Friday, August 7, 2015

Gratitude: A goalie's journey back from the brink

They say hockey is a team sport and that your team is your family. They tell you to fight every moment for your team. "Play for each other," they say. Because that's what hockey players do. That's fair, but what happens when you lose?

I remember going into a shootout in a championship game of a big tournament 2 years ago. I looked over at the bench from my perch in the net and all I could see was the eager, hopeful faces of my team mates. "Play for them," I told myself. "Win it for them." I tried, but one of the shooters went bar down on me, and before I knew it, I was in the locker room with 19 sobbing team mates. "You had one job," I told myself. The devastation of not doing that one job put me in to a deep dark hole. I had been a goalie for 10 years to that point, but in my brain, I couldn't remember the last time I made a save. I went into a shame spiral. Seeing my team mates, even away from hockey, was a chore. I had failed them. To look them in the eye was just too difficult. For the record, it wasn't any of them that said that I'd failed them. If anything, they apologized for not scoring more goals and not defending better. But the brain is a tricky organ. It can't be lied to and it's stubborn. Once it believes something...good luck trying to convince it of anything else.

The loss of the hockey game was secondary to what else I lost that day. Confidence, passion, gratitude - they all disappeared from my game. Quitting was not an option. No one quits just because they lose a game. And I had lost plenty of games before. Why this one hit me so hard, I still have no idea. So for the next 2 years I continued to put on the gear, take my place in the net, and attempted to make saves. Sometimes I made them and sometimes I didn't. All I knew was, I didn't really care. I was just there, going through the motions, and getting angry and emotional whenever I played poorly, because I saw each game I played as an attempt at redemption, so every loss felt like it was setting me back in my quest of being able to look my team mates in the eye again.

A quote that always makes me laugh: "there is an I in TEAM. It's in the "A" hole." I certainly don't want to be an "A hole" but maybe a certain amount of selfishness is needed to be a good athlete. 2 years after that disastrous tournament, I find myself back in the same setting. Same tournament, same team mates, same opponents. It was a chore for my coach to even get me to play in this tournament again. After what happened 2 years ago, I don't have much lower to sink. One more bad experience and there will be no passion left to draw me back to the game I've been in love with my whole life. But here I am, putting myself through mental agony once again. Only this time, I have a different approach. I'm playing for myself and only myself. Me vs. Me. And I have only one goal at this tournament: bring back the love. "How you handle yourself and how you play. This moment is part of the journey. You were meant to make that save. You were meant to give up that goal. You are meant to be a little scared. This moment is part of the journey that is your life." That narrative was constant in my head during the tournament. Like I said earlier: the brain is a tricky organ. It can't be lied to and it's stubborn. Once it believes something...good luck trying to convince it of anything else.

So I tested that theory. I visualized myself making every save and pictured myself being calm and controlled in my emotions. Game after game, moment after moment, play after play, I just kept trying to stay in the moment and do the very best that I knew I was capable of doing. We make it to the playoff round and find ourselves in a shootout against the same opponent as 2 years ago. Cue the dramatic music and get ready for the Hollywood ending...except for...we lost...again. Time to walk away from the game right? Not at all. I played as well as I could have and my team played as well as they could have. We tried and we came up short. It sucks. But we tried. I stayed true to my mantra - I played well and I handled myself well. And just like that, the love came back, the passion came back, the confidence came back, and the gratitude came back. I didn't realize what a huge void it had left in my life when it was gone, but to stand here today and to be thankful for being a goalie and for being able to play this beautiful game and for being part of a team is something that I haven't done in 2 years.

The same disappointing result 2 years apart. So why the difference in attitude? Maybe because of the difference in mindset going in. When you belong to a larger team, there has to be a recognition that you can only control so much. Unlike a singles sport where you control your own destiny, a team sport isn't always like that. You can have the game of your life but still come up short. Or you can have an off game and your team mates can pull you through it for a victory. You just never know. What you can control is your mindset and your actions. "How you handle yourself, how you play."

What this experience has taught me is that losing a hockey game is not the only thing that can be lost every time I step into the net. There is so much more on the line. And though I focused solely on myself and my game in this tournament, it was not because I was trying to be an "A hole." If anything it was because I was trying to be the team mate that my team needed me to be. And even though we still lost, I'd like to think that my attitude allowed me to be more of the player...and the person...that I expect myself to be. We know ourselves best and we can't be lied to. And we have only ourselves to look to when we need to pull out of the "deep dark hole." It's a process and it takes time, but when you stand at the other end, stronger and more humble, you'll know why you were made to go through the process. Because it's part of the journey.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Like a Girl" and Proud of It

Ohhh Morgan Rielly. Most of the country already hates the Leafs. Why are you making it even easier to hate them?

On February 20th, 2015, Reilly of the Toronto Maple Leafs was asked by a reporter to describe what it was like going through yet another Leafs' seasonal debacle. His response, as captured above, sparked a lively debate on social media due his use of the word "girl" with a negative connotation attached to it.

The popularity of the phrase "like a girl" is so common in society, that many of us don't even think twice when we use it in conversation. Even as girls and as women, it has taken time for us to realize that behind that phrase is an insult; one that is as offensive as any racial or gender-based slur that society has worked to eliminate from our vocabularies. Only now is there a push for public awareness and change around using this phrase. As the Always - #LikeAGirl campaign asks: "when did doing something 'like a girl' become an insult?"

Dumping on the Leafs is a national pastime in Canada. The cliche is true - we ride our sleds to Tim Horton's, buy a Double Double and a donut, and we sit there and bash the Leafs all day long. And let's be honest, the Leafs have given us a lot of material to cover in recent years. So maybe Morgan Rielly's comments garnered an unfair amount of attention. Tons of people still say things like "you hit like a girl" or "stop being such a girl." They do not incite a national debate on social media and on the airwaves of national TV and radio about it. Rielly did. Because Reilly is a role model. By virtue of the fact that Morgan Reilly is a hockey player on one of the league's most storied franchises, when Reilly or his team mates talk, people listen. Kids listen. And kids imitate. 

We grew up on the phrase "like a girl" being an insult. But for the next generation of young women to grow up with that phrase carrying the same connotation would be a shame, because it would mean that we haven't made any progress. And that is not true, because we all know how much progress has been made. We are all athletes. We see examples of physical and mental toughness all around us in our team mates, opponents, coaches, and in ourselves. We see it in our bosses and in women in positions of leadership and power everyday. People say it all the time: "women are more emotional than men." And again, they say it like that's a bad thing. In reality, emotion, passion, commitment, loyalty, care, compassion, and love are all qualities that go a long way in the world. They create a less clinical and more cohesive environment to work in. And women don't take anything for granted. We work hard every day to represent ourselves and our fellow women, because we know that one wrong step can set everything back by a decade. 

This article isn't mean to rag on Morgan Reilly. That's been done...a lot. It is meant to make all of us think twice when we use negative phrases in everyday conversation. It is about changing our mindset to being proud of who we are and about honing our skills as women. All of these traits that have been seen as negatives and as drawbacks in the past are actually great traits to have. And if there was any doubt about what women are capable of achieving, just remember that Morgan Reilly's comments came on the one-year anniversary of this: 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Beer League (Injury) Blues

I have been injured for 8 weeks and have not played hockey in 6 weeks. I'm like a bear who has not been fed. Approach with caution.

Hockey players have a reputation across all sports as being the amongst the toughest athletes out there. They play with broken bones and torn ligaments, and only when an injury is severe do they agree to being stretchered off the ice. It's a point of pride with hockey players to leave the ice on their own two feet.

As someone who plays at the recreational level, I feel this same point of pride. The fighting spirit that pushed Hayley Wickenheiser to play through the 2014 Olympics with a broken foot and Meaghan Mikkelson to play with a broken hand exists in recreational players too. I have seen it with my own eyes. I have played through pain and discomfort too, but nothing like what I've been through with this latest injury. The whole process of being injured and missing hockey for the first time in 12 years has opened my eyes to what the process is like and it has definitely given me more respect for any athlete at any level who comes back from injury.

From a psychological standpoint, there are several stages of dealing with an injury. Once we get over our denial and admit that we actually are injured, we have to go through the process of determining what medical services we require, where to get them from, and how much they're going to cost. As rec leaguers, this stage varies vastly from the elite sports realm. In the world of Olympic, professional, and college sports, each team carries their own trainers who are available to examine and treat players as soon as an injury occurs. In the case of leagues like the NHL, players don't even have to wait for appointments with specialists or to get advanced scans like CT's or MRI's. Such is not the case when you're just an "Average Jane." No one cares that you're missing games and are desperate to get back to being with your team. No one cares that you're in pain severe enough that it's affecting your job and the rest of your life. You are about to join a long list of fellow Average Joes and Janes in waiting for the treatment you need. As someone who has recently been through this experience, here is some advice I would give to my fellow injured rec leaguers:

1) Get the treatment you need right away. Don't delay. I delayed because I was concerned about costs and was hesitant to go through so many time consuming appointments. Delaying treatment only made my injuries worse, and it actually made my healing time and the cost of my overall treatment much higher.

2) Google is not a doctor. Plugging your symptoms into WebMD and waiting for a computer-generated diagnosis doesn't make it an accurate diagnosis. I would suggest getting a proper diagnosis from a medical professional. Once your injury has a name you can always Google treatment ideas or suggestions for stretches/workouts you can do.

3) Find the right practitioner. You want someone who listens to you and treats you like a person not like a case. You also want someone who recognizes that you're an athlete. One of my chiropractors told me that she was going to put me on the same treatment plan as the 80-year old woman who she saw before me that day. Needless to say, I was offended.

4) Take accurate notes about all of your symptoms. Every sensation you feel that is not "normal", make note of it so that you can relay it to your practitioner(s). The more clues you give them, the easier it will be for them to nail down the source of your discomfort. It might even save you the need to get certain scans.

5) Be careful with self-treatment. Again, let a professional tell you what exercises to do. Don't formulate stretches and exercises yourself that you think might be helpful. They might actually be making things worse.

6) Be patient. The pro's have a team of people who have to sign off on the player before they return to game action. Us Average Janes don't have that. Several times during my 6 weeks without hockey, I considered going back and playing. At one point I found out that one of my teams lost their last game pretty badly and it made me want to forget my "plan of patience" and just get back out there. But then I thought how helpful I would be if I was playing at 50% health, and how much damage I might potentially do if I forced my body to do something it clearly wasn't ready to do? Think of the bigger picture and the long term goal. Don't rush your body.

I wish a safe and healthy hockey season to all, but sometimes injuries are inevitable. For those times, I wish my fellow Average Janes a speedy and more importantly, a successful recovery. In the meantime, feel free to come join me in cage of unfed bears!