Dear 22-Year-Old Stephen,
I’m writing this to you today, because the next 9 months will help define who you become as a person and an athlete. There’s heart ache and setbacks that will have you digging deep into that positive soul of yours. If you take this next stage of your life as an opportunity to grow and be positive no matter the situation, you will get through whatever life throws at you.
When you hear the siren it means you’ve just lost the preliminary final to the Doggies.
You’ll find your mates on the field, rather than sitting on your own. You know this is the time to be around the boys. They’re feeling the pain just as much as you are.
The dressing room will feel empty. There will be silence for long periods of time. Leon will chat to you all briefly but you won’t remember a word he says.
There won’t be Mumford or Shaw trying to cheer everyone up with one of their silly jokes like they always do.
It’ll be deafeningly quiet. You’ll feel raw emotion and witness complete despair. The sounds coming from the Western Bulldogs change rooms, down the hall, will ring in your ears for weeks.
You will be shattered. You’ll find yourself crying with your closest mates, Toby, Jonny, Heath & Cal just to name a few. You’ll look around the room and later look back at these moments for motivation. It will put fire in the belly for months to come.
Don’t be ashamed. Remember the 4 really tough years that you scrapped around in, getting smashed by a 100 most weeks. You were just one match away from the AFL Grand Final. Be proud.
‘The Western Bulldogs were the hungrier and better team on the night’. This is something you will admit to yourself that will help slow down the 100’s of scenarios running through your head, wondering just how you let it slip. You’ll find it extremely hard to do.
This is one of the toughest moments that you will have dealt with as a playing group to date. This will spur you and the team on in to the pre-season.
Your family is a big part of your life and seeing your Mum, Dad, brothers and sister after the match will show you’re not feeling the pain alone. You’ll be greeted with massive hugs and kisses. You can see the pride on their faces.
The next day will be a weird day. You’ll catch up with the boys, but it’s a downer. You can tell that as a group there were high aspirations that it’d be you guys in the final and not the Dogs.
You’ll be invited to Brownlow night on the Monday, your first one. You get to stick to the promise that you made to your mother as a kid by taking her as your partner. It’s an extremely special night for the two of you and her proudest moment which she’ll tell you throughout.
You hate being there. You’ll just be happy that you fulfilled your promise to mum. You come 15th in voting and don’t give a shit. It’s the furthest thing from your mind.
To make matters worse one of the boys will pull out of the Grand Final Sprint and it’s you who has to take part. You’ll put on a brave face, run the race and get out as fast as you can. You’re not even a sprinter but all you’ll think about is that you’d much rather be lacing up 90 minutes before kick off than doing this.
You don’t watch a second of the game. You can’t bring yourself to it. It hurts too much. It’s too soon.
Nick Maxwell’s advice of making sure you watch the medal ceremony is priceless. It’ll hurt and make you bloody jealous but that fire in your belly will erupt.
The week will fly by and it’ll be time to go on a holiday with your brothers. Your brother’s 21st will take you to the United States and Europe where you’ll have the best time and watch loads of football.
As it turns out travel is the perfect way to switch off. It’ll be the perfect escape.
Setbacks and Opportunities:
The 2016 off-season will be the first that truly motivates you to be physically and mentally 100% before Day 1.
You’ll do everything with a purpose and motive.
You’re ready for the first practice.
After practice on Day 1 you’ll sit down as a group and go through the Prelim. There will be some old scars and honest truths arise. Focus on the present but learn from the past. You can see how passionate Leon is about reloading and going again. It’ll spur you on and have you feeling really excited for the 2017 season.
After the first JLT match, Heath Shaw, someone who you have a great deal of respect for, will ask you to take the vice captaincy of the team. You will take it. It’s humbling and you’ll feel incredibly privileged. The family are so proud!
Stephen, you don’t look at your role any differently. You’ve wanted to be a leader your entire life. You don’t distance yourself from the playing group. No one is above anyone else.
This will be the first time you feel you have had an uninterrupted pre-season. You’ll feel in cracking shape. You’ll jinx yourself. In the final JLT match with 40 minutes to go you get tackled from behind. Your foot will get caught in the tackle and will feel as though your leg has snapped in two. You’re helped off the field before having to get on the team bus back to Sydney from Canberra. I wish I could tell you to close your eyes and try and get some rest but I know you won’t be able to sleep.
You’ll feel unlucky. You’re right, there was nothing you could’ve done differently.
The news is tough and you’ll be out for 6 weeks. It’s a time to flip the bad news in to something positive. You love giving back and the multi-cultural camp in Redfern, where you’ll talk to young kids about your journey, helps take the mind off the news.
No one is dying here. You’ve still got the opportunity to come back and make a difference. Keeping a positive mindset throughout creates opportunities.
There’s a two-week period in which you’ll struggle to get through. It’ll be when you’re standing in the Alter G machine, before you can run. It’ll feel like you’re stuck in a hole and you can’t get out. Your focus will be on each step you’re taking….left.. right.. left.. right. It’ll play over for weeks and will feel like you’re forcing every little bit of pain out of your body with each step. The pain will ease off with all the hard work you put in.
I can tell you that if you keep coming back to what you are grateful for and the opportunity you have got, you will get through this.
The journal that you’ve been writing in will come in handy. You love to read and write, this turns out to be the perfect opportunity to draw on this passion. Writing your goals on one page and the things you are grateful for on the next, helps you with your visualisation. Each day you sit in a quiet room, watch a motivational clip from one of your favourite sporting stars (Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor will feature heavily) then read what you are grateful for and then leave. The process of visualisation becomes an amazing tool to help you through rehab.
That group you’d been thinking about for a while, the positive affirmation one. You find the time to start it up. The tech guy from the US, the boxer and some of the guys from home who all have similar drive and motives, connect on WhatsApp. This group will be one of the guiding lights throughout the season. The power of the mind is unquestionable. You’ll refer back to this group in times of struggle.
There’s people in worse positions than you Stephen. You’re fortunate to have the resources to help get you through this situation.
The hardest bit of the week is watching the boys play. It’s tougher than rehab. You’ll want to be out there helping the boys win. One thing that will help you get through is by sitting at the games looking for ways to improve the team and working out what extra you’re going to bring back to the team when fit.
When you hit the pitch for the first time back, you along with your rehab physio Luke, will feel like everything has been accomplished.
Disaster strikes in your second match back. You’ll know straight away that this injury is worse than the first one. This time you’ll be able to walk off the field which isn’t a good thing. The staff tell you straight away, it’s a clean break.
That same night Stevie J kicks the winning goal against Collingwood. Emotions ran high. On the field and in the dressing rooms. As hard as it’ll be knowing your hurt again, you get amongst the boys, it’s a massive win.
You’ve done this before. You’ve seen your best mates go through a lot worse. You dig deep and find that strong positive mindset.
Yes, those mates. Those roommates that joked about you being a curse. 4 guys that have had season ending injuries whilst living with you. It’s your turn now and know they’ll be there just like you were for them.
For goodness sake Jonny missed two years, Jaeger the same. You’ll get your chance to play come season's end!
The family will be extremely disappointed. Dad helps work out that you will be back by at worst Round 20, two or three rounds before finals. The support is immense. Family, team mates, fans, other players will help you through.
On Day 1 you’ll map out what you want to get out of this situation. You address it every day.
Just think of it as another bad situation to turn into a positive. An opportunity to become a better a person, to learn more about yourself. You’ll find the time to reach out to people you normally wouldn’t have, both inside and out of the footy world. You head to University; where you continue your degree in Commerce. Constantly surrounding yourself with positive people will help you stop sitting around feeling sorry for yourself.
Feeling hijacked? What are you grateful for? Self-reflection is a key to this process.
You share your knowledge with the younger guys in their first and second year. You’ll get them extra sessions and develop them both as a person and player. Think of it as fast tracking their knowledge.
Throughout this process you’ll read lots of books, one quote in particular will resonate with you. “If you surround yourself with 5 millionaires you’ll become the 6th, surround yourself with 5 criminals you’ll become the 6th." You’ll be constantly on the lookout for people who are wasting your time and surrounding yourself with positive people that you want to be like. These positive people will share their wisdom with you and put you in a position to help influence others with their struggles.
The time is now to put your head down and work hard. You’re not far off now. You’ve done this all before.
Today you’ll run for the first time. Man, we take walking and running for granted. It’ll be a short session but a great one. It wasn’t a worry either as you’ve been visualising for weeks about this day. You jump straight on the WhatsApp group and boast to the boys. It’s going to feel really good.
The hard work you put in will eliminate all doubt. When the time comes and you’re ready to take the field there will be no fear.
Stephen J. Coniglio is a professional Australian rules footballer playing for the Greater Western Sydney Giants in the Australian Football League.
Follow Stephen on Instagram and Twitter @stephenconiglio