David Hovorka: with a good coach even you can beat Messi

David Hovorka has been playing football since boyhood. He started at FK Kablo Kladno Kročehlavy, moved to Sparta at the age of seven, guested at various clubs throughout his career and eventually became a stopper at SK Slavia, where, while playing in the Champions League he won two league titles. Not being so concerned about the titles, he emphasises the importance of the joy of the game. The truth is that when David Hovorka talks about football it’s enthusing. He had to end his career this year due to serious injuries but says it's the first free summer of his life. He is currently organising psychological training sessions with sports psychologists for the youth at SK Slavia. We spoke to David about his early experiences, challenges and his studies at NEWTON. 

David, you are currently studying Mental Coaching in Sport and Business at NEWTON. What drove you to do it? 

Marian Jelinek inspired me to do so, because when I started having injuries (two knee replacements) I started to wonder why they kept recurring. I knew something was wrong. My autonomic nervous system was out of whack... Even though I had various blood tests, they couldn't find anything. I needed to address the cause, I didn't want medication. But how could I do that? One friend recommended me a book by Marian Jelinek, The Inner World of Winners. Afterwards I read other books as well, which my mom was especially excited about, as she likes to see me reading. 

I knew my body was fighting back, telling me to do something else, that I wasn't in tune with it. I started to work with myself differently and write in diaries. Now I can navigate my emotions better, writing out unwanted thoughts that I want to work with in my dissertation. But I had already been working with Marian before I joined his programme. 

How did you take this complex decision to leave your career? 

Of course it wasn’t easy. I devoted everything to football and achieved everything I wanted. All of a sudden I was playing great games with a full audience and I didn't want to give that up. Having a plan A to stay healthy with football, I was already creating a backup plan because I knew that sooner or later, I would have to decide what to do next. I was already studying, and although I was doing a lot for myself, a third, more serious injury happened to me. During my stay in Germany for surgery and rehabilitation, I was taught a lot of things that align closely with what I wanted to do.
 

David Hovorka loves football. He has devoted his whole life to it

I read an interview with Eva Adamczyk who said that those who haven’t experienced an injury, do not work at top speed. What’s your opinion about that? 

It's hard to judge because she practises a different sport. I don't know what kind of state of mind she was in. But I was sure that I would do it myself, at the same pace all the time. The reason for that was because I already felt that I needed to do something else than football, even though I love it. I didn't mind football per se, but I felt that the life of a footballer wasn't for me, I wasn't enjoying it.

You've been in Sparta since you were a kid. What was it like when you joined? 

I didn't want to be there. My mom talked to one Sparta manager and he agreed to let me try. Well, I went there and I didn't find myself there at all. New surroundings, new faces and because of my shyness, I used to get teased by the boys. Moreover, I am dark-skinned, I have thick eyebrows, and I used to hear taunts. I did not wish to be there because of it. Then my grandfather came to one tournament. It was around the time the coach wanted to fire me for being 'soft', but the assistant coach told him, 'Wait a minute, he'll figure it out'. And suddenly, thanks to my grandfather, I really started to play and ended up staying in Sparta for 13 years. That support from the family is incredibly important. What is more, when you start playing in such a club, they push you to go to sports schools and my mum, who has a university degree, wanted me to have a proper education. This is the reason I attended a language school and then pursued high school education, although it was challenging to put it all together.

What lessons did you learn from playing football?

You deal with obstacles, problems, you have to constantly find ways to combine football with school and with life. No one truly discussed that matter with me during my childhood. My mom prioritised education and my dad has a college degree too, but he leaned more to athletics. However, his mother forbade him to do it, and he never went back to sports. My dad was supportive and gave me advice, which I am grateful for, but it remains essential to have that professional guidance that teaches you how to navigate your challenges.
 

Studying at Newton gave David a clue as to where he wanted to go after his career

It is frequently observed that athletes receive support from their parents. Is there any care for children in the Czech Republic in terms of their mental health? 

I haven't personally come across it yet. One can go to a psychologist and talk about the problems, but the practice is missing. The first time I was with Marian, he was able to say 'no' to me about certain things. Due to his sports background, I could grasp my difficulties better. I would like to profile myself in this direction and work with youth as well. 

Is there anything specific in the pipeline? 

I think so. When I started studying at NEWTON, I used to go to Slavia to check out the youth. That’s where I met Honza Chvojan and Martin Machacek, who studied sports psychology. We sat down together and made a framework for psychological trainings for youth, coaches and parents. Thanks to the school, I was reminded of many moments that came up in football. I learned how to calm my inner dialogues during emotional distress and I would like to pass that on youngsters. 
 

He has played with some of football's biggest stars in his career

How do you feel about the fact that top sport often crosses your boundaries? 

If you don't go to that limit, you don't know yourself and that applies to everything. In today's world, it's often difficult to determine our physical or mental fitness limits because we generally like making things easier for ourselves. Reaching the edge enables us to see if we're up to it. I've put a lot of effort into football, working hard, but it has rewarded me in return. 

You mentioned that you've been dwelling on intrusive thoughts. Could you share more about them?

It was mainly fear of injury because it was recurring. I needed to find a way to overcome that fear when I stepped onto the field. That was the hardest part for me. I was also very precise and I had to let go of that seriousness and approach football with humour. I found that I couldn't control the things I was afraid of anyway and I learned to turn fear to my own advantage. For example, I was recovering from plastic surgery when I played in a derby with Sparta, and my priorities were elsewhere. I decided to focus on enjoying the game and not worry about making mistakes.

Is that what you want to work on with young talents? 

Yes, I would like to improve the conditions for youngsters and develop their potential. It is important for them to explore their interests beyond football and engage in other activities they enjoy. Secondly, I'd like to work on their approach. Because everybody is different. Some people may feel guilty for their mistakes, while others might experience anger. It is crucial to effectively respond to these emotions. If somebody is shy, they should understand it and overcome it. I've always been like that, didn’t take everything seriously, but some people have to master this skill. 
The thing is, you have to transform disadvantages into advantages. For example, I was told I was too short to be a stopper. Consequently, I ended up playing as a centre fielder instead of being chosen for the stopper position. In the end, I overtook Romelu Lukaku in the Champions League, defended the attacks from Messi and then made it to the national team. I was small, but quick and I knew how to win the game. 

In an interview with NEWTON TV, you talked about finding confidence both within yourself and within the football environment. Have you managed to find it? 

Yes, and I'm glad for that. I've been going back to my childhood, relationships, figuring it out, figuring out how it affected me and who I am.
 

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