Ash won't shrink from any player's challenge
ASHLEY LAWRENCE would have been burned at the stake or at the very least sat on a ducking chair and plunged into icy water a few hundred years ago.
Anyone who reckoned he (or indeed she) could heal with the power of positive thinking would have been declared a witch and suffered the consequences.
We're a bit more broad minded now, of course. No way is he considered some sort of charlatan; a quack who plays on the minds of those who are easily susceptible.
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He is a bona fide, fully paid up member of the sports psychologist clan and it was as such that we had a chat last week.
The whole thing was set up by Javed Mughal, Medway's best-known physio who has his own practice in Rainham and who now oversees all the remedial work done at Priestfield.
Jav suggested I might like to meet Ashley; see what he's all about and see what he's done.
Ideal candidate for the interview, me. Sceptic to the last. One who scoffs at all that mumbo jumbo nonsense and probably thinks Ashley should be burned as a witch.
Then they told me he started work with the Gills players after the FA Cup demise at the hands of non-league Dover.
And then I started wondering if there might just be something in it after all.
Since that defeat Gills have lost only twice. They have ended an utterly dismal sequence of away matches without a win – stretching back to before the Wembley victory in 2009. They have climbed from the relegation zone to a position just outside the play-off positions. Many people reckon they could yet make it to automatic promotion.
You have to remember that manager Andy Hessenthaler brought in two very good players from Peterborough for a month. Their arrival did the team a world of good, but they've been gone since December and yet the team are still playing well and had it not been for a couple of outstanding goalkeepers would probably now be around fourth in League 2.
"Football is using a lot more sports psychologists for the treatment and well-being of players," said Jav. "Particularly when they have long-term injuries. If they have negativity in them it detracts from their recovery and treatment. We have engaged Ashley to work the team as a whole and with those players who wish to work on an individual basis.
"Looking at what's been happening on the pitch, it seems to be working."
Ashley took over the conversation at that point.
"After the Dover game the players felt low. They knew their fans were angry and disappointed with them and believed bad things were going to happen.
"At a sub conscious level they probably accepted they were not going to win games. A psychologist works on the sub-conscious to change the thought process. Instead of letting them think they wouldn't win away from home, their sub conscious was told not only they could win but they would.
"It started at Oxford and you could see the improvement. It went on at Barnet, then at Macclesfield. Remember there? Gills were a goal down early on and yet led 4-1 after 20 minutes.
"Three months earlier and they would have been beaten."
It wasn't just Ashley's influence, though. The physio department improved, Hessy got involved and, if you like, it became like a happy family.
"Our brain is all neural pathways," continued Ashley. "At core level, people's beliefs are instilled in them when they're seven, or eight. For most those beliefs aren't re-evaluated until they are between 35 and 45. They are living within a boundary as if it's true.
"You change that thought process at any time. You can say to yourself 'what if it does work?' and therefore stretch the boundaries.
"The individuals can only play at a maximum of 100 per cent. There is no 110 per cent. If they play better then that's their new 100 per cent. And if you have someone playing at his optimum then the slightest negativity – in any way at home, with his family, at work – any negativity then it will reduce that person's capacity to reach that 100 per cent.
"I'll speak to people and they can choose to believe or not to. If they carry on what they have been doing they will continue getting only what they have got before.
"But what if it works? What if it starts working?"
Ashley has been working on specific things with specific players – think about those who have seemingly upped their game – and he says it's all about their attitude; their desire to make things better.
"As a unit they have to decide if they are playing to win or playing not to lose.
I saw a quote by the Stevenage manager after they beat Newcastle and he said they had planned to win 5-0 and would happily take 20 per cent of that. See what I mean? Positive thoughts bring positive rewards."
"When we came in there was a lot of negativity about the place. Players weren't confident in the scans they were having, the consultants they were seeing, the treatment they were receiving. We have brought new consultants, we have changed the structure of the physio department, improved the scan process.
"Ash has come in here and with everything we have done and everything the management team do it's all come together."
One thing which cannot be influenced by physios, psychologists, anyone, is the crowd.
Everyone agrees 99 per cent and more get behind the team as best as they can. They all agree, how- ever, that there are detractors.
"If a player is picked on by another individual or by a collection of individuals he cannot give his best," said Ash. "Think what I said before. Any negativity means less than 100 per cent and less than 100 per cent …. well, we know what happens.
"You hear people talking about the crowd at Anfield or Old Trafford as being the 12th man. You will not find a player in this squad who won't go out there and play as if his life depends on it if the whole crowd are supportive."
Jav came in again: "A few weeks ago we heard comments about the players not being fit enough, so we put heart rate monitors on them and I can assure you their workrate is at the maximum of their potential, for they are working as hard as they can."
Ash continued: "How good would it be if the crowd upped the noise level by 10 per cent. It doesn't sound much, but to the players it would be massive.
"I was at Barnet where their supporters were getting at their players. What that did was knock their confidence and lifted our players. If they realised how much it affected their team – that they were working as Gills' 12th man on that night – would they have continued?
"Fans do have an important part to play. They can lift the players that little bit more."
Jav provided an example of what positive thought could do.
"Remember Richard Green?" he said. Yes, of course I did. Snooker playing central defender a few years ago. Very popular with the fans.
"He saw four consultants who said he would never play again because of a big spinal injury before he came to Gillingham. He went to see Eileen Drury on the behest of Glenn Hoddle and was back playing two weeks later.
"Bet those consultants would never have believed it, but in my experience it's something that can happen."
Ashley's not the only new face around the place now.
Gills have appointed a club physio in James Barker, whose responsibility will be to diagnose, treat and provide rehabilitation within Priestfield.
Current first team physio Steve Allen's responsibilities will be the same, but on the training ground and in matches. Outside, if you like.
The players will have to complete certain levels of fitness before getting back into training. They will be supervised at each stage.
Jav himself oversees things. He had to get the structure in place and is happy, too, that Medway athlete Barry Royden will be going to the club on Tuesdays, Thursdays and match days to act as sports masseur. And that Dr Jerry Hill has come on board, too.
"We are using the services of consultants with whom we have access. Wherever there is a problem we can get it dealt with. Quickly."
Seeing as how the team have improved dramatically since that dark day in November, it seems as if Jav, Ash and co have got the whole club pulling in the right direction. Long may that last.