A former professional basketballer, Nottingham’s John Dabrowski knows all about living the dream. Overcoming everything that life has thrown at him, John is now embarking on another successful career as a mental resilience coach...
A big smile welcomes me as I meet John Dabrowski. He’s tall, shaven, smooth of voice, and every bit the consummate communicator. But this wasn’t the case when he was growing up in Lenton. His parents came to Nottingham from Poland in 1945 as a result of the war, and with only Polish spoken at home, John struggled at primary school, and was laughed at when asked to speak in class.
Life at Becket Grammar School for Boys wasn’t much easier. Ridiculed for being over six-foot tall aged just eleven, John was crumbling inside. This culminated in his first PE lesson. “It was basketball and the four captains took turns in picking players,” recalls John. “I was the last to be chosen, and the rejection left me devastated.”
Playing truant and with his confidence shot, John’s parents took him to Poland to meet his six-foot-nine uncle; a basketballer for the Polish army team. “My uncle showed me the sport, lighting a fire in my belly,” says John. “Back in Nottingham, my mum bought me a basketball and I was soon focused on improving. I'm not sure how I managed it, but I persuaded my dad to build a basketball ring in our garden, which was his pride and joy. I was soon practising day and night.
“Dad’s beautiful flowers soon died, the grass was disappearing and I smashed the odd window. Within weeks, I’d wiped out the best garden in Lenton, but my dad said nothing. He could see his broken son growing in confidence. Years later, not too long before he passed away, I led him into his garden, beautiful once more, where I gave him a hug and thanked him for his sacrifice. We both had tears in our eyes.”
By the time John became first pick in PE lessons, he felt wanted again, and now had visions of himself in an England tracksuit. It was a long journey from the old Sherwood youth league, but John played for his country; most notably representing England in the 1978 Commonwealth Games. The following year, aged 25, John became one of the first British players to turn professional in a career that took him all over Europe and landed him a British Record. “I scored the most points in a single game,” he says. “98 points, a record that still stands. It could have been the perfect 100 as there were two points unaccounted for.”
A win in the play-off finals at Wembley, live on BBC TV, was to be his finale, as a back injury after slipping on a wet floorboard meant the tracksuit was replaced by a business suit. John became the Commercial Manager at Sunderland, then the General Manager of the Manchester Giants, beginning 25 years in sales and advertising. Each job followed the same pattern, he explains. “I would hit my targets then begin to get bored; the passion I had for basketball was never there.”
That passion is back now, this time for speaking and improving people’s lives. "I teach mental resilience and how to handle stress effectively, to help people perform better under pressure. I also specialise in techniques to build up people's confidence.”
Already a qualified neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) practitioner, he used his redundancy money to found JD Mindcoach. But this wasn’t an easy transition. “I set up my business and it was a hard struggle just to get clients. I’d had a couple of failed marriages and was back living with my mum. I had to work as a decorator and hated every second, but I had bills to pay and no savings. I was speaking to business owners with the phone in one hand a paint brush in the other, and would rent an expensive car to show up at networking events, leaving my battered old Mondeo parked around the corner.”
John now applies sports psychology to the business world, believing that both are about motivation and goals. He offers an example: “Visualisation is common in professional sport. Jack Nicklaus never hit a golf ball without first seeing it fly, bounce and roll, before stopping where he wanted it to. In business, more and more people are visualising their outcomes; it provides a powerful force to move a person towards their goal.”
As a mind coach, John talks to individuals and groups, as well as giving keynote speeches to hundreds at a time, where he teaches skills like reframing, focus and stress management. His globetrotting career has taken him to Gibraltar, Dubai, Switzerland and even on a two-week Caribbean cruise; not somewhere you might expect to hear a talk on mental resilience. He tells me about changing what’s on the inside to change the outside, and how he still works on keeping himself feeling really positive, coping with any knocks that come his way.
How does he do it? “What you see, and what you say, is what you get,” says John. “The more you think about negative things, the more 'down' you feel. This is a cycle you need to stop. Think of all the things you are grateful for in your life and do this for one or two minutes; if you do need to undertake a stressful task, then make sure you don’t think about it again once it’s done. Stressing over something you have no control over will only make you ill.”
John practices relaxation techniques and spends time visualising images. “Every morning I look at my dream board.” His dream-board idea, inspired by reading Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, is like a bucket list but with pictures. “Each vision is like a mini movie scene of something I want to achieve in my future and believe will happen. Once a dream has been realised, I remove the picture from the board, replacing it with a new one.”
“After two failed marriages to strong women, I bought an empty picture frame and would spend time looking at it, trying to see a wedding image. It took a while to happen but I kept focusing each day on that frame until it came into view and eventually, my future wife appeared. A few days later I met her.” He proudly shows me a picture of his wife Julie in her wedding dress. “We’re now very happily married. She’s a gentle woman, just like my mum.” John smiles. “Currently on my dream board is The Restored Foundation; something I’ve set up. I have a vision of homeless and orphaned people in Africa receiving my help. I’ll be there one day. For me, true happiness is helping others and making them happy.”
Affirmations are another way John keeps happy. One mantra he repeats each morning is, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” As John is overflowing with sayings, I ask him for his favourite. He pauses, then answers, “The Chinese proverb, ‘The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person who is doing it’.”
This proverb seems fitting for John as he’s now written a self-help book; not bad for someone that left school ungraded in English. “I had a book coach to help me with the process,” he says. “She came up with the structure. Each chapter has a theme, story, summary and action plan.”
The book’s title, Off The Wall: How to Develop World Class Mental Resilience, refers to him being last pick in PE. He’s currently working on his second book entitled From Decorating to Dubai, another mix of autobiography and self-help. John’s sights are also set on cracking America where his British accent and basketball history play well. A ten-year visa is in place, and he aims to still be working when he’s eighty. He has me convinced.
It brings to mind another of his quotes: “It’s not how you start, but how you finish.”
John Dabrowski website