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.