With the Northwest of England entering a new phase of corona virus restrictions, we spoke with Manchester based Azeem about how his life has changed over the last six months and how he manages to stay so positive.
“It’s been a challenging few months in terms of just life, let alone football.” admits Azeem as we start our Zoom call, “but thankfully, my friends and family are all safe and well, which is, which is the most important thing.“
This is a recurring theme in our interview. No matter what the challenge or difficulty Azeem always manages to find the positive.
Listen to the full 25 minute interview with Azeem, or carry on reading for a shorter text version
Time out of competition
Like so many blind athletes Azeem hasn’t played a competitive game since since February, but his spirits remain high.
“We’re trying to use this period as a reset and a chance to build some strong foundations that when we’re back into normal training, we can really kick on.”
He’s been searching for innovative ways to train but having a visual impairment is an added challenge when it comes to training during the pandemic.
“You can’t just go out and go for a run or a bike ride. it’s just not possible. So you need someone with you. Depending on your family or home environment it’s a difficult task.”
Azeem is fortunate in this regard and this has helped keep his training on track.
“I’m very lucky, I’ve got great support from my family who have been supporting me in terms of finding ways to join me on my training, whether that be going for runs with me, we’ve been doing a lot of boxing, getting up to the park to do regular football sessions.”
And again he remains resolutely upbeat,
“I’ve actually had the best block of training I’ve ever had. I graduated, my work has stopped and I was just able to fully focus on football.”
Working with a local coach
As the first lockdown eased he began working with a local Academy coach. Together they’ve been trying a variety of new techniques to improve Azeem’s all round play and ball skills.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work under the blindfold but working with a futsal ball or normal football where it hasn’t actually got ball bearings in.”
This means that instead of being reliant on the sound of the ball he is learning to be reliant on the feel of the ball and his own touch.
“I’ve realised that I can actually dribble the ball up and down the pitch, side to side. I think it emphasises that you’re so reliant on your touch more than the sound.”
He thinks this will have a number of benefits on the pitch enabling him to concentrate more on where the goal is, what coaches are saying and where team mates and other players are, “hopefully this will help me to beat a man or score more easily.”
Time to reflect
Beyond the training it’s given Azeem time to reflect, yet another positive take away from this period.
“Honestly, I’ve had a really good time having this period to think about where I want to go with my training and what what I want out of my football career and ultimately what I’m going to be doing going forward to to give myself the best possible chance to develop.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t feel he’s misses out on certain things. Like most of us at the moment its personal contact, his team mates, that he misses the most. Its been impossible to have their regular training camps because the England players live all over the country, from Portsmouth to Sunderland and everywhere in between.
“I’ve missed being around the football environment, the coaching staff, the court, the players, the tournament, you know, I’ve really missed that sense of community.”
And he knows this is a natural reaction to the situation and a shared experience with many others around the country inside and outside of sport.
“I think people are realising how much we are reliant on that human interaction, whether it be in the morning, going to grab your coffee, and chat to the to, to the lady making your drink.
When you sit at home, and it’s just you and a computer, or, you know, and some days, you’re not even leaving the house, and it’s just, it starts to dawn upon you that, wow, I spent two three days you have not even spoken to anyone.
You get good days and bad days where some days, you’re on your own, it’s seven o’clock in the morning, absolutely smashing it down, you’re in the middle of a lockdown and it’s is a real challenge.”
England squad meetings
The England squad have been having virtual catch ups and he’s found this helpful.
“It’s been nice to check in with the people that you play with. It’s been good to hear what players have been doing, trying to think of innovative ways to train by themselves.
Ultimately, a lot of our lads are realising that football is such a big part of their lives, and they want to really make the most of it, because you don’t know how long you’ll actually be playing.”
But while community and support are is important Azeem agrees with team captain Dan English that independence is a big part of what it takes to succeed in blind sports.
“I’ve gone as far as saying that some of our team are more independent than those with full sight. Like to the extent where it’s not even a barrier to them. And that’s why they’ve been able to excel on the football pitch. They want to be treated like elite athletes, they want to live that lifestyle, they want to live that training regime. And ultimately, that is the difference between good players and great players.”
Beyond independence there are a host of other characteristics that Azeem says are important hat go beyond just ball skills.
“You’ve got to really tap into all the senses used for problem solving. Your resilience, your confidence, those skills that you develop off the pitch because it is a really, really tough sport.”
“I only realise that when I’m very disoriented, when you are knocked to the ground, and you’ve got to get back up and that first few split seconds, you’ve got no idea where you are, you can’t be unsure as to what’s actually around you. Its a really uncertain time and you need those skills in those critical moments.”
A great feeling coming off the pitch with two big wins and finally my first goal in the English League! A top collective effort from all players and staff @Merseyblindfc in a memorable set of fixtures! The hard work continues with a big month ahead! ❤⚽ pic.twitter.com/MpK5xREJfY
— Azeem Amir (@Azeem_Amir99) February 24, 2019
Developing skills and future ambitions
He describes using and developing these off the pitch skills as part of his journey.
“I want to be able to look back and think actually, I wasn’t just making up the numbers, I want to be that person who is influential. I’m very optimistic for what the future is going to bring.”
As part of his journey he tries to cultivate his optimistic attitude, putting himself out there and doing as much as he can on and off the field in terms of work as well as sport, and this has extend from his university to career to doing Ted-X talks. Part of this mindset is his new found desire to celebrate success.
Video of Azeem’s TED talk – never underestimate a blind footballer!
“I should have celebrated more but I was so focused on the next thing. When we head back to football I’m going to really try and enjoy myself and celebrate even little successes on the pitch and off it.”
Another positive he’s taking from recent months is turning the short term pain of corona virus restrictions into long term gain, using the current situation as motivation in the future.
“A lot of my thinking going forward is going to be trying to remember this period of how rubbish I felt missing out on so much football. And ultimately, when I get back to playing it, enjoying every minute of it, and, you know, trying to progress. That’s To me, that’s the biggest thing for me.”
And what of his ambitions for the next couple of years?
“I think I don’t really like to think too much long term, I do have certain long term goals but for me things change so much that I like to have small targets that I want to achieve. For me it will be little things like just integrating myself back into the into a team environment and then getting used to getting used to like being back playing in a game.
Before you know it will be the 2022 euros, and that’s deciding the next major for us, hopefully, we’ll be able to travel to the World Grand Prix before then, and some other international tournaments.”
Our thanks to Azeem for speaking with us. With his positive mindset, talent and commitment its easy to imagine him succeeding in anything he puts his mind to.
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