During this time of social distancing, while all professional sports have been sidelined, Orlando City striker Chris Mueller joined us on Episode 77 of the Agents of Innovation podcast. Mueller isn’t just any professional soccer player, he is using his platform to challenge others to be their best, including with a new book club.
“I continuously read, I’m listening to podcasts all the time, just trying to be efficient and productive with my time,” said Mueller. During the pandemic, he has had more time on his hands, so he took his reading one step further and started the “Be The Best” book club. In addition to reading, he also likes to write and started using his time during the pandemic to send out positivity.
“Having learned so much from books and seeing how much reading books has really affected my life, I thought why not use my platform in a more unique way where I can just pass along this information that has really helped me and hopefully could help a lot of other people.” He encourages everyone to start by just reading 10 pages a day.
Mueller hasn’t always been a reader, but he has almost always been a soccer player. As a youth growing up outside Chicago, his parents encouraged him to play many sports and he competed in wrestling, baseball, and soccer. However, around ninth grade, it was time to choose one sport to focus on.
“Soccer was just the sport I had fallen in love with, it was the one I was probably the best at, looking at my careers in other sports,” said Mueller.
He never played for his high school team – opting to play at the club level, which did not allow you to play for your high school team. “I knew that the training that I was going to be doing was going to be better, at the end of the day, with the soccer club versus the high school soccer and I was taking it really seriously and wanted to give myself the best chance of getting a scholarship to a hopefully big school.” He trained year-round, played year-round, and achieved one goal after another.
Mueller received a scholarship to play for the University of Wisconsin. “It was the best decision I ever made to go to the Big 10 school,” said Mueller. “Everything that I learned in college – it was really an invaluable experience that I couldn’t replace with anything – and really it shaped me to become who I am today.”
He arrived in Madison as a 17-year old freshman, the youngest player on the Wisconsin team. “I was super raw, super immature still. I had a lot to learn and I can thank my coach for that. He had seen that, from a young age, that I had some potential that he felt like he could work with but definitely some ways I needed to grow up both on and off the pitch.”
And grow up he did.
“I put all my focus into football and decided that was what I wanted to do,” said Mueller. “I started reading books, I started spending a lot of my time watching film. I weeded out a lot of the distractions that college brings.”
“I really had to take that time to focus in on what I wanted to do. I created some goals and really just went after it like that, took it day by day, just trying to improve myself, staying after training, spending a lot of time in the gym, and giving myself the best possible chance at success.”
All this hard work on and off the pitch turned his career around, helped him finish his junior and senior strong, and led to him being one of the top players in all of college soccer.
At the age of 21, Mueller finished at the University of Wisconsin and was drafted into Major League Soccer in early 2018. Part of his strategy was getting an agent to help him manage getting drafted. Mueller said getting an agent helped him get more exposure and also helps protect young players like him who try to navigate through the legal documents associated with his professional contract. On January 19, 2018, Mueller was drafted by the Orlando City Soccer Club as the sixth overall player selected in the MLS SuperDraft. He made his professional debut in their home opener on March 3, 2018. And on April 21, he scored the fastest goal in Orlando City history, just 63 seconds into the match.
“My experience in Orlando so far has been really good other than the fact that we haven’t made the playoffs yet, which is obviously our biggest goal,” said Mueller.
“I’ve been really just supported by the fans which has been amazing. I’m really grateful for the way they’ve embraced me and brought me in. Orlando really does now feel like my home. It has a really special place in my heart. But I just really want to win for the fan base, for the supporters, for the people in the organization who are working countless hours,” he said. “As an athlete, you want to win, you want to aspire for trophies and championships. For whatever reason it hasn’t worked out so far, but I’m extremely optimistic about the future.”
Mueller said when he hears the chants from fans, including supporters who stand the entire game and “Man the Wall,” reminds him that “it’s what you dream about as a kid.”
“Playing in a stadium in front of thousands of people, that’s what everybody wants, to walk through that tunnel, to be out on the pitch and to be competing and playing the game and scoring the goal and hearing the fans erupt, that’s what you dream about. I used to dream about that shooting in the park, with nobody there. I would score and I would run to the corner and pretend like there were fans. That was always the dream of what it was. So, to see the support we have in our fan section and how they are there every game, super loud … I’m so grateful that I’m at a club that we have supporters like this.”
Soon, Mueller might have to go back to what it was like as a kid imagining the fans cheering him and his teammates on, as MLS will return in Orlando and play in front of no fans, during this time of social distancing following the COVID19 pandemic. In fact, MLS will lead the way in a return of professional sports when the MLS is Back tournament begins at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World in Orlando. The very first game, on July 8, will feature Mueller’s Orlando City playing against the new expansion team from Miami.
“The fans obviously bring so much into sports – all the emotion, all of the eruption, the energy, everything comes from the stadium,” said Mueller. “From that sense it will be tough. But at the end of the day if they tell us: you either play games with no fans or you play no games at all, right? 99% of guys are going to say: ‘yea, we’ll play games with no fans,’ because that’s just the passion. Everyone wants to play. We need to compete, it’s in our blood. It’s tough even times when you can’t compete. I’m sitting here trying to do something to compete with somebody. I’m trying to play card games with my fiancé. I’m trying to get that feeling of winning again. I don’t think it’s as special without the fans, but you have to make the best of it.”
“The TV lights will still be on and we’ll all be back out on the pitch and we know what’s on the line … there’s a lot on the line for us, especially here in Orlando with what we wanted to accomplish this year and things haven’t gone the way maybe we would have liked with the pandemic and the season stopping but that’s not going to stop us from trying to win this tournament.”
“There’s a lot going on in the world right now and it’s tough times for people of all occupations, but I’m extremely excited to get back out on the pitch,” said Mueller. “For the longest time, in a stressful time, we don’t have our number one stress reliever, to go out there and kick the ball around on the pitch, and be with the team, we don’t have that luxury right now,” he recounted during an interview on the Agents of Innovation podcast in early June.
“I think at the end of the day we’ll all end up learning not to take the little things for granted which will probably be the biggest lesson to come out of all of this.”
For many, sports is an outlet. For professional soccer players, it’s also their livelihood. For Mueller, it has had even more significance throughout his life.
“For me, soccer has always been a massive outlet,” said Mueller. “I was always able to escape and go and kick the ball around.” As a youth, while his parents were in the midst of a separation, soccer “was very therapeutic for me, I owe a lot to the game for that … You can go down the wrong path during tough times but thankfully I had the game there for me and the ball was always right there.”
During the pandemic, professional athletes like Mueller have had to be separated from their teammates, coaches, and trainers, and find their own motivation. “To stay fit during this time has been tough,” said Mueller. He would go out for long runs, lift weights and medicine balls at home, and put some cones out in an open field and dribble the ball around. “I would go and do whatever I could to control whatever I could control to stay in shape.”
He described the first days and weeks of the pandemic as the most challenging. “When you can’t really see that light at the end of the tunnel. When you can’t really see that light, it’s tough to stay inspired and motivated every day to go out and run by yourself, to go and kick the ball up against the fence … it’s really hard. But at the end of the day, those are the times that expose the true character so I’m really proud I was able to stay with it and continue to push myself.”
“I didn’t want to allow myself to get out of shape after I had done all that work in preseason,” said Mueller. “But it was really hard to keep finding drills to stay sharp with the ball … it’s tough to do alone, when you don’t have your teammates pushing you, your coaches pushing you, the physio yelling at you to keep going and do one more rep – so you got to find it within you to keep pushing yourself.”
Chris Mueller has a deep inner drive that includes not only his voracious reading but also his Christian faith.
“I think that having a strong faith is really the foundation for everything, right? If you don’t have a strong faith, whatever you might believe in, it’s going to be tough for you because times like this – especially right now, it’s perfect to talk about, during this pandemic – having faith that God has a plan, and that’s what I always refer to, is that I trust in his plan and not my own when things may not go my way,” said Mueller. “Having a strong faith and a belief in a true system and that God has something greater planned that maybe you might not understand has been really a game changer for me and I attribute a lot to my faith; and I dive deep into it a decent amount as well because like I said that’s the foundation when sometimes you don’t understand things but at the end of the day everything is already written out and pre-planned and predetermined and you just got to let them happen the way they are and continuing to ride that faith through.”
In addition to his faith, reading has also been a game changer. In his sophomore season of college “what really turned the key for me,” said Mueller, was when someone handed him the book, Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack. “I kind of had an attitude problem, I was negative, I had a bad temper, always would lose my head in training,” he recounted. “I really just thought it was time to get it right in my head and take control of what was going on between my ears.”
Mind Gym “really just opened my eyes,” said Mueller. “I learned so much from that book which was outrageous and I was just dying for more material.” He then read Relentless by Tim Grover, who was Michael Jordan’s personal trainer. “From there, I had just become obsessed with the idea that there was so much out there in these books, from whatever categories it might be.” He has read books on business, finance, communication, and listening. “Now my obsession to just learn and personally grow, really, it just doesn’t stop.”
Reading also taught him to just “enjoy the process of every day,” said Mueller. “It’s so easy to be consumed nowadays in the technology especially right now with news and all the negativity that just surrounds us that just brings people down. I feel like it’s a time for opportunity and to prosper and to learn about ourselves.”
During the pandemic, he dived even more into reading and started the Be The Best Book Club (BTB Book Club) to inspire others. Mueller now sends out an email to his book club every week with reviews of specific chapters and is developing a discussion tool to better build community among those in the book club.
Mueller says there is “true value that’s out there in books that people are trying to share with us, people who have done ridiculous things. You can take what they’ve learned, even their mistakes, to save you future pain from your own mistakes that you might make, try to save yourself a little bit.” He added, “Reading has just brought me a whole lot of self-awareness. It allows me to change things and better myself.”
“I think I’ve become much more present in just the process and not taking anything for granted. I appreciate every day, every day that I’m able to wake up and put my feet on the ground and open my eyes and just be here and just live the life that I just so much enjoy.”
As he continues to grow both on and off the pitch, Mueller keeps hitting new goals and hopes to one day be able to play for the U.S. National team, have kids, and get a house to raise his family – “those are some of the kinds of things that are exciting me nowadays.” It’s hard to listen to this guy and remind yourself he’s only 23 years old – or maybe it’s just confirmation that reading does in fact grow a person beyond their years.
“You can’t ever predict anything. Nothing is ever going to go according to plan. My short-term focus is just constantly getting better, improving myself just one percent every day. It’s just making little incremental changes to my daily routines, making sure I’m staying consistent and hopefully I can reap some rewards from there and manifest whatever I want to accomplish,” said Mueller.
“It’s not a long career. I’m investing every little ounce of energy that I can. What drives me really insane – is seeing my future self at the end of my career and thinking back and having regret, thinking, ‘I wish I would have just given a little bit more, I wish I would have been a little bit more disciplined in my diet, or woken up to read or do all this mental preparation for training.’ That fear drives me insane.”
With his Orlando City teammates, coaches, and other members of the organization, Mueller finds time to be involved in the community and participate in many charitable events for deserving organizations. “To be able to be a part of things like that and see where you are leaving your mark on your city and in the community, that’s why you play, to provide opportunities like that and to give back to little kids who hopefully have the dreams to aspire and maybe do things that we’re getting to do now.”
Invoking Tony Robbins, Mueller says that, “The only gift in life is to give, what you can give back to the world. At the end of the day, if I’m not serving people and maybe doing what I was put on this world to hopefully do and to hopefully help people, then what am I really doing?” said Mueller. “I think that one of the keys and main things that we’re here on this earth to do is to serve others and to help people to aspire or to accomplish their goals … whatever it might be, just making sure that we’re all giving back and doing this together, where it comes around full circle and you just have a happier place, a happier world, a happier people.”
Mueller is doing more than his part in serving the community and his fans. He is using his platform to challenge each one of us to be the best we can be. During these times, Chris Mueller is a certainly an agent of innovation – and inspiration. May we all follow his example and be the best we can be.
You can listen to the full interview with Chris Mueller by tuning into Episode 77 of the Agents of Innovation podcast, on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. You can also follow the podcast on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. We welcome your comments below and encourage you to write a review on Apple podcasts!