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5 Lessons in Resiliency: How I Rebuilt My Life After the NFL

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5 Lessons in Resiliency: How I Rebuilt My Life After the NFL

As a boy, I dreamed of playing in the NFL, and that dream became an obsession. I ate, drank, and slept football. I beat up my body with relentless overtraining and tortured my mind and spirit, believing that the only way to be happy was with a long, successful career in the NFL.

After I made a starting kicker at the University of Pittsburgh, I joined the NFL, signing with the Detroit Lions. But within six months, I was cut. The following year I landed a contract with the Indianapolis Colts. After three months, I was let go due to an injury. Next, I signed to the New York Jets. But after another injury, that team cut me too.

For five years I bounced from team to team. Instead of attending to my now chronic (and painful) hip injury, I fought it and made it worse. As my NFL career floundered, I told myself I was a failure. Counting change to pay for gas, struggling to support my wife and child, I felt that I was letting my family down.

In the meantime, my wife Karen was growing her own practice of yoga and had become a teacher. Repeatedly, she’d urge me to try it, pointing out that the movements and compassionate approach would help my body and soul. Rather than listen, I continued toward rock bottom. As my NFL career crashed, so did I. There was a moment when I realized I had nothing left to lose. That was the day I decided to take Karen’s advice.

I’m a football player. But practicing yoga saved me. It jump-started a cascade of self-discovery, and the more I practiced, the more it grew. I learned how to control my fears, self-doubts, and worries, instead of letting them control me. I let go of my driven need to compete. Soon I began to see my failures as opportunities. Each had led me to a new path, including yoga.

Yoga is now a permanent part of my life, a physical and spiritual practice that has changed the way I live, increased my compassion for others and myself, and given me a fulfilling career making yoga accessible to others.

Here are five lessons I learned on my journey that may inspire you:

  1. Celebrate this one body and one life. Let go of the if only’s.

If only I had more money. If only I did this instead of that. If only I didn’t get hurt when I was with the Jets or the Colts I would still be in the NFL. Spending time in the world of if only took me away from enjoying the world of what is: the miracle of the present moment.

Action: Identify what your if only’s are, and then instead, list five things that you are grateful for right now.

  1. It’s okay to step away from something if it isn’t working.

If your work is toxic, you don’t have to stayIf you are in a position in work that is taking a toll on your health and mental well-being, it may be time to leave. You don’t have to beat yourself up by forcing yourself to stay with something that is no longer healthy. Maya Angelou said: “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.”

Action: Seek something healthy that ignites your passion. Every day for a week, take five minutes to journal to the following question: When do you feel most alive?

  1. Suffering is optional — not optimal — for success.

You don’t have to suffer to succeed, and there is a difference between healthy high standards and perfectionism. I struggled with perfectionism, and when things didn’t go the way I wanted them to, it made me like a failure and took a toll on everyone around me. To accomplish your goals, you need to work hard, of course. But don’t push so hard that it affects your health or your relationships.

Action: To develop mindfulness, practice non-judgmental meditation. Sit quietly for five minutes. Focus on the area around your chest and heart. Placing your hand on your heart, say “Peace, harmony, laughter, and love” to yourself, and repeat. Soon they will become positive affirmations, and help you experience self-compassion. They will remind you to not take everything so seriously and to celebrate your accomplishments.

  1. Take time to breathe.

During my obsessive pursuit of becoming an NFL player, I rarely took time to breathe. It was always looking for what was coming next or looking back at what had already happened. I was never in the now. Breathing exercises such as yoga and meditation are medicine for the mind that help you work through pain and challenges by bringing you into the present moment and quieting your mind.

Action: Find a comfortable place to sit and spend the next five minutes focusing on your breath. As you breathe in, say, “I’m breathing in.” As you breathe out, say, “I’m breathing out.” When your mind drifts as it inevitably will just gently come back to your breath. You are training your mind to come back to the present moment.

  1. Surround yourself with champions — of your cause.

We all need allies, not critics. Find the people are who believe in you and empower you. These are your champions: they helped you to get to this moment, and they will help you to get to the next. Keep them close.

Action: Share your dreams with one of your champions. Say them out loud, with conviction and confidence. Soon, you’ll start envisioning yourself doing what you want to do and turning that dream into reality. By telling one of your champions, you’ve put your dream on record — one step closer to make it real.

 

Realizing I didn’t have to beat the crap out of myself to accomplish something was a gamechanger for me. I’d always been in a rush to attain my goals by any means necessary, usually by fighting and hurting, my body and soul. With yoga, I learned to work hard without harming myself, and began to live with intention and self-compassion instead of ambition, and reinvented my life — far beyond the NFL.

Ex-NFL kicker Sean Conley (Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets) suffered career-ending injuries from overtraining. He began practicing yoga as part of his rehabilitation, and soon embraced yoga’s mindfulness, meditation, and philosophy as a new life direction. Now a yoga teacher himself, he owns Amazing Yoga in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with his wife. His new book is The Point After: How One Resilient Kicker Learned There Was More to Life Than the NFL (Lyons Press, 2020). Learn more at seanconley.net

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