Every football fan has had the dream of being a professional footballer. Whether it is in the back garden as a kid, watching your hapless goalkeeper between the sticks knowing you could do better, or daydreaming during the 9-5 grind.
It is a profession which is the envy of millions across the world. With that, comes an abundance of internal and external pressures which many of those who watch on don’t quite comprehend.
These players go from being placed on a pedestal and celebrated to being clamped in a pillory and mocked in no time at all. Role models one week. Figures of ridicule or rage the next. Sympathy, even in the current climate, will be in short supply.
But whisper it, they are just the same as you and I, certainly in Scotland. They have the same fear and worries as the rest of us. Seeking answers. Concerns over finances and the future.
It is something John Johnstone, a football mindset coach, hammered home during our conversation.
Frustration. Fear and uncertainty. A lack of clarity. Boredom. The same words and phrases popped up again and again.
Johnstone runs his Football Mindset business from East Lothian and works with a host of players based in the Scottish Premiership, England, MLS and the Netherlands.
He has heard and listened to the struggles of clients and talks of the rug being pulled from guys used to playing football five, six, seven times a week.
“They have gone from kicking a ball, doing something they are passionate about, something they love, and now that has been taken away for the foreseeable future,” he said.
“Just now there is so much noise but so little clarity for players.”
The mind is the glue
Without clarity from the league Johnstone is advising players to create their own, to be ready, using the mind to drive the body.
He said: “Normality, or whatever normality is, will resume at some point. The key for any player is being ready for whenever that normality does resume.
“If the league, understandably, can’t give that clarity, a player needs to find that clarity in his own head. A simple way to do that, is to take each 24 hours as it comes. Instead of needing a date from the league, just work on being ready every single day.
“If you want to simplify it, the mind drives the body. Things like training, things like nutrition, all these things are very, very important but it’s the mind which drives the training choices, it’s the mind which drives the nutrition choices, it’s the mind which drives the purpose the players train with.
“The better the mind, the better the training is going to be, the better the nutrition choices are going to be. The mind is what glues all the components together for a footballer.”
The Football Mindset philosophy is: ‘Football is played between the ears. You will never solve an inner game struggle with an outer game solution.’
Players are currently undergoing a slightly different struggle, but Johnstone uses ex-Motherwell star Chris Cadden, who is now playing for MLS side Columbus Crew, as an example of how across the last two years he has built up a mentality which is ready to tackle the situation with a steely mindset rather than one which
“Chris is living in Ohio by himself,” he said. “They are not in full lockdown but Chris is basically stuck in an apartment by himself, his family who were due to go out and see him, they are no longer able to do so, he’s not able to fly back and he’s stuck. But what he is basically saying is ‘I’m ready for this. I’m going to deal with it’.
“It’s like anything with regards to working on your inner game for any player, it’s not a case that you don’t encounter tough times, it just ensures that when they arrive you know you are ready to deal with them so much better when they do.”
Grow and get better
Johnstone presents this shutdown as a “fantastic opportunity” for players to grow. Some of his clients are learning a language, one his using the time to work on his weaker foot.
“I think what’s important for any player just now is asking ‘where can I grow?’, ‘Where can we get better?’, ‘What can we work on so that when I walk into my next club or walk through the gates at the training ground I know that I’m better?’.
“The mental side of the game is something they can improve on so when they walk back on to the pitch it is a case of them knowing they are better from that period where they’ve not been playing.
“It would be too easy to go ‘We’re not playing for the next few months’. A player can’t look back on a six-month period of his career, unless he’s injured, and go ‘I never did anything to get better’. Players need to use this period in order to grow. The lockdown is what it is.
“The decision making, like getting out of bed when you said you were going to get out, whether you decide to train with a purpose or not, whether you decide to do the last set or not, or work on your weaker side or not, that is all driven between the ears, that’s all driven by your inner game. The stronger your inner game is, the better decisions you are going to make. The better decisions you make the greater chance of getting the outcome you want.”
Worst case scenario
It is never too late for any player, Johnstone stresses, whether they are a youngster breaking through to an experienced star of hundreds of games, to work on their mindset.
Doing so would likely see the player asking himself tough questions. But in doing so builds solutions for whatever football, and currently life, is throwing at them.
“I would get a pen and a piece of paper and put down what I am thinking, what I’m feeling about this current situation,” is the recommendation Johnstone would give to players. “What that then does is raise awareness. Some players will go through this situation not sure what they are thinking, what they are feeling. If they get it down on paper then we then have awareness of exactly where we are.
“Also, look at the worst case scenario and build a response to that. If you look at it from a mental point of view, so often the fear of the worst case scenario, it shuts us down in doing the things we want to do because we are riddled with fear. But if we look at the worst case scenario and know we can deal with it it brings an element of freedom.
“A lot of people will say looking at the worst case scenario is negative thinking but I think negative thinking so often is correct thinking. Instead of burying your head in the sand then getting hit with an absolute sledge hammer in a few months’ time, build a response to it so if it does come you know what you need to do in order to deal with it.”