Alex Smithies has gone 10 weeks without conceding a goal but these are still testing times for goalkeepers – locked down with nothing to keep at bay except their own frustrations – as the Cardiff City keeper told Graham Thomas.
Like all goalkeepers, Cardiff City’s Alex Smithies is used to a certain amount of isolation.
But the club’s last line of defence admits that the current lockdown is testing even his ability to be self-reliant and self-sustaining.
Fortunately, as with most footballers, Smithies has experience of overcoming difficult circumstances and has developed a single-mindedness that is serving him well as a professional sportsman in a world without sport.
And he has some words of advice for those stuck at home, trying to keep both mind and body intact in these most difficult days.
Developing resilience, says the 30-year-old Yorkshireman, is about learning from past experiences, keeping a positive mind-set, and finding comfort in routine.
Nine years ago, when he was just 21 and making his way at his home town club, Huddersfield, Smithies suffered a serious knee injury which he feared might wreck his dreams of a career in football even before it had hardly begun.
“I was out for 11 months, with two knee operations,” he recalls. “I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to play again.
“It was a very testing time. The outcome was very unclear. I hadn’t built up much of a career behind me at that time and I really wasn’t sure what was next for me.
“Certainly, I had to show some resilience and character to come back from that. In sport you are tested regularly – whether it’s a loss of form or an injury, or not knowing where your future lies.
“We have all been tested at times in our lives and people are being really tested now in different ways.
“This is a very difficult time for everyone in the UK and people are being tested like never before. But I think the strength of character of British people is really showing through at the moment.”
Smithies has established himself as Cardiff’s first choice keeper this season and had played a leading role in their push for promotion when the big shutdown arrived in March.
But it has not been all plain sailing since his move from QPR almost two years ago. He has had to show patience and determination to make the starting line-up each week – just as he did when he left Huddersfield for QPR.
“It’s sometimes tough when you are working really hard but not getting opportunities,” he says.
— The Goalkeepers’ Union Podcast (@GKUnion) December 18, 2019
“But it happened to me at QPR as well as Cardiff. I went there and didn’t play for the first three months. It took me a while to get into the team.
“When you are plugging away, but you’ve got little to show for it, it becomes about having to believe in yourself.
“But the upside is that when opportunity eventually does come, and you manage to take it, then you feel a real sense of achievement.”
For now, the Bluebirds’ keeper’s ambitions – to lift Cardiff into the Premier League – are on hold. Like most of the population, he is stuck at home and unable to work.
It’s very different, he says, to the summer break as the re-start date, for training and playing, is still so uncertain.
So, for now, he is keeping fit at home, and supporting his wife and two young daughters as they, too, adjust to this strange new world.
Smithies says the key to staying focussed is to have structure and routine, even if your normal timetable has gone out of the window.
For him, that means working out in his home-built gym in the mornings, after stretching exercises and then using his valuable allowance of one trip out of his home to ensure the welfare of his family.
“I would love to be able to use that time to go for a nice run myself, but at the moment we are making sure the kids get out for a walk every day. They need to get outside and it would be completely selfish of me to use my exercise time outside just for myself.
“We tend to go out with the kids for walks and as we live in Wales, there are places very near which are beautiful. We can be isolated and also get some fresh air.
“I’ve lived here for almost two years now, and I’m now finding places every day that I’d never walked before. A lot of the time I’m carrying a two-year-old for that walk, so I’m getting some good strength exercise benefits as well.”
Alex Smithies with a save of the season contender. pic.twitter.com/ltmt3z8gbh
— Callum Ellis (@CallumJEllis) January 28, 2020
Alex’s advice corner – tips for mind and body
- The mental side is difficult for everyone. Uncertainty can lead to anxiety in all walks of life. Make sure you are talking to people and not socially isolated.
- Use technology. We are 200 miles away from our families in Yorkshire, so we’ve been using the Zoom app to stay in contact. We’ve actually started doing family quizzes, which have been quite entertaining.
- Have a routine. You need to have meaning and structure to your day, otherwise you can feel as though you are just wasting these days away. Write down a list of things you want to achieve each day.
- S-T-R-E-T-C-H: When I am at the training ground, I will always have 20 to 25 minutes of stretching before training. You want to be loose and have your heart rate up. Even for people who don’t want to do proper training session, I’d suggest they do some stretching because it will make them feel more mobile and in better shape.
- Use your body. I’ve got quite a bit of kit at home, but in times gone by, I’ve been able to do sessions at home just using bodyweight – press-ups and burpees etc.
- Stay upbeat and feel grateful. I have positive thoughts, but also some negative thoughts. But my wife always looks on the bright side, so it’s good to be around her. She keeps me upbeat. Look around you and see what, and who, you’re grateful for.