Monday, June 23, 2014

Losing a Necessary Evil on the Path to Winning.

Risk assessment is necessary for anyone in life who wishes As much as some people will do their very best to defy this very simple logic, the reality is that without the ability to evaluate the risk in an action or activity, human beings would be putting themselves in dangerous situations far too often for their own good. On a daily basis, we are called upon to judge the risk in a situation more often than we might even realize. "Is it safe to cross the street? Is it safe to turn left with the oncoming traffic? Is it wise to eat an entire pizza in one sitting (it's ok, we've all been there at least once!)." This same process of risk assessment happens in the world of sports. The concept of risk manifests itself in several ways for athletes. Obviously, there is risk in playing sports in the sense that one could get injured due to the physical nature of sports. It can also be said that some of the most successful athletes in the world are those who know how to successfully assess risk. "Do I pass this puck up the middle? Should I go for the buzzer-beating 3 pointer? Should I try going for the ace on 2nd serve when facing break point?"

There is one aspect of risk in the world of sports that might be underrated or less analyzed, but it certainly plays a large role in defining the journey of an athelte. Simply put, it is the risk of losing. Athletes are fuelled by the desire to win. It's why we work hard, make sacrifices, and push ourselves to the max. It's because we know that the thrill of winning will make it all worth it. As we all know though, one can't experience only victory in the course of an athletic journey.

So many emotions in one picture
As a recreational-level goalie for 10 years, I always used to tell people "hockey has given me so much. I have learned so much just by being a hockey player. I owe the game so much." This was certainly true, but what I didn't know was that I was about to do more learning in my 11th year of hockey than I did in the previous 10 combined. It was the summer of 2013. My team entered a tournament that would see us compete against teams from across Western Canada. Within a few minutes of watching the other teams warm up, we knew we were the heavy favourite to win. The cities which, in previous years, had iced pretty stacked lineups, had for whatever reasons, not been able to do so this year. Fast forward to the gold medal game. My team went undefeated through round robin play and we gave up only 1 goal in 5 games. We are now leading 1-0 and there is less than 1 minute left in the gold medal game. We're already picturing our winning celebration when...the other team ties it at the 45 second-mark. Before we know it, we're in a shootout and their final shooter scores to win the championship. I've lost games before. Lots of them. But this loss broke me. For a person who eats, breathes, and lives the game of hockey, I remember leaving the ice that day and ripping my gear off in the locker room as though it might have been on fire. For the first time in 10 years I wanted nothing to do with the sport. For the rest of the summer I got asked to play goal in different leagues for different teams. "Stop calling me," I'd say to every last offer. The entire summer was spent deliberately staying away from hockey. This was extraordinarily hard to do. As I realized, hockey governs my life. It's everywhere!

As September rolled around, I knew I had a decision to make. Fall/winter hockey was about to get going and my team was going to come calling soon. They are an incredible group of women and I couldn't imagine not playing hockey with them. As much as the wounds were still fresh, I paid my fees like everyone else and showed up for the first game. If felt strangely foreign to put on my gear and even more foreign to step into the net. As it worked out, we got outshot by a wide margin in that game and we lost it 4-1. As I got into the car after the game, my dad, who had decided to join me, looked at me anxiously. He was afraid this latest lost was the last straw for me. My first words to him after getting in to the car? "Dad, I freaking love this sport. How could I ever have imagined not playing!?" Just like that the love was back.

Losing is inevitable. It is heartbreaking, but it is inevitable. It is also necessary. In an interview after winning the 2011-2012 NBA Championship, LeBron James described how his team's heartbreaking loss the year before had helped pave the way for the win this year.

"It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom, basically, to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person," James said. "... I got back to being myself. Last year, I tried to prove something to everybody, and I played with a lot of hate. And that's not the way I play the game of basketball. I play with a lot of love, a lot of passion, and that's what I got back to this year."

Sports have a way of bringing us back down to our core basics. Just when we're getting a bit cocky or just when we're starting to play for the wrong reasons or with the wrong attitude, events will transpire to remind us of why we're here. When you have your heart broken by a sport but you decide to go back and do it all over again, knowing that there's a risk of the same heartbreak all over again, that's when you know you love the sport. In my case, that knowledge alone has helped me heal and it has given me something to be thankful for. Through this loss I was humbled. I also stopped playing the game for others. I stopped worrying about awards, stats, compliments, and accolades. Through this gutting loss I became a better player, a better teammate, and a better person. Only after nearly walking away from the sport can I now say that I have experienced hockey from all 360°. It took 11 years but I have now experienced winning, losing, and downright collapsing. One thing I know for sure: my worst day as a hockey player was still a great day. It's a day I wouldn't change or take back. I was playing a great sport with people I love. And knowing that heartbreak could happen all over again? Let's just say that I'm willing to take the risk!