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Can a hockey player develop resiliency when their world is so small?

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How do players develop coping skills and resiliency when everything is given to them and they are surrounded by like-minded people?

Winnipeg Jets v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Most people have interests and hobbies outside of their jobs. Some play sports, work out, read books, or craft amongst other activities. You are usually surrounded by people who can at least tolerate never mind a friend or two you can talk to when you get frustrated. Outside interests and solid relationships are incredibly healthy and make you a more productive worker at your job. Do professional athletes have the same resources as others to cope with life and create a solid work-life balance?

A lot of people did some sort of sport or physical activity when they were younger. Whether it was soccer, hockey, swimming, gymnastics, or something else, they were able to play a game, have fun, and be active. As professional athletes move up in their sports, the higher the stakes, and the fewer childhood reasoning for playing sports remain. How many players remind themselves to “have fun” when they play? Is that simply because at some point the game has stopped being fun to them and turned into a job? Probably. This is without even considering how much higher the stakes get for the athletes the older they get: scholarships, multi-million dollar contracts, championships. It all adds up.

Hockey players seem to be in a very isolated profession. From a young age they are trained to make the NHL and nothing else. At a certain point, players are isolated in hockey and creating a well-rounded person is not the goal of any hockey program. It is rare that there are players like Dougie and Freddie Hamilton whose parents valued their education above hockey and it showed in their schooling with both brothers attaining marks in the high 90s in advanced courses. This type of emphasis on academic success is rare for players who assume, rightly or wrongly, that hockey will be their ticket in the world.

How does this lack of diversity in interests impact a player? When you are young you should be taught coping mechanisms or resiliency. One of the ways you develop resiliency is by having many experiences to draw on when something does not go your way. These experiences teach you ways to deal with road blocks and what works best for you when you are having to solve problems. Developing resiliency takes time, but having an identity beyond one thing you love like hockey makes developing that resiliency easier because you can find success in many branches.

This brings us to the isolation of hockey. If someone makes it in professional hockey, they will have most likely moved away from home as a teenager, taking them away from their primary support system. While this in itself might not be disastrous, adding to the fact that once they move away from home their interactions are mainly confined to teammates and adults within their team along with teachers, it does isolate the players. There are fewer outside perspectives to help them see the forest within the trees and to help counsel them on what their options are when things are not going their way. If young people need support, how can that support be given when seemingly everyone around them is wanting them to succeed only at hockey? Who is there making sure that these young people develop into good people who are an asset to the community?

Hockey’s insularity makes it harder for players to develop a strong support network that has their best interests in mind. Former OHL player and NHL draft pick Gregg Sutch opened up about the lack of mental health care that CHL players have access to. To expand on what he was saying he explained an exercise he did before he was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres: list five things that are important to you that are not your family or hockey. No one in the room of prospects could do it. Because of their single minded pursuit of hockey the idea of being a well balanced person who could survive without hockey did not seem to exist.

Even as they get older, hockey players still have an incredible small support network and most of that network is either family, possibly including a significant other, or involved in hockey in some way. There are few objective people who can support them without seeming like a stakeholder in their success. It is possible that this isolation from the world beyond hockey coupled with the lack of transferable skills from hockey to other facets of life, unless the ability to work as a team counts, is part of what makes it so hard for players to retire. For professional hockey players, hockey is all they know and those skills that most people have learned throughout their lives are not there for them. Without hockey, there are few ways for them to identify themselves as humans.

This is probably why so many players turn to broadcasting after they retire. It is the world they know; the people they know. Other turn to coaching, but it seems like very few actually move outside of the realm of hockey. They know little else and that is apparent when they go to retire. Hockey keeps itself an old boys club by having a system that brings kids in young, isolates them from large swaths of their peers, and has them not experiencing life outside of a very limited realm. It creates a system where everyone is the same because no one is exposed to anything different. All the like-minded thinking is influenced by this system and unless players are in a place where they can learn more about their own personal likes and dislikes, nothing will change.

When a hockey player struggles, it impacts their personal lives because they have never been taught healthy coping mechanisms or had resiliency developed. Instead, most players live within a small community and are expected to deal with life away from a regular support network. There are few friends and family who are from the outside, non-hockey world. This constant pressure can lead to struggling players feeling the pressure even more because they are expected to do their job perfectly all the time. At some point, it starts becoming hard for the player to do their job and without the lack of outside coping mechanisms they fall into a slump they cannot bust out of. Hockey has done this to itself: created a world of young men who are unable to deal with the world outside of their game because what was once a game is now a job and there is no way to escape reality.