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How To Use Struggle To Win In Sport And Life: The Heart And Story Behind EMP

Updated: Aug 8

See that seemingly happy collegiate student-athlete to the left? What if I told you his injury history provided a collection of casts more than trophies? Or I told you that his joy for the game turned into anger? That he only knew how to play with anger? What if I told you he was threatened by anonymous people and was terrified?

My story is one I don't share much because I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. No pity party. We all go through something. But if I'm asking my athletes to be open and vulnerable with me, it's only right I reciprocate.

Check out Morrison Stadium to the right. That's Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. It was and always will be a privilege to step on that field. I will never forget the days when I competed as a goalkeeper there. Looks like the dream visual right? It was for me, until that dream turned into a nightmare.

It was something I never want anyone else to have to experience in whatever environment they are in. It wasn't anyone's fault. It wasn't the university, my coach, my teammates, or the fans. It wasn't even my fault, but it's now my responsibility to use that experience to help others. It's just what life had in store for me. And I got in my own way and tried to fix it on my own. I didn't ask for help. Hindsight is always 20/20 and I would change that but allow me to share the battles that happened for me (read all the way through to know why I use the word "for").

My desire to play college soccer at a high level really ignited when I was 9 years old. My father was coaching the UNC men's soccer team and in 2001 they won the NCAA National Championship. I remember being in Columbus, Ohio where the tournament was hosted and how blistering cold it was in mid-December up there. The elation from the players and staff, being on the field with the confetti, seeing everyone with their NCAA National Champions shirts and hats, holding that iconic brown and gold trophy, and beaming ear to ear was unlike any experience I had been a part of at the time.

Back then I was still playing soccer for enjoyment and trying out other sports. I committed to soccer and being a goalkeeper around 10-11 years old. And even though that was the only sport I wanted to play; I didn’t really commit to pushing myself until about 13 years old. I don’t know why but that’s when I took it more seriously, maybe because I could tell what I was doing was not getting me to the highest level as far as goalkeepers go.

My parents gave me a lot of autonomy, which I am immensely grateful for. I could pick whatever sport I wanted to play, could have whatever goals I wanted, etc. The only conditions were to work hard, be respectful and enjoy what I do. Those three pillars stay with me to this day. They let me fail, A LOT, which I am also incredibly grateful for. As far as parents go, they did a killer job. Especially my father with navigating the coach/father dynamic. He always said I don’t have to play soccer because of him, he just cares that I’m happy. My mother and father both agreed that if I said I am committed to it, they would tell me what goes into that, and I either follow through and execute or I don't. So they pushed me, but didn't force me. I loved the game and still do! It’s intense and artistic at the same time! My journey however, challenged my love for the sport constantly. I was lost a lot of the time and I didn’t even know it. Here it is:

1. Common Pressure: I had the normal pressures most athlete's feel. I was on a top 25 NCAA team in the country. I'm a goalkeeper so I have the most responsibility and when I make a mistake it gets magnified. Every sport, every position and every environment presents its unique challenges. Ones we should all go through because it's a perfect opportunity to embrace those and level up. Within that we all have our unique path:

2. Identity and Respect: What first started to weigh on me was that EVERYWHERE I went, I was “Elmar’s son.” Some people might think, “well that’s pretty awesome when your father is such a respected figure in the soccer world.” Yes, no doubt, and believe me I wouldn't want to be anyone else's son but his. But when you’re a kid around 9-12 years old you don’t have your own identity yet. So 13 years and older it was starting to bother me more and more. I didn’t even know it, but I was building a chip on my shoulder, to earn my own respect as Alex Bolowich. It was masked though. But I'm lucky to have my father, I know many people don't even have a strong father figure in their life. So don't complain Alex, be grateful and "suck it up."

3. Injuries: In my entire career I had nine broken bones, dislocated my left shoulder twice, sustained two concussions and endured three surgeries. I was constantly having to stop, setback, and work my way back. Three of those broken bones, and two of those surgeries happened in college at Creighton. One of them ending my senior season before it even began. Was that in my control? No. So what do I do? Get back to work. Don't feel sorry about it. Prove your are still capable and get after it.

4. Height: I maxed out at 5’9” tall. The average goalkeeper at the college and professional level is around 6’2”-6’3”. So having to make up for that means being quicker, sharper, and get the timing exact. The fine margins of error as a goalkeeper just got even thinner. Was that in my control? No. So what do I do about it? Work on your athleticism, do extra work. Run the hill, use the tennis balls for hand eye-coordination, etc. Don't complain.

5. Social media: It was in its infancy at the time so we were not aware of how dangerous it could be. I remember meeting our supporters who would come to every game in person. They looked me dead in the eye and said "we always have your back. If there's anything you need you can come to us." I loved that! Until I saw those same people on Facebook saying I'm not good enough and shouldn't be on the team. Okay so we all have doubters. That means you made it pretty far. So, what do you do? Prove them wrong. Don't feel sorry for yourself, get angry about it and get to work. I can handle that. Don't complain.

6. The Threats: This one made everything else feel like a walk in the park. In my freshman year, an anonymous person (fake account) on Facebook messaged me threatening to hurt me with terrible things I cannot really describe. They knew everything about me. My class schedule, my family, where my sister was traveling at the time, the specific room of which dorm I was in, everything. They told me I could not go to campus security or anyone in the athletic department or they would find out and hurt me. They never gave a reason why. I spent about two weeks trying to get them to reveal why, or who they were, or if they wanted money, anything to get them to stop. After two weeks of empty threats I blocked them, thinking I can't torture myself with "what if." Luckily, nothing ever happened. I don't know why they did that. I couldn't sleep, I was constantly walking around campus checking my shoulder to see if I could spot someone watching me. I was waiting for someone to approach me, attack me, everything. At training I couldn't focus, in class I couldn't focus. I kept wondering if it was one of my teammates pulling a bad prank, if it was one of those people in the support groups. I felt that I couldn't trust anyone. For four years, I felt like I couldn't get close to anyone because they'd threaten to hurt me. It was difficult to build authentic and meaningful relationships.

Boil it all down. Through my four years there, I was afraid, I was angry, and I felt alone in fighting it. The harder I fought mentally the more I felt like I was sinking. I had a hard time trusting people, so I didn't seek help, didn't talk to ANYONE about any of this. Just kept it bottled up. Do you know what happens to a coke bottle when you shake it and then try to gently open it? Yeah that's about the tension I felt internally. Ready to implode.

All I wanted to do was graduate and be done with it, put it behind me like a bad dream. The goal and dream for myself that I wanted for 10+ years as a kid, turned out to be something I never wanted to remember.

Why didn't I quit? I felt that was never an option:

1.) I fought for years for the right to be there. I couldn't let it go now!

2.) I don't quit. That's not in my family's code, nor in my ethos or value system.

3.) I had an ounce of optimism I could still rise above it all and reach my potential.

4.) Quitting would mean they won. I'm competing against opponents I can't see.

After a few years post graduation of feeling like a victim and having a victim mindset, I started to turn it around. I won't let those experiences make me regret that time I was there. Strength comes from leaning into discomfort and adversity.

I was a soccer coach at both the youth and collegiate levels for 6-7 years seeing athletes battle their own psychological challenges while I am sitting on what I didn't even recognize was a GOLDMINE of experience to connect with them. That's when it hit me:

I'm going to go back to school, get my masters in Sport and Performance Psychology, so I can get a better understanding of the human brain, performance, and intervention strategies to help as many athletes as I can. I have a higher calling now. I can let those 4 years bring one person (me) painful memories, or I can use that as leverage, to help fuel me to elevate hundreds to thousands of others.

Now here I am. This is me. Same smile, but a 180 degree turn from who I once was. In all of my imperfect glory, winning daily (and making mistakes), leading with purpose, connecting to athletes, skyrocketing their relationships with themselves and their sport.

This is my mission. Some of you may have hit your version of "rock bottom." Some of you may see yourself trending towards that. Some of you are at your baseline and just want to be proactive to avoid it, as well as excel from where you already are.

Coming from someone who has hit their rock bottom, I have space for all of you no matter where you are. I take pride in being in my athletes corner, so at the very LEAST, you're not alone.

I don't just help you perform better.

I help you enjoy your sport and experiences.

I help you build capacity to handle the challenges and struggles.

I am your soundboard for WHATEVER you need to get off your chest.

I am here to guide you in tough conversations with coaches and teammates.

I am here to coach you, to challenge you, and support you.

Thank you for reading my story. All of those experiences didn't happen to me, they happened for me. My intention was for this to help you!

What else can I do to help you? Let me know!

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