This March, my fifth and final season of junior hockey with the Vermont Lumberjacks ended. Reflecting on this journey, I’ve thought a lot about a lot about my teammates, numbering in the hundreds. The relationships we shared and the memories made are at top of my mind. But I’ve also thought about the habits and patterns of those who have gone on to do great things in hockey. I realized that there were a few patterns among the most successful. These patterns can be transferred to any high level athlete.
Pattern #1: Being a “pro”
In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says that the difference between an amateur and a professional is that the professional shows up every day ready to work. The stakes for the pro are high, after all it is how they make their living. All of the best players I played with had an attitude that hockey was their job. They showed up on time, and their lives were built around our practice schedules. They skated with both teams when possible. Away from the rink, they took care of themselves.
My teammate from this past season, Glynn Robitaille, is a great example of this. Glynn saw everything that didn’t help get him to his ultimate goal of playing professional hockey as a distraction. He practiced with both teams on most days, and took care of himself away from the rink. If that’s not you, it’s okay. Being a pro is a huge commitment, and we can’t be professionals at everything we do. I chose my work as a personal trainer and strength coach more seriously than I did hockey. But, I’m not going to be the hockey player Glynn is. So if you want to be a pro, then you have to start being it now, well before anybody will pay you to do it.
Pattern #2: Consistent pre-practice and pre-game rituals
Most good players have a set pre-game routine. They tape their stick, play some sewer, and do the team warm-up. The best players do their routine for practice also. It’s one thing to say that you treat practices the same way you do games, but it’s another to actually do it. No, the best don’t get there two hours early like on game days. But everything they do for game days, they do for practices. Even if their routine is thrown off by a pre-practice meeting, they’ll still shorten everything into three minutes to put them in the right space mentally to skate. One time this year we had a meeting go over into our ice time, and our coach told us we had fifteen minutes to be on the ice. There was Mason Emoff, laying on the ground in the locker room doing deadbugs, which were part of his routine, before getting dressed. In contrast, the kids who weren’t as successful wouldn’t treat preparation for a practice the same as a game. On game days, they’d be mentally locked in. But for practices, they would just sit in the locker room until they needed to get ready. Which players do you think got more out of practices?
Pattern #3 – Investing in loss
Although their preparation is the same, the best don’t treat practices and games the same. “Practice like you play,” is good advice for the lazy, but not for the motivated. In practice, the best players try new things. They play around with a new move they’ve been working on as part of their pre-practice stickhandling routine. Then, They try it at half-speed in practice. They do what Josh Waitzkin calls investing in loss. Investing in loss is putting yourself in vulnerable, risky positions in order to grow. It’s about being willing to get burned in the fire to sharpen your sword. Sometimes Geordan Buffoline tries something really stupid in practice, and it messes up the whole drill. But then a month later, he will try the same thing in a game, and it would be in the back of the net because he has been progressing and practicing that move each day. The best players see the long term and recognize that their growth is dependent on trying new things and taking risks. They more mistakes they make, the more chances they have to get it right and improve. Most people recognize failure and mistakes as the catalyst for growth, but they don’t seek it out. The best players seek out small failures and invest in loss for the long term.
Pattern #4 – Competitiveness
The most successful players are also usually the ones that hate losing the most. They don’t care what stupid little practice game it is, they will go through a wall to come out on top. This may seem counterintuitive to investing in loss, but it’s not. They will accept loss in the short-term if it means they win in the long-term. They’ll lose the battle, but win the war. They hate losing, but they hate holding back their development even more. These are the kids who in the gym you have to make sure they don’t do too much and hinder their recovery. Cory Doney has his days where you’d rather fight a kangaroo than get in his way. This competitiveness is undoubtedly a big reason why he is such a great player.
The things that make these players great go well beyond hard work. In fact, they often aren’t the hardest workers. They’re the ones who have recognized what it takes to get better, and have doubled down on those habits. They work smarter than they do hard. Hard work is certainly important, but effort without direction won’t get you there. Evaluate yourself on your habits. Do you take your job as an athlete seriously? Is your preparation consistent? Do you take risks? Is that competitive fire there? If you want to be a serious athlete, this is what it takes.