Playing sports as a kid, the one phrase I heard from my parents and coaches more times than I can count was, "the most important thing is to have fun."
Any athlete can attest to how much fun it was playing the sport they loved growing up.
Even after I played the worst game of my 7-year-old life, I would respond to my mother's famous, "did you have fun today?" question with something like, "well, Dad gave me $5 because I got two penalties, the coach said he was going to give me a speeding ticket because I was skating so fast AND they had the humungous sour-keys at the snack bar...THAT WAS SO FUN."
We lost that game 8-0.
The fun component changed over time and the way fun is perceived at the highest level is no longer what it used to be. As I grew up and developed in skill, the fun seemingly fell into the shadows and the concept of winning stepped forward. The stakes increased, the traveling began to stretch across the border, the competition grew stronger, and winning became the most important thing.
You see, as a Division I athlete playing for a top 10 school in the country, I understand the importance of unrelenting effort, unwavering commitment and an undeniable devotion to the sport. Playing hockey has become a full-time job and I say that free of negative connotation. But the reality is that in order to be a successful athlete and a successful program as a whole, winning is a fundamental must; because at this level, there are no ribbons for participation.
If you were to ask me what fun looked like as a Division I athlete, I would respond with something like, "beating our biggest cross-town rival," or even, "winning a National Championship."
A little different than asking my 7-year old self, huh? The core of my answer today is deeply rooted in the value of winning. Winning makes hockey fun, being successful makes hockey fun, hoisting trophies, scoring goals, playing for a sold-out crowd is fun.
But the reality is, winning is an external factor that we as athletes have no control over. Yes, we can increase our odds by training harder and become better, but all bets are off when the puck drops. That's the beauty of playing sports, right? That no matter how good you are or how many times you've won, the game isn't over until the buzzer sounds. Yet, we spend so much time focusing on the outcome, rather than enjoying the process.
Don't get me wrong, I am as competitive as they come, but there is something to be said about buying humungous sour-keys at the snack bar and valuing the fun in your teammates and internal experiences, versus the external factors that cannot be controlled. You can still be competitive, passionate, driven and focused while having the time of your life. So why not do it? With nothing to lose and everything to gain, it's a no-brainer. It took me until now to realize that I forgot what having fun was all about, and perhaps that's the biggest tragedy of all.
So if you're feeling as if fun isn't an essential component of your sports career, I have one request. Take an hour out of your day, go to the closest local arena and watch a pee-wee or minor hockey game. You will see smiles that stretch from ear to ear, laughter that rumbles throughout the building, and goal celebrations as if a kid just won the Stanley Cup.
I did this recently, and it was the most humbling dose of perspective, one that showed me that instead of strapping fun in the back seat and letting winning take the wheel, it should be the other way around. It is in this pure love for the game that we can look back in our memory real and realize that we fell in love with this sport because of how much fun we had. That's not to say that effort, commitment, and devotion need to be altered in any way, but it should be fun that is fueling your desire to compete and to win.
So answer this... the best game of your life, the best goal you've ever scored, the best memory you have of sports, what's one thing that links all of these experiences? Fun, am I right? You were having the time of your life, weren't you? We often underestimate the value of these intrinsic things because of the competitive environment that surrounds us. I am beyond grateful to be a Division I athlete and to be a part of such a driven, motivated and passionate group of athletes. I wouldn't trade my experience in for the world. But, I do believe that if fun is the anchor, then the winning aspect will handle itself.
They say, "if you love your job, you'll never have to work a day in your life," and this is more than true with sports. If you wake up every day, head to the arena with a smile on your face and place fun at the top of your priority list, I honestly believe that winning will come naturally. If you look at the most successful athletes and programs in history, you will find that they all love what they do, and have the time of their lives while doing it.
For me, it was in the span of one period watching youth hockey that I realized I forgot what having fun was all about. I forgot what it meant to smile and laugh and celebrate like I did at 7-years-old, because at the end of the day, win or loss, having fun was all that mattered. And while over time my notion of fun changed, I think the more we can move towards our 7-year-old self, the more we will learn to stay mindful, humble in opportunity and love what we do.