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When I made it into the NFL, it was the culmination of everything I’d dreamed of as a boy — and an obsession that caused me to beat up my body as well as my mind and spirit. I ate, drank and slept football. I trained relentlessly, overdid it without stopping, and was dead set on landing a spot on an NFL team, no matter the pain. I believed that was the only way to be happy. Little did I know.
After being made starting kicker at the University of Pittsburgh, the NFL came calling, and I signed with the Detroit Lions. But six months later, I was cut. I tried again, landing a spot on the Indianapolis Colts the following year. But, after three months, I was injured and had to be let go. Next came the New York Jets. But injury took me down once more.
I bounced from team to team for five torturous years. By then I had a chronic and painful hip injury. But I tried to ignore it, fight it, and when that didn’t work, just play anyway — which made it worse. No surprise that my career in the NFL was floundering. I had a wife now and a child, and I was counting change to pay for gas and struggling to cover the bills. I felt like a failure, told myself I was a failure, and was heading downhill fast.
On The Other Hand...
On the other hand, Karen, my wife, was embarking on her own career as a yoga teacher, and passionate about it. She tried to convince me to give yoga a shot, explaining that yoga’s movements and philosophy would do me a world of good. She knew how injured I was — body as well as mind. But I wasn’t ready. I had to hit bottom.
I realized at one point that I had nothing left to lose – so why not try it? And that’s what saved me.
As a football player, you’re not spending too much time focusing on your own self-discovery. But practicing yoga took me on a remarkable path. The more I practiced, the more it grew.
I learned how to control my fears, self-doubts and worries without burying them. I let go of that fierce need to outperform everyone. I saw the wisdom and opportunities in failures: each had led me to something new, including yoga. I needed to change, and yoga helped me do it.
A New and Permanent Path...
Now, yoga is a permanent part of my life. It’s 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. And among its many lessons are five I want to share:
1. We need time to breathe.
When I was obsessed with becoming an NFL player, I rarely took time to breathe. I was caught in my relentless pursuit, always looking for what was coming next or looking back at what had already happened, and never in the present moment.
Breathing exercises such as yoga and meditation are medicine for the mind that help you work through pain and challenges by quieting your mind and bringing you into the now.
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Action: Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit. Just take the next five minutes to focus on your breath. On the inhale, say, “I’m breathing in.” On the exhale, say, “I’m breathing out.” Your mind will drift — that’s inevitable. But when it does, just gently come back to your breath. You are training your mind to return to the present moment.
2. We don’t have to suffer to succeed.
Suffering is optional — and not optimal — for success. In my struggles with perfectionism, I felt like a failure if things didn’t go the way I wanted them to. The sense of disappointment cut so deep it took a toll on everyone around me.
There is a big difference between healthy high standards and perfectionism. Work hard to accomplish your goals, but not so hard that it ruins your health or your relationships.
Action: One great way to develop mindfulness is to practice non-judgmental meditation. Sit quietly for five minutes, focusing 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.
3. If something isn’t working, it’s okay to step away.
If your work is toxic, there is no reason you have to stay. If 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?
4. We need allies, not critics.
Surround yourself with champions of your cause, and people who believe in you. They are the ones who empower you to keep striving. They are your champions and will be there to help you achieve you goals and dreams. 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. It’s one step closer to becoming real.
6. Let go of the if only’s — and celebrate this one body and one life.
If only I did this instead of that--had more money, didn’t get injured and lose my place on the Lions, Colts or the Jets. By choosing to dwell on the if only’s, I was unable to enjoy the world as it is, in the present.
Action: Identify what your if only’s are, and then instead of focusing on them, make a list of five things you are grateful for right now. Then focus instead that list.
* * * * *
When I realized that I didn’t have to beat the crap out of myself to accomplish something, that was a gamechanger for me. I’d always been in a rush to attain my goals by any means necessary, usually accompanied by pain and conflict. I was at war with my body and my mind. But yoga enabled me to learn to work hard without harming myself. I began to live with intention and self-compassion instead of ambition, and was able to reinvent my life, far beyond the NFL.
©2020 by Sean Conley. All Rights Reserved.
Book by this Author
The Point After: How One Resilient Kicker Learned there was More to Life than the NFL
by Sean Conley
A vivid account of life in the NFL—and an inspiring story of everything that comes after. Against seemingly impossible odds, Sean Conley became the starting kicker for the University of Pittsburgh in his senior year. A year later, he suited up for the Detroit Lions. But when he joined the New York Jets soon after, Conley’s injuries caught up to him, and his lifelong dream came crashing down in a crisis of denial and fear. But while Conley thought life was over, it was just beginning. Transcending football, this is the story of an ex–football player who discovered the true meaning of sports and life, and found happiness in the most unexpected way. Embodying the spirit of the underdog, this is a moving tale of strength, determination, and spiritual grit.
For more info, or to order this book, click here. (Also available as a Kindle edition, an Audiobook, and an Audio CD.)
About the Author
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