Chalk Talk: There are always lessons to be learned from losing
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For the other 99 percent, it means one of the dirtiest words in sports: losing.
In 25 seasons of hockey, both as a player and as a coach, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a lot of winning teams, and even a couple state and national championships at various levels. While I certainly learned a lot from winning, the most valuable lessons came from the few seasons when winning usually wasn’t an option at all.
A few years ago, I was an assistant coach on a Pee Wee team that didn’t get to double digits in the ‘W’ column all season. The first lesson you learn is that losing game after game is absolutely no fun. The real lesson is that the game can eventually become fun again, as long as winning ceases to be your primary goal.
Don’t mistake me, that little shot of fear and pain that hits your soul when the puck goes into your net neither dulls nor dilutes with higher rates of occurrence. What I learned from more experience with that feeling of getting scored on was that losing was just that, an uncomfortable but temporary feeling, not an outcome to be afraid of.
The other thing you learn from all those moments of pain and lingering anxiousness is that, if at all possible, those moments should be spaced out as far as you can manage. Our team also realized that by celebrating the little things that go well, like effort and defensive plays, the jumpy nerves after a goal tend to dissipate and everyone starts to relax.
But the greatest lesson I learned that season, without a doubt, was that humility and respectfulness aren’t just keys to living a great life, they’re bona fide competitive advantages in hockey. I remember playing a top-ranked team in the second half of that season, while we were ranked somewhere closer to a great 18-hole golf score. The players prepared like it was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup. We lost 1-0 and the nearly superhuman team effort it took still softens me up when I think about it.
If the previous day’s preparation was Game 7, the locker room before the next game, against a rare team with a worse record than ours, was the premature victory parade. It was easily the worst game of our season and we learned a valuable lesson about pride that day with a tie. All we had to do was remember to be humble and respect our opponent, but the distraction at the possibility of winning a game was too much for our victory-starved kids. That one still hurts.
The lasting image of that losing season came when we were down 3-0 late in the elimination game of our final tournament, goalie pulled and going for it, and our hardest-working forward reached desperately for a loose puck, caught an opposition skate instead, and was sent to the box on an honest penalty and a good call. With a minute left on the clock and a penalty kill coming up against a great team, our boys’ shoulders dropped, faces twisted in anguish as they realized the truth: the season was over. The kid in the box hung his head and cried.
There is hope for the future generation. When I saw those kids make the decision lay down in front of three opposition slap shots and use their bodies to keep that puck out of the net one final time, to save their teammate in the box more pain and guilt, I understood the meaning of the baffling question of “Why?”
It was for each other.
Zach Blom is the head coach for the Colorado Thunderbirds’ 12U AAA team.
Interested in being a Chalk Talk columnist? E-mail Matt Mackinder at firstname.lastname@example.org.