September 11, 2020

Lessons from an Ex-NFL Pro: Stop Saying “If Only” & Start Living in the Now.

Each one of us has spent time in the land of if only.

If only I had more money… 

If only I had chosen that job instead of this job… 

If only I hadn’t done that or said that…

I lived there for years after my NFL career came to a halt long before I wanted it to. I told myself, “If only I had made different decisions, and if only I hadn’t made certain mistakes, I would still be playing.” I beat myself up for all those if only’s—constantly.

I was so stuck in the world of what could have been that I locked myself out of the world of what is. But, in time, I realized that I couldn’t enjoy the present moment by choosing to dwell on all the if only’s. And the present moment is where the miracles are—the joys.

I realized that the more I could stay in the present, the better I felt. I began letting go of all those if only’s, and that’s when my whole world changed for the better.

Here are four proven ways to help you let go of your if only’s:

1. Let the past go and forgive yourself. 

It’s easy to look back and say I shouldn’t have done that, or I should have done this instead, or, how did I not know any better? My football career ended prematurely due to injuries caused by overtraining, which I blamed myself for; I was so hard on myself. There is a Zen proverb: “Let go or be dragged.” For too long, I allowed myself to be dragged by my mind.

Regret is a waste of time; however, living with it blocks us from enjoying all the precious moments surrounding us right now. It’s fine to reflect on an if only and learn from it, but you need to be able to forgive yourself, remind yourself that you made the best decision you could at the time, and move on.

Action Item: forgiveness meditation. 

Forgive yourself for your past decisions with a daily meditation. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take a deep breath in and then gently let it go. Breathe naturally and softly. Let your shoulder blades relax. Soften your face. Bring your attention to the area of your heart. Feel in your heart any emotions inside you because you have not forgiven yourself. Continue to breathe softly.

Now, picture the times and ways that you have hurt yourself, and give yourself permission to forgive yourself for them. Feel your heart filling with forgiveness, ease, and warmth. Focus on forgiving yourself for everything, wholeheartedly. Then extend that forgiveness for each time you hurt yourself, one by one. As you do, repeat to yourself: I forgive myself.

I discovered that the faster we forgive, the faster we’ll be happy. When we make forgiveness a daily habit, we open ourselves up to infinite possibilities. Resentment is a wall around our hearts and keeps us from fully experiencing life. The more we can forgive, the more energy we free up to create the life we truly want.

2. Think of all of the positives that came out of that situation/decision. 

Each time I was cut by an NFL team or rejected by a coach, I would think it was the worst thing that could have happened to me. But looking back, I’ve learned that I was building resilience—the rejections made me stronger. Best of all, when my career ended sooner than I’d planned, it created an opening for me to discover yoga and meditation—and to make them a new profession. This role has allowed me to give back to others and help them with their own challenges, and it’s changed my life. If things had gone according to plan, I’d never have discovered this opportunity.

Action Item: writing down the good.

This one is simple: in your journal, write down a list of five positives that came out of your past situation. It may sound like a challenge, but I bet you’ll have to stop yourself at number five.

3. You don’t need to have it all figured out.

For me, it was always the NFL or bust—no back-up plan. My goal setting and vision served me well; I was able to accomplish that goal. But when it ended, I had no idea what would come next, and I was terrified. I had always operated with a singular plan, and I was stuck in my belief that I had to know what I was going to next. I lost sight of the present and lost sight of myself. I remember constantly worrying about the future, so afraid of the uncertainty that I couldn’t focus on the moment I was actually living in.

But it’s okay not to know what you want to do, or not have a plan for your next career. You can create that future while you enjoy the moment. When one door closes, another opens, as we’ve all heard. We need to stop staring at the closed door and open our eyes to the open one.

Action Item: let your door open.

Remember, your story is unwritten. No one knows what happens next, but our hearts know what we wish we could make happen. Find a quiet place and sit down with your journal. What do you wish you could try? Where do you wish you could take yourself? Write down five things your heart is encouraging you to consider.

4. Remember that the best time to plant a tree is now. 

For almost 15 years, I thought I was one thing: a football player. This was the label that I applied to myself. Once that was taken away from me, I felt worthless and dreamless. But once I realized that living in the past was keeping me from enjoying the now, I was able to move forward.

One of my favorite lines comes from The Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living or get busy dying.” The saying becomes a mantra, and it keeps Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) going despite impossible odds and despair.

Action item: find your mantra.

What phrase gets you out of your if only’s and into the present tense? You may want to try to get busy living or come up with your own. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just clear. We all have our own personal mantra that keeps us from dwelling in the past and gets us back into the now. Take the time to find the one that works for you.

These four actions made a huge difference in my life. I practiced them as I would practice an exercise, and gradually they became a part of who I am. And I realized that I hadn’t completely lost myself after football—I still had some of the same positive habits as well.

When I was young, I’d go to the field by myself and just practice kicking—over and over. It was a form of meditation, though I didn’t know it at the time. Realizing that, I had a strong sensation: my if only changed to a thank goodness. I still have a lot to be thankful for.

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