“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.
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.