Everyone knows the word "fear." Everyone knows what it’s like to feel that word, to know that it’s lurking in the back of your mind, waiting to paralyze you and hold you down. If you let it, fear will take you hostage and hold you with an iron grip.
This is what happened to me when I got assigned to my first Midget game.
There are plenty of people who will scoff and laugh and say that I’m being silly. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I meet a lot of older refs who talk about Midget games like it’s the worst hockey they’ve ever watched. I watch Midget games and wonder what it would be like to be that good.
I did not start playing hockey until I was 16, which is a pretty late start for most sports. Kids play sports when they’re 5 or 6, and by 16 they’ve usually found the one thing that they really have a talent or passion for, and they stick with that. I tried my hand at a variety of sports (roller hockey, basketball, volleyball, softball, gymnastics, soccer, etc. etc.) but nothing stuck until I suddenly, almost randomly, decided I wanted to play ice hockey.
Seven years later, after pouring a copious amount of blood, sweat, and tears into becoming a better hockey player, I play on an independent college club team, and I have even managed to turn hockey into a job by becoming a referee.
There are people my age who are better than I’ll ever be. There are kids younger than me who will reach skill levels that I’ll probably never come close to. And to me, some of those kids are the ones at the Midget level.
In theory, there’s nothing to be scared of. It’s a hockey game, big deal. At the end of the day, it’s just a sport and there are more important things in life to be scared of. Poverty. Cancer. Global warming. But in my world, hockey is a ruling factor, and I went to the rink that night feeling terrified and wondering if I would make it out alive.
In four years of refereeing, I have really changed as a person. I was always shy and quiet, and I hated confrontation–four years of coaches and parents and players yelling at you, trying to tell you that you’re wrong and they’re right, will force your skin to take on new layers of toughness. These days, I don’t notice parents yelling from the stands, I’ve grown to love the bench minor penalty, and I’m not afraid to take a stand for myself. And yet, deep down, I am still an overly anxious person, and the second I accepted that Midget game, my mind went into overdrive, imagining absolutely everything that could and probably would go wrong.
I wouldn’t be fast enough. I wouldn’t remember all the rules. I wouldn’t call the right penalties. I’d miss something really obvious. I’d get in the way. I’d get hit. I would be completely incompetent. The fear of this game was rooted in my desire to do a good job, because I always want to be as good as I can be, and I was absolutely sure that I would not be able to do this game justice.
When the game was over, I realized that I had survived. I thanked all the hockey gods that the two teams played a really clean game, and there was nothing much more for me to do than to just stay quick on my feet, out of the way, and be tight on that blue line. Could I have done a better job? Yes, absolutely. Thankfully I was working with a patient, experienced referee who gave me some tips and advice that I have since burned into my brain.
The biggest thing that I took from this entire experience, after spending the entire day being nervous and afraid and alternating between wanting to cry and wanting to quit reffing, is that you need to know when you’re not ready to do something. I let my dad and my friends convince me that I would never get any better if I didn’t take on more high level games, and I think that was a mistake. I should have trusted my own judgment and turned it down. Yes, you have to take on higher level games if you want to get anywhere. But it’s also possible to bite off more than you can chew and start to choke.
One day, I’ll take on some more Midget games, but for now, I’m going to work my way up through the Bantam level until I can master those, and my own fear.