24 October, 2018

Is friendly competition an oxymoron?: Dealing with competitiveness in recreational hockey



play in a non-competitive recreational women’s league for fun. But what does that mean? It’s recreational, but does that mean there is no sense of competition at all? It’s hockey!!! It’s a game with two opposing teams and there is a winner… and a loser. OK sometimes we tie, but at its essence there are two sides up against each other. How can there not be any competition?

I have played with players in this recreational league who are pretty serious. They have hissy fits when their team is losing, they slam the gate to the penalty box when they get an “unfair” penalty, they play selfishly (don’t pass or only pass to skilled players, insist that certain players get more ice time depending on the score or take really long shifts) and they take the “fun” out of the game. This doesn’t sit well with me and I feel that all of these characteristics belong under the title of “poor sportsmanship”. Isn’t that really what it comes down to? There are no scouts in the stands. There are no prizes or cash to be won. There is no publicity in the newspaper or nightly sports news. Nothing.

So, if there are no monetary or tangible gains at the end of the game we are left with the question, “Did I have fun?” and if the answer is yes, then I think the goal has been achieved— whether or not my team has won on the scoresheet.  I’m not saying that wanting to win isn’t valid, worthwhile or satisfying, because winning can absolutely be all of those things. And I LOVE winning! I am a competitive person by nature, but by signing myself up for a recreational league I believe that I had to put aside my competitive nature so that I don’t turn into a big jerk projecting a bunch of unrealistic expectations on my teammates. That doesn’t mean that when I go out on the ice I’m not trying my hardest (even if my skill set doesn’t always allow me to do what I need to be doing). I do try my hardest at every game but sometimes my “best” isn’t always at the same level. And everyone else on my team has those days too, so who am I to impose standards for everyone else? 

Let’s also keep in mind the range of skills that each player has on a team and the external factors in each person’s day that affects how they play. There’s every level from the beginner who is trying to figure out what offside is, to the advanced recreational player that has played since they were a kid and makes everything look easy. To add to the complications, there’s the personal side of each person’s day that you have no idea about. There’s the mom who just gave birth six weeks ago and is already back on the ice who says she "may not go all out today" but to any other woman who has birthed a baby she looks like a SUPER HERO. That’s right. SUPER. HERO. All in caps.

There’s also the shift worker who got up at 4pm to have a quick pre-game meal and then right after the game has to hustle off to do their fourth night shift in a row. How about that woman who looks a little slow today but then you find out she spent the day babysitting her three-year-old grandson and has been on the floor playing Hot Wheels all afternoon so her knees and back are a little achy? And let’s not forget the woman who missed all of last season going through cancer treatment but now she’s out there battling right alongside you like a boss! There are just so many stories behind all the women that you play with (and against) that to turn their hour of fun into something else to satisfy your personal needs just isn’t fair. 

If you need the kind of competition that demands everyone to take their commitment to another level then you need to find yourself the right league to play in. Do your homework before signing up. One of the best ways to do this is to talk to other players in different leagues. Go watch a few games. Stand near the bench so you can hear the players talking and get an idea of the bench vibe.  A player who has an overly intense attitude can really sour a team. Winning isn’t fun when it’s done in a way that only suits one or a small group of people. Get yourself in the right league so that you have more fun and everyone around you will have the same mindset.

I have taken on a manger/captain type role in our dressing room and there are things that I like to do to try to create a supportive culture that promotes team spirit and effort over the actual numbers in a game. I try to learn everyone’s name as quickly as I can because I want everyone to feel like I care about who they are. We don’t have names on the backs of our jerseys but I like to be able to cheer for “Julie” or “Beth” from the bench. I like to organize post-game drinks with the team. This is a no-brainer. First of all, everyone is thirsty after a game and it’s the best way to get to know your teammates. No one will be wearing a helmet and cage and you can talk at a normal decibel level to them and see what they actually look like!

When we get back to the dressing room post-game I also try to give kudos to a player that’s really given it a little extra. Maybe they scored their first goal. Maybe they caught up to an opponent and prevented a breakaway.  Let’s celebrate our teammates while we’re at hockey! It’s part of being a solid teammate. It’s part of being a good leader and a caring person.

One of the best reality checks for me is shaking hands at the end of the game before going to our respective dressing rooms. Part of what makes our league so great is that new teams are made up every year. You can choose one buddy to be on a team with but in general everyone gets moved around year after year. This fluidity allows us to get to know many other players. When you line up for a hand shake, no longer is that sea of blue (or whatever colour team has just clobbered my team) anonymous. “Oh it’s Mary’s team…and Jenn and Laura are on it too.” Well now I know I like it better when they are on my team rather than having to play against them.

Early on in my hockey “career” I came up with a motto that keeps me in check: “I don’t expect to win every game I play, but I never go to the rink to lose.”

This seems to help balance my competitive side with reality.  And notice how it doesn’t put expectations on anyone else but me and focuses my own attitude? Don’t get me wrong, losing is never my favourite but this reminds me that I can only control how I play and the tone that I can help set in the dressing room for my teammates. It has to be positive or it won’t be fun…and if it’s not fun people won’t love their time on the ice.  And like it or not it is “their” time on the ice too. For me, the best reason for creating an atmosphere of camaraderie with my teammates is because any game is so much more rewarding when you win, or lose, with friends. 

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