Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Joe Thompson got in touch with me in 2011. He was 21 years old and a professional footballer for Rochdale FC.
Joe had a successful youth career and had been at Manchester United from the age of nine to sixteen, when he experienced his first real disappointment in football. Days before his GCSE exams he was told he would be released by the club with the main reason being he was too small.
This was the first time that Joe had tasted real defeat as he had excelled in sport up to this point. He didn’t tell any of his friends for two weeks as he came to terms with it.
After some unsuccessful trials with Blackburn Rovers and Liverpool FC, he joined Rochdale FC and had made his first team debut by the time he was 17.
He had a great start to life at Rochdale but by the time he was 21, he felt as though he had more to give and thought working with a sports psychologist would help the mental side of his game so he could fulfil his potential.
We met at my office in Manchester and mapped out all his goals and expectations and started working on some techniques and routines to help him take his game up a level.
It wasn’t an easy start as he experienced a few injuries and felt like he was having to reset each time. After the injuries cleared up, he started to gain some momentum and really feel the benefit of the work we were doing.
Tranmere Rovers came in with an offer for him to take him to the league above and Joe was excited to start a new chapter in his career.
Just one year later and Joe’s world came crashing down.
He wasn’t feeling well and games seemed to be passing him by. He went for some scans and was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare form of cancer.
Joe was told his football career was over and he was now fighting for his life. He was 23 years old.
Despite the advice from the doctors, Joe had his mind set on returning to football once he had come through his treatment. He was focused and determined to prove them wrong.
At this time, Joe suffered another disappointment when his club didn’t renew his contract, leaving him with no security at the most vulnerable time in his career.
Now without a club and having to rebuild himself up after cancer, he had a mountain ahead.
A lot of clubs were reluctant to put their trust in Joe because of what he had been through and whether his body would be able to now survive the demands of professional football.
As a result, Joe had to move around clubs to get games and prove he still had something to offer the game. Joe did this and two years later he re-joined Rochdale FC, which was a huge step forward in his career and a sign that he was back on track.
Joe made 27 appearances in his first season back up to March 2017, when he went for a routine check-up only to find out his cancer had returned. This time Joe was told that the cancer had spread so far over his body that chemotherapy alone would not treat it, he would need stem cell therapy on top.
Joe once again defied the doctors and returned to football just six months later, making his return appearance against Walsall on the 23rd December 2017.
Joe made 11 appearances that season as he continued to build up his strength and fitness, saving the most iconic moment of his career until the final day of the season.
Rochdale were staring relegation in the face and it was going down to the wire. Both them and Oldham Athletic (local rivals) were facing relegation on the final day of the season and whoever failed to win, would go down.
I was working with Blackburn Rovers at the time and was attending their final game of the season as they had been promoted, but I was looking out for the scores on my phone.
Joe was on the substitutes bench and came on in the 68th minute of the game. Two minutes later I saw the score was 1-0 to Rochdale and I just knew who the goal scorer was.
Rochdale won the game and avoided relegation as their rivals Oldham went down. Joe created a moment he will remember forever, and the goal was played all around the world, for which he won a global award for sporting moment of the year.
One year later Joe retired from professional football and started sharing his story with schools and academies. He wrote a book about his life called Darkness and Light and shares his story today with people worldwide to remind and inspire us to overcome the unexpected challenges that life can bring.
When we started working together, of course none of us knew about the challenges that lay ahead for Joe. But the tools and the methods we worked on to strengthen his mindset were critical to not just saving his career but saving his life.
Joe recognised the benefits of working on mental skills with a sports psychologist - a courageous decision at the time for a young footballer. This open mindedness has been key to Joe's ability to adapt and overcome many of the challenges he has faced in his career.
Joe’s story is an incredible example of the power of E + R + O.
Nobody knows what events will happen in the future. But you can equip yourself with the tools and strategies today and put yourself in a stronger position for whatever comes your way.