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PRO INSIGHT SERIES: Mental Skills At The Pro Level - Part 2

This story begins with me aged 16.

Welcome back to the second episode of mental skills at the pro level. In this episode I will take you through my late teenage years, my first taste of a professional football environment, and the lessons I learned from this.

" APFA was a top-class environment in which we lived in homestays and trained almost every single day"

This story begins with me aged 16, training at the Asia Pacific Football Academy (APFA) in Lincoln, just outside my hometown of Christchurch. Training at APFA was a massive opportunity for me as I hadn’t had much exposure to serious academy training before this.

Between the ages of 12-15 years old I was training with my boyhood club (Cashmere Wanderers) and spending lots of time down at local parks training either by myself or with some mates. I was also in and out of Canterbury regional teams (something we will return to in a later episode).

APFA was a top-class environment in which we lived in homestays and trained almost every single day. We were taken care of at a level consistent with professional academies in Europe with strength and conditioning programs, recovery each day (ice baths etc.), nutrition advice, and mental skills training. It was an extremely competitive and supportive environment which gave me the opportunity to trial at FC Basel’s youth academy.

"Standards are extremely high, and coaches are often very demanding."

At this time FC Basel was winning the Swiss Super League every season and playing in Champions League football. I trailed for two weeks with their U19 team and got selected for the squad. It wasn’t easy and I remember getting nutmegged three times in the first rondo of the first session and one player telling me “Go back to New Zealand” because he wasn’t happy about staying in the middle of the rondo with me.

However, I must have done enough to impress the coaches and I signed on for the second half of the U19 season where the youth academy environment in Europe is full on.

Many of the players are already beginning on professional contracts or have international experience. In our Basel U19 team we had 12 players who were in the Swiss U17s or U18s. One example is Breel Embolo, who now plays for Monaco FC and has over 60 caps for the Switzerland national team.

Standards are extremely high, and coaches are often very demanding. Coming into this with no previous experience of what football outside of New Zealand was like became a massive learning curve for me. It was extremely tough, moving across the whole world away from my support system and feeling quite inadequate as a football player. This leads us into the key lessons I hope to convey to you from today’s reading:

Lesson 1: Understand Your Expectation and Standard

Become aware of what kind of expectations you have for yourself as a football player (and as a person in general).

When I moved to Basel, I expected myself to become a first team player with a full professional contract within 6 months. That expectation created huge pressure on myself which led to me not performing to the level of which I was capable on the football field.

Having such high expectations made me set unrealistic standards for myself in training.

If I wasn’t doing everything perfectly, I felt like I was failing and would become annoyed with myself. It also led to me being very nervous before every training and not expressing what I was good at during trainings or games. In addition to this I was hard on myself outside of the pitch and got quite down because of this.

Setting expectations and standards around giving your best effort and improving yourself.

Instead of focusing on the outcome (becoming a professional football player within 6 months) I could have placed value on the effort I was putting into training (which was a lot) and noticed the improvements I was making (of which there were many). These are strategies which I have learned now and have helped me to increase my performance in tough situations + feel much better in daily life outside of the football field.

I would encourage you to do the same. Notice which expectations you (and others) set upon you and how this affects the standards you set yourself. Figure out which expectations are helping you to become better and which ones are holding you back.

Don’t get me wrong, to be the best and become a pro is absolutely an expectation you can have for yourself (and one that I carried with me for a long time). It helps you to become better, as long as it is based upon personal standards of always giving your best effort and prioritizing improvements over outcomes.

Lesson 2: Create a Strong Support System

One thing I missed when moving overseas for the first time was a strong support system. In New Zealand I had many people who helped me to become better (both as a football player and as a complete person). Moving away from home took these people physically far away from me and it definitely affected how I felt and played football.

In New Zealand people like my parents and academy director made time to listen to me and make me feel valued, regardless of how football was going.

In Basel I was mostly on my own, living with a family friend and not socializing a whole lot outside of team training sessions. I felt lonely and often confused as to how I could go about improving my situation.

Finding a support system in Basel would have greatly helped me, both with performance on the pitch and with how I felt about everyday life off the pitch. Looking back on my experience in Basel I would have encouraged my younger self to go out into the community more, get involved with something outside of football, and ask for some guidance from mental health professionals and the people working within the FC Basel academy.

Having a high amount of support is essential for you to achieve your potential.

Who supports you right now?

Go and say thank you and show that you appreciate how they support you.

How can you begin to build a strong support system for the future?

Lesson 3: Continue to Try Even When Things Do Not Go Well (Resilience)

To make a long story short, I didn’t make it as a pro at FC Basel.

After the U19 season finished, I was let go from the academy. However, that isn’t where the story ends. It is the end of a chapter in the story, a chapter in which I learnt that if you continue to try even when things are not going well, you can improve so much and be ready for your next opportunity (which will be the next chapter in this series).

To leave you on a high note, there were special times at Basel too:

  • Being a ball boy for a Champions League match between Basel and Bayern Munich was one.

  • Celebrating the Swiss U19 League Championship in front of over 25,000 fans at Basel’s home ground was another. Doing these at 17 years old felt pretty surreal.

Most valuable of all though was this continued process of learning new mental skills which I hope I can continue to communicate with you.

Developing resilience is a topic we will explore in our next episode together, along with another adventure overseas, and some more lessons based around mental skills learned in the pros.

"Learning mental health skills is a continuous learning process "

Please feel free to reach out to me personally or to Adam and The Pro Project team if you have any questions or thoughts based upon this episode. Thanks for reading!

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