The evils of “Always earned, never given”

“Always earned, never given” is a noble enough concept, particularly in a simplified world. It’s easy, and it makes sense: if you aren’t going to put the effort in, why should you be counted on? 

One thing that makes it such an effective phrase is how relatable it is. If you don’t show up, you aren’t going to get much, whether we’re talking about opportunities in general or salaries or ice time. People will recognize good effort and reward it, and on the flip side, they’ll recognize poor effort and punish it.

But that’s in a perfect world, and that isn’t something any of us live in. Even the world of professional sports, which seems like such a fantasy land to outsiders, has its own problems. And the philosophy of “always earned, never given” can contribute to that.

Erasing the additional goaltending pressures

After sending Karri Ramo down to Stockton, Brad Treliving spoke on The Fan 960 for nearly half an hour. The main topic was that of the Flames’ poor start to the season, and naturally, that included the goaltending.

Treliving touched on a few points that really stuck with me, namely:

  • Neither Jonas Hiller nor Karri Ramo were feeling comfortable.
  • Goaltending is very mental.
  • The entire situation was therefore “clunky” and unideal.

Bob Hartley has liked to employ a “win and you’re in” system for goaltending, and for the most part, it worked last season. Of course, a lot of things were working for the Flames last season that aren’t this season, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

Here’s the problem, though: this year, neither Hiller nor Ramo were winning. Some of that was on them, some of that was on the team iced in front of them, and some of that was on coaching or front office decisions completely out of their control. But whatever the cause, neither was winning.

When you know you need to essentially be perfect or else, you’re putting extra, unnecessary pressure on yourself. That’s the kind of pressure that leads to stupid mental mistakes. And when you’re in such an isolating position that already relies on an incredible amount of mental fortitude, things aren’t going to end well.

Hence terrible goals given up every single game, and complete failure. You’re so stressed out about being perfect you overthink things you know how to do, and you create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which you sabotage yourself.

You’d think professional athletes would be above this – this is a craft they’ve mastered over their entire lives – but everyone’s vulnerable to stressful situations, and this is one the Flames created for themselves. As Treliving noted, it wasn’t just two goalies competing against each other. It was Joni Ortio as well, a third guy to put their jobs into further jeopardy, thereby increasing the stress to win, thereby increasing the mental errors and the losses until finally, something gave.

That something was Ramo, and by sending him down, the Flames were able to create a more comfortable NHL environment. Hiller and Ortio now have their jobs secure, and can focus on pushing or learning from one another, rather than looking over their shoulders at the third guy in the mix. Ramo gets the short end of the stick, but it wasn’t entirely undeserved by him; furthermore, he gets the chance to be more comfortable as well, now that he no longer has to stress over keeping his NHL job.

Treliving did note the three goaltenders situation was probably overblown in the media, but it almost certainly had an affect that rippled its way through the lineup. 

Pobody’s nerfect

Dougie Hamilton is in a similar position. He was the team’s big acquisition. He’s new, he’s young, and there’s a lot expected from him, so he needs to perform well. So he pressures himself to perform well. So he makes mistakes. So he puts even more pressure on himself to perform, so he makes even more mistakes, and on and on it goes.

Remember under Brent Sutter, when it often seemed as though the second the Flames gave up a goal, the game was over? They couldn’t afford to make a single mistake, because that one mistake would spell instant doom. And they were right, because they made themselves right. 

That’s where this current edition of the Flames is. When you put so much pressure on yourself to succeed, chances are pretty decent you aren’t going to. If you’re so afraid of making a mistake, chances are pretty good you’re going to make that mistake. If you’re afraid to lose your spot in the lineup, you’ll probably end up losing your spot in the lineup, just because you’re thinking about it so much you make it come true.

“Always earned, never given” can be a great motivator. But there’s a flip side to it, and that’s the flip side the Flames have been experiencing to start the season. The dark side where you do too much, and doom yourself as a result.

This isn’t to say the Flames need to stop trying and simply play loose, and all their problems will be solved. But it is to say this is a team that needs to lighten up, accept that they won’t be perfect all the time, and go back to having fun with what they can do. Because professional sports are a fantasy land in which you get to play a game for a living, and if you can’t enjoy that, you aren’t going to succeed.

  • Are you actually suggesting Ari that the flames change their motto and stop holding players accountable?

    Is that how a franchise develops players and builds a winning culture?

    If you wanna know how that goes…see the past 10 years for the Edmonton Oilers. Trust me, I can tell you all about it.


    An Oilers fan

    • Cfan in Vic

      For any players to have success they need support, and given the right opportunities.

      I think the “Always earned never given” motto was to promote, that if you worked hard and did what the coaches asked, you would be given an opportunity to prove yourself. It does wonders for players being developed in the AHL.. like Josh Jooris.

      A little competition is a good thing.

      But a sometimes pressure or expectations can be difficult for players if they think the whole world is waiting for them to screw up.

      What happened it Edmonton was that their high draft picks were not given any time to develop properly, they were basically just given the keys to the city, and told to take the lead.

      McDavid probably felt the pressure a bit in his first four games.

      The same goes for Hamilton. It’s not that they’re worried they’ll get benched, or someone will take their job.. it’s just getting used to being under the microscope.

    • Did you even read the full article? I think the point is, or at least what I’m taking form it, you don’t want to create positional log jams that lead to pressure scenarios that detriment the team and its mental well-being/cohesion.

      You should earn your ice time, but without being one screwup away from the leaving the guys and heading off to the AHL. That’s why most teams do this type of evaluation in the PRE-season.

      The three goalie experiment has contributed to the poor start of the club if you ask me.

  • I don’t know that there is anything wrong with the motivation aspect of the motto. I have a problem with its highly liberal approach to how it is used. The always earned never given is a phrase that only really relates to prospects, tweeners, and bottom fringe players.
    It is not something that is truly a full team concept. And that is the problem.

    Through the first six games Russell has been terrible. Absolutely horrid. Kulak while being a rookie and with more limited minutes was playing well. He was passing the eye and the numbers tests. Always earned would mean that Russell should be sitting in the box watching the game, while Kulak is getting a chance to show that he can do more with more minutes, a better partner, and more responsibility. Instead Kulak is sent down, and Russell remains a top four defenseman option.

    You want to make it a truly competitive culture than right now you should be sitting Hudler in the box because you hardly notice him on the ice, and more as much as Raymond did nothing last year, this year he has actually done something. I think that Granlund contributed more than what Boling has been providing, but look where each of those players are for the game tonight.

    The always earned never given has to come with a couple of caveats. First that always earned unless Hartley likes you regardless of how you produce. Second that its never given, unless you have already been given a contract in which case that is more important than on ice performance.

    • piscera.infada

      While I completely agree with all the above, I think the “always earned…” part of the motto is difficult just because of the NHL’s current structure. The problem with roster building from the fan’s versus management’s (and to a lesser extent the coach’s) perspective is that as fans we can be exceedingly utopian in our ideas. “Agostino’s playing well? Great! Dump Bollig, bring up Agostino… Russell’s playing horribly? Great! Replace him with Kulak, trade Wideman, replace him with Nakladal, trade Smid, replace him with Kylington, waive Raymond, bring up Poirier…”

      Sure, all of that is plausible, but is it really a realistic way to build an NHL roster? Probably not. Sure, that goes directly against “always earned”, but it is a by-product of a system where you have a finite number of roster moves, finite roster spots, finite dollar amounts, and where waivers exist.

      As a result, these “always earned” moves need to come on the periphery of the roster for the time being, and I think this is where the Flames have been somewhat successful in their implementation. Kulak started the season on the big club. “The Flames want him to get more ice-time? Send to the AHL to be a top-pairing defender. Who’s the best defender on the AHL team? Nakladal. Call him up, give him a shot.”

      From a management perspective, this is about all you can do right now. Once you’ve found a trade (ie. Russell, Wideman, whatever), then you can make a decision between Kulak and Nakladal.

      Now, none of this is a feather in the cap of Hartley. I agree, he’s been reluctant at times to give players who have “earned” their spot a chance. His usage of Bollig is strange, for example. However, it does look like we’re going to get a game tonight where he’s not playing–so maybe there is hope that if whomever sees the roster over him outclasses him, that spot could be “earned”.

      Hartley sure does have his faults when it comes to seemingly playing favourites, but I’m unsure that sticking anyone in the pressbox because they’ve been bad to start the season, when the whole team’s been bad, is necessarily the most feasible option. As above, in the utopian world, you sit Hudler, you sit Monahan, but what is that really proving?

      I agree the “always earned, never given” motto is a bit of a lame crutch. Some players have been given a much longer leash than others, but I do think that in aggregate this organization tries to live by that motto more than others. For example, they could have simply sent Kulak down to start the season, and signed Wilson to a reasonable short-term contract, and few people would have batted an eye. They didn’t do that though. They could have just kept hammering Setoguchi into the lineup last year, but they didn’t they kept with Jooris.

      As a final aside, I’d like to point out that the handling of Smid vis-a-vis Kulak, Nakladal, et al. is not in and of itself a flagrant departure from “always earned”. He was bad before his injury last year, but I’m unsure a horrible injury precludes him from “earning” a shot on the current roster. By all accounts he’s looked good in practice, he has an (albeit mediocre) NHL pedigree, and he’s coming off LTIR at some point. Sure, send him to the minors on a conditioning stint, but once he’s ready to go, he deserves a shot to crack this roster. The fact that he was injured and some thought he was done for good, doesn’t change that–and I’m not a Smid fan per se.

  • The problem with the win and continue rotation for goaltenders is that winning is not totally in their control. A rotation should be based on how well a goaltender is playing. If you play well, regardless of the outcome you keep going. If you play terrible and still win because the team got lucky and bailed you out than its time for a change.

    I agree that the three goaltender thing screws things up. But its more from a rhythm point of view. So much of goaltending is comfort and mental. If you are going through the same routines, not preparing yourself the same way, than you feel like something is missing. When you don’t go in feeling fully relaxed than it affects your balance, your anticipation, your concentration.

    Professionals should be able to get past this. But the truth is that for the majority they have spent their careers and maybe their lives preparing and doing things a certain way and when it changes it impacts them.

    For those of you that play. Try it with something small. I would bet that you dress in the same order. That your shins, socks, skates go on right or left first all the time. Change up one or two of these things and you will find that it impacts your state of mind more than just subconsciously going through the motions of preparation.

    Now this does not address the issue of lack of work ethic by the rest of the team. But I do think it does impact the goaltending. Which in the preseason was very good, and then turned to crap as soon as the regular season hit.

  • ville de champignons

    Right now Flames motto should probably be “Chop wood. Carry water.”

    At the moment,and for what its worth, SN line on tonights game has the Flames at -102. So… there’s that.

  • ville de champignons

    “Always earned, never given” is subjective anyway and Harley applies his judgement.

    Experienced players may have earned it in the past and you cut them some slack for precisely that reason. But when do stop cutting them slack? Can’t be too quickly or you might as well just change the motto to “earned lately, never given”.

    Neither Gio nor Russell have been stellar so far but no one is talking about canning them. I don’t think Bollig has earned it either but maybe Hartley feels he should be there because anyone in that role has “earned it”. I don’t know.

    The point is that now, as always, it is still subjective and what is required to “earn it” will vary from player to player.

  • SickFloBro

    This all day. I think this is incredibly accurate.

    We all know the Flames can play great hockey. I think that the extra pressure and resulting mindset can explain a lot of what’s going on with the Flames right now.

    We’ve ALL been there in some form … sports, work, relationships … You begin to over-think things and you get out of your groove. You sabotage yourself. You psych yourself out.

    Mindset is so important. There’s a huge difference between being afraid to fail and being excited to succeed.

  • mk

    I think this article raises a fair point – there is a balance to be struck with ‘always earned, never given’. If it is too focused on the long-term ‘earned’, then you have veterans who are playing awful and getting tons of minutes. On the flip side, if its too focused on the short-term ‘earned’, you might end up with a situation where a player has a nice streak (and builds a false long-term ‘earned’ reputation), which hurts down the road.

    A balance is key there.

  • SickFloBro

    This sounds like more excuses. Maybe, just maybe, the Flames overachieved last year and now they are coming back down to earth?

    Treviling can say whatever he wants, the fact is he waived someone he just threw a bucket of money at 2 weeks into the season.

    The sky IS falling.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    What happened to the Flames season after all their success last year?

    Ever have a dream where you were with the hottest gal on the planet and everything was going great?

    And then you wake up and you’re alone in bed late for work?

    That’s the Flames this year.

    Last year was an aberration just as it was in Colorado.

    Welcome to the bottom of the standings.

    You’re gonna see very soon why Harley left Colorado. LOL

  • ChinookArchYYC

    I’m sure I’m in the minority, but I really dislike that motto where the Flames are concerned. Nice ideal, but perfect execution of this was and is impossible.

    Remember Backlund when he was side-saddled with McGrattan and Westgarth. Nobody deserves that treatment, and least of all – Flames fans.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Maybe the motto isn’t the problem. Maybe this semi-psychiatric analysis is a bunch of speculation as to the temperament of players that is, in every way, completely immeasurable and fully speculative.

    Last year the analytics community tabbed the Flames as being the team the most likely to regress, and furthermore to regress in a relatively extreme way.

    The team has regressed in a relatively extreme way.

    They are who most of the internet thought they were. Like the Avalanche before them and the Maple Leafs before them. It happens every year.

    • Cfan in Vic

      Go home. And take your condescending pseudo-contributions and fellow troll buddies with you. I really don’t understand what you gain from dumping on this site. You pretend to engage in proper discussion, then continue to take a dump. Pretty lame, buddy.

      ———FN Moderator: let the mods take care of this. ————-

  • The Oilers Shot Clock

    This was inevitable. Everyone said so. Math said so.
    3rd period comebacks,high shooting percentages and a good year of goaling is not worth putting money on……good god. We’ve seen this before.

  • You know, I’ve never thought of it this way, but you’re absolutely right. The concept of ‘healthy competition’ has perhaps caused and contributed to unhealthy stress and tension within the locker room. The lineup is mostly set now, hopefully they are ready for a mental reset and can start to show some semblance of being an NHL club.

  • The Flames play better as underdogs so maybe when the unrealistic expectations from Calgary media and their fans has subsided a bit they will start to play more like they did last year. Good veterans with a smattering of good young players bodes well for the Flames both now and the future. Funny to hear this from an Oiler fan but the Flames will be alright, it might take a shot in the arm like a goalie stealing a game for you.