from sports. I've never met an athlete that's played until they're 65. So essentially, you get fired at the end of the day. A team doesn't want you or you just you don't have the capacity to continue at that level. So yes, you retire but if you were able to continue playing you would. What happens is the mindset of being an athlete makes you more than an athlete. There's so many other things that you can do outside of your sport. It's a blessing to see athletes embracing this and showing their unique personalities, unique passions, and for them to express themselves, and use their platform from sports to engage with their audience, engage with their community. I think that's what it's all about. And hopefully we will continue to see more of that. As athletes, you have to keep the main thing, the main thing, because in order to play as long as you can, you have to perform on the field or on the court, but off the field and off the court you can express yourself and be much more than an athlete. In sports, you're going to end in divorce, whether you like it or not.


Richard

With so much going on, how do you manage your time?


Amobi

Google calendar is my best friend right now and time blocking to allocate hours to focus on my passions. What I realized is it doesn’t have to be 4-6 our blocks to make progress. It could start with one hour a day or one hour a week, just find time to focus on whatever you want to do. For me personally, I like a specific schedule. On certain days I do different things depending on what project it is for. When I'm on the soccer field, everything is soccer. When I'm off the soccer field, by having a schedule, it allows me to decompress and focus on other things.


Richard

We talked about early influences and people you modeled or looked up to as you developed as a soccer player, what about as an entrepreneur and an athlete entrepreneur at that?


Amobi

I follow Paul Rabil and Lebron James as athletes and entrepreneurs. They do a lot of great things and are very innovative in their approach. Elon Musk is a big one that I follow because he bets on himself. He's always trying to improve himself and just keeps building towards what he feels his impact should be in the world.


Richard

Turning back to you, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?


Amobi

You have to have a process. If you don't have a process, you're going to be all over the place. You have to be your biggest cheerleader. If you're running a business, it's cool to be humble but if it’s your business, it's your baby, you have to brag about, you have to prove your business has value. You have to have authenticity, people love authenticity, and if you're not, they'll quickly vilify you for it. Always be authentic, always be true to yourself, that tends to lead to more success over the long run instead of the short term. Don’t try to lie your way to the short term.


Note: an example of being your biggest cheerleader came from a post Amobi made on LinkedIn that led to him being named to Forbes 30 under 30.


Richard

As you look ahead, what are you most excited about or what do you hope to achieve with your business ventures?


Amobi

For me, it's continuing to create a community where iron sharpens iron. This is how I think about the people I surround myself with and the businesses and opportunities I pursue. With A Frugal Athlete, by starting with pro athletes, hopefully by improving this community it will not only lead to better long term outcomes for athletes but as trendsetters also indirectly lead to better long term outcomes for the individuals that follow these athletes. If we can help athletes be smarter with their money and leverage their opportunities better, hopefully those that look up to athletes as role models will too. In that way, we can indirectly influence a larger demographic.


Richard: At LinkedIn, the goal is to create economic opportunity for the global workforce. And one of the ways I’ve talked with colleagues about to do that is to drive engagement through as you point out influencers, trendsetters and those that already have a platform. There is inherent value in those influencers, trendsetters and those that already have a platform engaging on a network like LinkedIn to not only build their own brand but also to drive a much larger change in the larger demographic that you highlight.


Amobi

That's a great point about LinkedIn. I feel that everyone on LinkedIn has purpose to why they're on LinkedIn. Whereas for example, Twitter and Instagram, it’s more captions and pictures, still valuable but less purposeful. On LinkedIn, whether it's connecting with like minded business individuals or for personal development, the organic approach resonates. The post I made about voicing my pursuit of Forbes 30 under 30 was one of my most viewed posts on LinkedIn, because it was organic, authentic, and I think people gravitate towards that more on LinkedIn compared to Instagram or Twitter. Athletes need to get on LinkedIn.


Note: following the interview, Jordan Teicher wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times about athletes and LinkedIn: On LinkedIn, Pro Athletes Make Their Next Move.


Richard

As a closing question, something that is important to me is my home roots. You mentioned you follow the Nigerian national team, where your family is from, when was the last time you visited and any plans to incorporate that into your life moving forward?


Amobi

I've only been back at once. My parents raised four kids and trying to make a living is tough, so traveling to Nigeria wasn’t a part of our upbringing. But I went back for the first time two years or three years ago, and I want to make a habit of going back, at least every other year. I remember growing up, my dad had the VHS tapes, Atlanta Olympics, 1994 World Cup, that was kind of the Golden generation for Nigerian soccer. So we followed them since then. But we have a lot of family back home too. My parents are doing a good job now that they're older, being part of organizations that are giving back to our Motherland, our home village. But as they get older, it's up to me and my siblings and cousins in the next generation to lead the next phase because they left their home to make sure we had better lives. So it's up to us to give back now and that's a big goal of mine.


Richard

Thank you so much for your time, as always you’re gracious with it, and I enjoyed the conversation.


Amobi

We could talk shop all day. The more soccer conversation like this that comes out the better for the community. Happy to do it.


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