Monday Morning Thoughts: How I Learned to Learn From Failure

It was 2009. I was on my own for the very first time in my life as a freshman at Boston College. The natural growing pains of learning how to cope with cystic fibrosis in a place away from home were…complex. I had to learn how to develop a routine, and stick to it. I suppose it was easier said than done when I was 18. It took a couple of weeks, but I was able to nail it down. What made things difficult, though, was I was brand new student at BC testing the waters of my collegiate potential. I was out of the nest, and learning from errors, mistakes and failure felt quite different from the learning curve of my formative years. I couldn’t simply run home to my parents, ask for their advice, and then apply it to my life. For me, college was just as much about the degree as it was learning how to be independent. I was forced to learn on the fly, and then apply those lessons to my life, which, of course, was anything but a foolproof plan.

I had always been a strong student, so I made that a priority, but I also prioritized other parts of the student life… pretty much all of the best parts of Animal House.

During that first month of college, I was pursuing a goal. I wanted to make the BC Club Hockey team.

Hockey is a subculture at BC. The majority of my friends from my college days were guys I met through intramural hockey or our shared love of the sport. I guess that’s what you get when you go to school in New England. I have played hockey my whole life, and I didn’t want serious competition to end after my final high school game. I had a strong desire to continue playing, and to make it the backbone of my college identity.

Coming from a sports family, my parents love to talk about the old days – when my dad played in the NFL. They make it sound like another life, probably because it really kind of was. Most of my dad’s playing career happened before Sydney and I were born, which makes most of the stories my parents tell feel like family legends.

Although it became quite clear from an early age I wouldn’t be raising the Stanley Cup over my head in Madison Square Garden or riding a Duck Boat through Boston with the Lombardi Trophy in my hands one day, I still loved my role as a teammate and contributor to something larger than myself. Despite my CF, I considered myself an athlete (and still do to some extent).

Enter club hockey tryouts in Fall 2009. I was invited to skate with the club team for a few weeks prior to tryouts. It was then when I realized that I was probably in over my head, but I stuck with it. After all I was still having fun.

I didn’t carry the weight I probably needed in order to play hockey at that level, nor did I have the skill. In fact, one day after practice, the head coach pulled me off the ice to have a chat, and said something to the effect of, “Damn we need to get some weight on you! Try eating a cheeseburger or something

As if I hadn’t heard that before.

Tryouts were held over a single weekend at a rink about 25 minutes from Chestnut Hill. That particular year, there were well over 100 students trying out for 30 or so spots, so the group was subdivided into several different on-ice sessions. The drive to the rink felt a bit like we were packed into a clown car. Some upperclassman drove to the freshmen meet up area, and we all piled in, hockey bags in tow. I am convinced the fumes in that car set my health back 5 years.

We were told there would be a round of cuts after all the sessions had finished on the first day. Needless to say, the car ride to the rink the next day wouldn’t have nearly as many guys stuffed inside.

My odds were slim, after all, I was a freshman, but I beamed with pride when I was handed a maroon Boston College jersey ahead of the first session.

Even the slightest prospect of making the team was all the motivation I needed, and that feeling was embodied in the practice jersey – the idea of the team.

My tryout session felt a bit like an MMA fight. It was one of those grueling hockey practices designed to see how tough we were, and I got my ass kicked up and down the ice. I remember one drill in particular. The puck started up top at the blue line and there were a handful of us in front of the net who had to battle it out when the shot came in, scoop up the rebound, sling it back to the defenseman on the point and then stand in front of another shot for a redirection, all the while getting hacked and bodied by the other players. My 6’3, 150 pound frame was not built for it.

The tryout session had one drill after the next designed just like that one, or something similar. It was backbreaking work, and I quickly felt like I was sliding further and further below the cut threshold.

I lost the coaches eye, I was placed at the back of the drill lines and I was matched up against the weaker players. It was humbling to say the least.

The session came to an end, and it seemed like my chance at making the team did, too.

When the email confirming I hadn’t made the team came in from the coaching staff later that night, my first call was home to my parents. I told my dad I didn’t make the team. He asked me if I gave it my all, and I said, “I think so.

Well,” he said, “that’s all that matters. There are no regrets, then.”

Initially I felt lost, my roommate made the club lacrosse team, a buddy made the club hockey team, another friend made the club rowing team and others made the club rugby team. It was like I was the only one without a team. I was certainly very happy for my new friends, they all deserved it, but I had to take a good hard look in the mirror and figure out what happened to me.

Had I not trained hard enough? Did my health get in the way? Did I not have the skill?

The answer was yes to all the above. But did I have any regrets? No.

I learned that I was in a new phase of my life – one where I would be held accountable for my actions, effort and results. High school (and growing up for that matter) is a bit fake in the sense that there’s always room for a way of out of certain issues. I had to learn to rely on myself to get through problems, challenges and adversity. Little did I know, I was only at the beginning of a few long, long years.

College was a chance for me to examine every single decision within the microcosm of structured living with little responsibility. Over the course of the next few years my willingness to learn from hardship, declining health, different challenges, and also successes, of course, was tested time and again.

The first time real failure entered my life when I was cut from the club hockey team. It was something I had set out to do, a legitimate goal, and I failed to achieve it. I had the happy-go-lucky attitude that nothing could go wrong. That was proven false almost immediately. I learned to compartmentalize, until I was ready to adapt and overcome. Sure, I was disappointed I didn’t make the team, but then before I knew it, intramural hockey season rolled around. It wasn’t the hardcore competitive atmosphere I had desired, but it was pure fun – in fact, some of my best memories from college come from the intramural circuit or skating on the pond. I had to let go of the desire for competitive hockey, and move on with my life. Looking at myself in the mirror and reevaluating my priorities is what did that for me. I had the rest of college to explore and expand my limits, so that’s exactly what I did. I failed to make the club hockey team, but I learned it wasn’t the end of the world, and in the grand scheme of things, it was just one thing BC was offering… there was so much more to do.