NRL Legend Dan Conn Reveals Navy SEAL Secret That Fixed His Mental Health

"When you're physically strong, you're mentally strong as well."

NRL Legend Dan Conn Reveals Navy SEAL Secret That Fixed His Mental Health

Fitness is a massive part of the modern Aussie lifestyle, but few people can boast to embody it to the same extent as Daniel Conn: he kicked off his career in the NRL before getting involved with F45 at the ground floor. On the week of the AusFitness Expo, we were lucky enough to speak to him about all things fitness, mental health, and must-have cheat meals.

Mental health is a pretty salient topic right now: with the groundbreaking news that psilocybin has been cleared for mental health treatment in Australia and the equally shocking story that a man recently had his mental health pushed to breaking point by an AI chatbot, there’s a lot to keep up with.

Here at DMARGE, we’re big believers in blokes talking more openly about their mental health, making it an accepted and everyday part of their lives, so that fewer men and the people in their lives suffer needlessly under the crippling weight of mental struggles.

That’s why we jumped at the chance to sit down for a chat with Daniel Conn. Not only is Dan a bit of an NRL legend, performing at the sport’s highest level for well over a decade, but he’s also a cornerstone of the red hot F45 community and a driving force behind high-altitude training set-up Baller Nation.

As someone whose been training hard for decades, operating under the immense pressure that comes alongside top-tier sport before becoming a figurehead for countless fitness programs and initiatives, he understands how important it is – and how hard it can be – to take care of your mental health.

If you’d like the chance to see Dan in person, he’ll be hosting the Under Armour COMBINE Pre-Season training competition at the AusFitness Expo, the nation’s biggest and most exciting festival of fitness, health and nutrition that’s coming to the ICC Sydney this April 28th-30th.

Since leaving the NRL, Dan has worked with F45, Baller Nation, and many more.

Given Dan’s elite experience in high-level sport, the first question I wanted to ask him was whether he has noticed a link between his physical health and his mental resilience and – if so – how does he make sure to train both simultaneously?

“I think mental health needs to be trained and looked after just as much as our physical health, if not even more”, opens Dan. Though people are “more aware of recovery and balance” these days, he thinks that “a lot of people neglect it”.

It’s important to remember that physical activity is “one of the things that you can’t get a doctor or prescribe to you.” So, in short, the answer is to keep moving – literally:

“When you’re physically strong, you’re mentally strong as well”, citing how a release of endorphins that comes with any kind of exercise has been a huge boost to his own struggles with anxiety and depression. Though it’s long overdue, he recognises that “a lot of people are learning to treat mental health just like they would physical health.”

I pushed him a little further on his own struggles, asking him about a time when exercise has helped him through dark periods in his life. Not only was Dan very comfortable speaking about his own struggles, but he quickly made it clear that physical fitness was a real saviour when working through his mental health issues.

Conn took some knocks in the NRL, but never let them stop him. Image: Nine’s World of Sports

“I’ve had some pretty dark days”, says Dan. After suffering a life changing neck injury at the age of 26, Dan’s mental health took a turn. At the time, he didn’t connect the dots, but now he’s a lot more aware. “If I’m not feeling good… It’s because I’m actually not in a routine of physically looking after myself.”

Though he recognises that struggles are “different for everyone”, he’s a big believer in “going back to the core basics” when you’re feeling down:

“Make sure you’re moving, making sure you’re giving yourself a bit of self-care, make sure you’re being kind to yourself. And also… a lot of breath-work.”

Daniel Conn

He knows he’s oversimplifying when he says that – these issues can be complex and hard to catch – but when he finds himself feeling a little low, he looks back on the previous days and the clues are all there: “I haven’t trained much haven’t eaten very good food”. Once those are fixed, he’s back on track pretty quick.

My next question was a hard one, and definitely one born of personal experience: What does Dan say to all those people who totally agree with what he’s just said, but just can’t always find the motivation to get up and out? What about those days when you just want to stay hidden under the doona? Lucky for us, he’s got a simple trick…

“Taking the emotion out of the situation” is the key, he says. “When you’re laying in bed, and you don’t want to get up your emotions are saying ‘I don’t feel like it'”, but regardless you have to just “get up and put your socks on”. If you can start the process, just a tiny part of it, you’ll start slowly building momentum.

WATCH: David Goggins on overcoming mental challenges.

This is actually a technique taken from David Goggins and the Navy SEALs – the separation of emotion and thought in this context. “Just put your shoes and socks on, and walk into the gym”. Even if you don’t end up working out, even if you don’t make it into the gym itself, by getting up, out, and moving you’re already starting to win again.

“It’s a mindset – stop thinking about what it’s going to be like and just be that right now… even if you just start walking around the house, you just get the blood flowing and the rest is a domino effect.”

Daniel Conn

Again, Dan is quick to point out that this is easier said than done, but it’s a mantra he returns to whenever he can. For my last question, I wanted to ask him a bit more about his time in the NRL, given that’s where he cut his teeth: how did being a pro athlete and training at such intensity help him work on his mental health?

It was all about “getting into a structure” and “learning to deal with adversity”, especially the adversity that comes with serious injuries, to which Dan is no stranger. Ultimately, those experiences teach you to “put a positive spin on things”: out with an ankle injury? It’s a chance to focus on your upper body. Out for six months with a torn ACL? That sucks, but the rehab could buy you two more years of play.

It’s the same outside of sport: “You might get fired from your job, but there might just be a reason for it – you’ve got to find that reason”, says Dan. “Try and find the good in every situation, which isn’t easy to do. Trust me. I know.” Reconnecting nature is a crucial part of his secret sauce, and not one to be neglected:

“Take a bit of a breath, take yourself out of the environment, reconnect with nature, before you know it you’ll see: the world keeps spinning.”

Daniel Conn

That felt like a pretty powerful note to end on, but before we wrapped up, I couldn’t help but ask Dan a couple of quickfire, slightly off-topic questions. First and foremost: What’s his go-to cheat meal?

Without taking a beat: “Gelato Messina” he says. “When you’re watching the footie on a Sunday, there’s just nothing better”.

Dan doesn’t look like he eats a lot of ice cream, but we’ll take his word for it… Image: Telegraph

And finally, as a man who’s been inside the fitness industry for decades: what’s his least favourite fitness fad?

This one took a little longer to answer, likely because there’s a lot to choose from. Ultimately, he settled on “counting calories”. “Four hundred calories of hamburger is completely different to four hundred calories of steak and veggies… I don’t know why there’s such a misconception.”

His final answer taps into a fascinating debate, and one I wish we could discuss a lot further… maybe next time. For now, I’ll be heading home to try out some Gelato Messina, sleeping easy in the knowledge that counting calories is a fool’s errand…

The AusFitness Expo is open to the public on Saturday April 29 and Sunday April 30. Adult tickets are $30 for a one-day pass and $50 for two-day entry. If you work in the fitness & health industry you can register for free trade access.

Registration to UA COMBINE Pre-Season is free to anyone who purchases a ticket to AusFitness Expo allowing competitors to take in all the action the Expo has to offer. Purchase tickets to the AusFitness Expo and register for UA COMBINE Pre-Season here.