‘Committed’ with Blinders


We all want committed athletes.  Committed to improvement, committed to the team and committed to the sport.  But can an athlete be too committed? To the point where they wear blinders that causes them to limit their potential as person and as an athlete?  

As many of you know, GC works with elite athletes where many of them are about to, or experiencing transition out of the game.  In particular, we have developed a program with the NHLPA and NHL to deal with this issue - to remove the blinders before it is too late.  Too many athletes wait until they ‘retire’ to take the blinders off and then realize, after looking back, they missed so many opportunities to grow as an athlete, and as a person.

However, I completely understand why this happens.  The environment that surrounds and influences athletes throughout their athletic careers doesn’t exactly promote self awareness and exploration outside of sports.

The pressure to be perceived as ‘committed’ starts young.  Youth athletes are sometimes assessed at a young age on how ‘committed’ they are to one sport.  Coaches at the ‘elite’ levels will select players who are ‘all in’ on one sport over others who play multiple sports or have multiple activities.  I know I didn’t go out of my way to broadcast to my 13 year old son’s AAA hockey coach that he also plays organized Basketball during the hockey season.  I was concerned he wouldn’t think my son isn’t 100% committed to be a hockey player. See how easy it is to contribute to this problem. I should know better.

Young kids are constantly being told to act like professionals when it comes to sports.  To act serious, no joking around. Elite sports at any age is serious- ‘this isn’t House League’ is what I hear.  I have actually heard a parent say “if you want to have fun, go play House League”. Incredible.

The stories are endless.  I have seen parents get upset that the kids were dancing to music before a hockey game.  Coaches who brag about how quiet and focused their players were before a game. They had their ‘game faces on’.   I am not a child psychologist, but I do think it is normal for 10 year olds to have fun in the room together- dancing and interacting with smiles and laughter.  And guess what, having fun and being loose enhances performance!

A classic story from my son’s minor atom hockey season.  His team had a league game in October and it happened to fall on the night the Toronto Blue Jays played that legendary ‘Bat Flip’ playoff game against the Texas Rangers.  I was in the bar at the arena watching the game in that 7th inning. You could feel the intensity of the game and something special was building. I went to our Head Coach and said to pull the kids out of the dressing room to watch the baseball game as we had 45 mins before game time.  The whole city of Toronto, if not all of Canada, was watching this game and I didn’t want the kids - all huge sports fans- to miss this now historical event. The Head Coach said ‘no’ as he wanted the kids to be focused for the game. They all missed one of the most legendary innings of baseball playoff history.  For what? Not one of us at the arena that night remember who we played or what the score was. A completely irrelevant game. The kids were 9 years old. But some jackass adult is likely thinking ‘yes, but they need to be taught that sacrifice is what gets an athlete to the top’.

Most people simply don’t understand what being focused and committed really means.  They most certainly do not understand what drives performance.

But this is just about the youth levels.

I recall a story a former NHLer told me of when he was labelled as not ‘committed’ to hockey.  At the time, he was a rookie playing for the AHL affiliate of his NHL team and from time to time he would study while on the bus (he was taking courses towards his degree) and used to hear a few sarcastic comments, not just from teammates, but coaching staff and trainer.  The following year, a new coaching staff came in and during his introductory meeting to the new staff, the feedback they gave him was they had heard that he may not be committed to being an NHL player. Ironically, this player was hospitalized the previous summer for over training!

Elite athletes at all levels are asked to put blinders on.  They are constantly being scrutinized to see how ‘committed’ they are to their sport.  And as a result, their development as people is stunted. GC is working hard to change this narrative.

Bottom line, we need to educate coaches and influencers at all levels on what truly drives performance.  We need to rid ourselves on this notion that having blinders on, so athletes don’t get distracted by squirrels, is counterproductive and the absolute wrong approach.  That having peripheral vision for the other things in life can actually enhance our performance when it is time to focus 100% on one task.

Being focused on a goal or on your profession is a fantastic trait, but ‘all in’, all of the time, can actually erode your focus.  Having balance as an athlete and a person, allows for proper mental and physical recovery and enables one to focus intensely at the critical times, which translates into optimal performance.

Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.

John Hierlihy