How can a professional hockey team with skilled players and access to the best sports-science, training facilities, equipment and coaches that money can buy still consistently underperform?
Team culture appears to be priority number one for the often-maligned Toronto Maple Leafs as they reach for something—anything—to fix before the start of 2014-15 season. Brendan Shanahan, Canadian hockey legend and recent hire as the Teams’ new president, has been touted as having the right stuff and vision for the struggling Leafs. Fair enough—vision is integral to any organization—professional hockey team or otherwise. However, in the same way that vision can support a team hell-bent on success, so too is the very reason they want to succeed.
I’m referring to an interview in which Randy Carlyle, the Leafs veteran head-coach, offered-up “effort” as his main frustration with his players and the culprit they’ve struggled with all year. Effort—hmmm, let’s ponder that theory for a moment. An NHLer has a relatively succinct job description—show up on time for practice and games, then play hockey well enough to win. For their part they receive a generous remuneration. Assuming the athletes are happy with their pay and their role on the team, how could their effort be lacking? Simple, for the same reason effort sometimes wanes with you and I in our jobs.
WHERE TO BEGIN:
What’s their source of motivation to show up?
I think most of us would agree that motivation and effort are inherently linked. When we are highly motivated, effort comes easily. Not surprisingly, as we’ve all experienced, the opposite of that is also true. In my opinion, the reason the Leafs have low or inconsistent motivation is because they utilize a limiting and debilitating form of motivation—extrinsic. In this particular case—traditional carrot and stick motivation based around fear—the fear of losing. When the Leafs lose, the fans, media and press sing the same old tune—“the Leafs suck!” When they win, the message is “don’t worry, they’ll find a way to lose next time!” And, so it goes.
The players’ motivation, therefore, is based around avoiding the shame associated with losing. As for winning—there’s no real joy in that experience for them—instead it’s merely the relief that they haven’t lost. If you think the Toronto Maple Leafs’ players don’t feel the jeers and criticism, and the resulting humiliation of losing, think again. Yes, they’re professional athletes and hockey is their job—I get it, but they’re human beings first. I don’t care how tough they may appear on the ice or during post-game interviews; they suffer from many of the same insecurities as well as mental and emotional challenges that we mortal folks do. Furthermore, I can tell you from experience, when we lost in our final at the 1988 Olympics, the shame that I felt in reading the words of sports writers from across our country knocked the life out of me—for years.
Can utilizing a culture of compassion, empathy and love—build a high performance team?
When these players were young, they played hockey on frozen ponds, on streets, in basements—whenever and wherever they could. Why? Because they loved the way playing hockey made them feel. When you play hockey for a living—when it’s your job and you get paid to do it—those dynamics change. Going forward, that good feeling is conditional upon results—in most cases wins and loses. The very reason many of these players became such exceptional athletes and made it to the NHL in the first place was because of their motivation as children. Their intrinsic desire to feel good—the way they did when they played the game—resulted in hours of play, or practice for the sake of this argument.
Do the Leafs need to continue to develop the skill of their players and acquire new talent in order to achieve success? Undoubtedly. But, if the foundation of the teams’ culture is not built around the love of playing the game, no amount of practice or continued shaming from their supposed fans will result in more numbers in the win column. Remember, it’s the very skill they developed in becoming professional athletes that was a by-product of their love of the game. Straight-up, yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs do need to change their culture. However, to achieve that they need to employ the greatest paradox in sport—they need to stop reaching for wins and avoiding losses. Feeling good when they play cannot be conditional upon their results—fun has to be the foundation of the players’ experience of hockey once again. Compassion, empathy and love will allow them to feel safe to fail—like all of us, when we have that freedom—we fail less often.
Jason Dorland is a High-Perfomance Coach who believes the most undervalued and underutilized components of reaching our goals are the mental and emotional areas of our lives. With your commitment, Jason can help you make a positive difference in how you approach your life’s dreams and goals. Guaranteed! To find out how, contact Jason today for a free no obligation consultation. He looks forward to meeting with you and getting started soon!