In 2010 I received a call from a young footballer wanting to improve the mental side of his game. He was ambitious, open-minded and already had a positive outlook on life – the ideal ingredients for a new sports client.
We worked on his vision, what he wanted to achieve in his career and why he wanted it. We set long term goals and short term goals. We created several what we called ‘magical moments’ for things he wanted to achieve. We created routines within each day and each week that primed him for peak performance. We set times we would follow up to ensure progress was being made. We would reflect, review and tweak the plan where necessary.
It wasn’t long before we started building great momentum. He was flying in training and it was showing up in matches too. Before long he was rewarded for his efforts when another club came in to buy him. Progress was being made. On top of this, he had just started a family and welcomed a wonderful daughter into his life. He was winning.
But not too long after, he was delivered an incredible blow out of the blue. For a young professional athlete, 22 at the time, to suddenly have no energy, something wasn’t right. He was diagnosed with blood cancer and his world came crashing down.
Suddenly, the psychological skills we had been working on for a couple of years were called into action and put to the ultimate test. A test he never imagined he would have to face, but one he was facing none the less.
How was he now going to stay positive and strong for his family, himself and all those supporting him? The treatment plan was laid out for him, the rest was down to his own mind.
Fortunately the treatment went to plan, but not without full commitment, a complete overhaul of his diet and the mental discipline to keep his mind positive and focused on complete recovery.
Once he had achieved this, he was back to the beginning again. Sadly, he was released from his football club without a contract and had to find another club willing to give him a chance to prove himself, all while he was the furthest away he had ever been from being physically ready to play.
We started the process again. Set new goals, Got the focus back. Created a new plan. He was working hard, building himself up and making progress all the time. It took a long time, a couple of years, but eventually he was back to his best, probably his best ever. And then comes the second unimaginable blow – the cancer had returned.
Such devastating news would be enough to break the strongest of spirits. But not Joe, once the news had settled in, he knew what he had to do. But this time, he needed to be even stronger and he was. This time chemotherapy along would not be enough, it needed to be followed by stem cell treatment too. But Joe knew what to do, relentless focus on the positive outcome was the only way he could get through this. He asked the consultant what the fastest recovery time from the treatment was and he said the fastest he had ever seen was 22 days. Joe recovered in 18.
Exactly 12 months from the date of his second diagnosis, he was back on the pitch. Once again, we were talking about the future and the ‘magical moments’ we had created all those years ago. One of these moments had been to score a goal of high importance, to experience such positive emotion from scoring a goal in a big occasion – this was about experiencing the thrill that drives most professional athletes.
Often when you set goals, which requires the use of your imagination, you cannot see how they are going to happen. This tests your belief and will and it is very easy to lose hope.
On the final day of the 2017/18 season, Joe’s club – Rochdale FC found themselves in a game with Oldham Athletic, where the loser of the match would be relegated and the winner would stay in League One.
On the day of the game I was at another match as I had been working with another League One club who were celebrating promotion that day, so I was looking out for the scores in the other games. About 70 minutes into the game I checked the score and I saw that it was 1-0 to Rochdale but it didn’t say who scored the goal. It didn’t need to – I knew. I turned to my colleague Andrew and said its 1-0! I felt it in my heart and in the lump in my throat. Joe was a substitute and came on to score the winning goal with only his second touch of the ball – a truly magical moment.
Joe’s story ended in fairy tale fashion. The magical moment that had been imagined all those years ago, had now happened in the most dramatic of circumstances. But it was a much tougher road to get there than he had ever anticipated.
Sometimes that happens to us all. Life doesn’t always follow our plans. But it’s not what happens to you that matters, it is how you respond.
I hope Joe’s story has inspired you to overcome whatever challenges you are facing at the moment.
Stay positive and thanks for reading,