“When we look back at it, we go ‘wow’. Everyone always says these last 10 years have flown by and they have but they’ve been very difficult.”
Those are the words of former Rochdale midfielder Joe Thompson, speaking in the week of World Mental Health Day.
He opened up about his journey, which saw the now 33-year-old overcome cancer twice in the last decade to return to playing football, and the challenges he has faced more recently.
“For me, fundamentally, not once but twice, my body has had something extremely wrong with it,” he said, speaking on the Official EFL Podcast. “Dealing with the chemotherapy, the treatment and the stem cell transplant is one thing, but mentally, getting your head around it, is another thing.
“Arguably, I faced my biggest challenge post-football,” he continued. “We lost a little baby boy last year, and he was two days away from his due date. It was the most traumatic experience I’ve ever been a part of. Life throws these curveballs and it’s about how you deal with it and how you react to it, and once you overcome it, you’ll be a better person and a much stronger person.”
And Thompson, who also played for Tranmere Rovers and Carlisle United in the EFL, emphasised the importance of family when it came to his own mental wellbeing.
“For me, I always try and use that trauma to triumph,” he added. “If you find adversity and you perceive adversity as growth, that will always help you through the carnage. My upbringing was one of the main things. My mum always instilled in me to be resilient, to keep going and never give up, and that’s testament to her because she’s an absolutely wonderful woman and my inspiration.
“As I’ve got older and had my own family, I’ve really needed to lean on them at times, my wife and even my daughter because it has been hard. The question a lot of the time is ‘how have you managed to?’ But why I’ve managed to get through is because of those guys.”
Since hanging up his boots in February 2019, after coming to the difficult decision following meetings with consultants and specialists, Thompson has taken up motivational speaking, using his experience to help others.
He has since delivered sessions with Football Clubs across the country, working alongside organisations such as League Football Education and the Professional Footballers’ Association to do so.
He said: “You have that internal wall with yourself that, ‘well, who’s going to want to hear my story?’ That imposter syndrome tends to kick in. The feedback that I get from talks or just having a conversation with someone is incredible and that’s why I get up in the morning, to try and help people.
“I haven’t always been like that. It has changed my outlook and perspective on life. I was almost a closed book with quite a lot of trust issues, but I also think that true strength comes from being vulnerable and acknowledging those vulnerabilities.”