Previously published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
There’s a common saying in football; “you never know who is watching”. Normally its reserved for onlookers in games; scouts, coaches or player agents looking for the next best thing. For Socceroo goalkeeper, Danny Vukovic, that phrase rang true last season despite spending the season confined only to hospitals, physio wards and gyms.
For 12 months, Vukovic didn’t so much as step on the football field. While his teammates at Belgian club Genk were defending their title, Vukovic was learning how to walk again.
Weeks before he was set to make his UEFA Champions League debut, Vukovic snapped his achilles tendon in August last year. At the age of 34, he feared the injury would end his playing days. However, his manner of recovery injected life into his career.
“The first three months were really slow, I was basically learning to walk again,” Vukovic says. “I was worried after the injury, it was one of the worst ones you can have as a goalkeeper but I was determined to come back better than when I left. I worked really hard. I saw it as my last opportunity and I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned.”
It was three months after surgery before he could walk freely. Five before he could make small jumps, but Vukovic didn’t spend the arduous process simply waiting for his body to gradually heal. Well before he could walk again, he was busy slimming down and lifting weights.
“I worked on my strength, my core,” he says. “I have put more muscle mass on, I have lost quite a lot of fat as well. My body weight is the lowest in 10 years, my body fat percentage has never been as low in my professional career. It helps with recovery but also if you are not pushing as much weight around, it helps with the injury.”
I was basically learning to walk again…I was worried after the injury, it was one of the worst ones you can have as a goalkeeper.
Socceroo Danny Vukovic
However, he knew physical recovery alone wasn’t enough to see him play again.
“It’s a mental battle as well because you have such a huge traumatic injury,” he says.
He balanced rehab with mental coaching, seeking the help of former goalkeeper and now life coach Matthew Nemes.
“We started a mental coaching relationship, a mentoring relationship. I have weakly meetings with him and it’s one of the best things I have ever done to help me come back,” Vukovic says. “The mind is very powerful. I always knew it was powerful but never just how powerful.”
A stubborn character by his own admission, Vukovic learned to overcome bad mental habits, becoming more resilience and positive. It drove him back on the field after a year of vigorous training and at a time he thought he was a forgotten character at the club, Vukovic’s determination to not only come back from an injury, but come back stronger, caught the attention of former Genk coach Hannes Wolf. On the eve of his comeback match on August 9, Wolf handed him the captain’s armband.
“He asked if I would do it and it was an honour to take the responsibility. The new coach has come in and wanted me to continue with the job,” he said.
That decision was reaffirmed by Vukovic’s performances this year, keeping Genk within four points of leaders Antwerp. The veteran has played some of the best football of his career just a year after it may have ended. As he says, that’s due to his physical and mental recovery work. Both of which had him in good stead to combat another setback; testing positive for COVID-19.
“I felt horrible … a horrible feeling of being unwell and that lasted for four or five days,” Vukovic says. “It was scary, both my wife and son are high risk. [My son] Harley has a lower immune system. We were always playing, in close contact and I was convinced he would have picked it up from me. Thankfully he didn’t.”
The stress during that period didn’t derail his performances when he returned from the illness.
While he remains more driven than ever, he admits some traits remain. “I’m still stubborn,” he says, only now that’s become his refusal to contemplate retirement.
Matthew Nemes has recently graduated from The Coaching Room’s NLP Practitioner Course.