Posted by: Kristen Ridley | June 29, 2013

Hockey’s lessons for communicators

HockeyI am a hockey fan. Since I’m Canadian, that should go without saying, but not everyone may realize those two things go hand-in-hand, so I thought I would start out by clarifying that, because, as the title suggests, this post is going to explore the connections between my favourite sport and what I do for a living – communications.

The inspiration for this post came from hockey commentator [Canadian icon and really nice guy – if you haven’t read his bio “Cornered” I recommend it] Ron MacLean who, during the coverage of the recent NHL Stanley Cup finals made a comment that really resonated for me. Here’s what he said:

“Life, love and hockey, same rules – you gotta play hurt.”

I just loved that, because it’s so simple, but if you think about it, it actually says so much in just 10 words and it’s powerful. The more I thought about it, as it bounced around inside my head, I realized that list could also apply to being a communicator.

Don’t get me wrong here, it isn’t my intent to be melodramatic – although in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I have been known to do that on occasion 😉 – but by its very definition, a communicator’s job is such that we are very rarely in a position to MAKE people take our advice and do as we recommend [I’ve blogged about this before: “It’s not you, it’s me“]. A a result, we spend a fair amount of our time frustrated or disappointed when the people we counsel – who’s best interests we are ALWAYS trying to further – choose to not take our advice.

So, Ron’s reference to “playing hurt” really grabbed me, because that’s sort of how you have to approach being a communicator if you want to be in the profession for the long haul [which I do, because in spite of everything, I love doing it, and don’t want to do anything else] you need perspective, you need humour, and you need toughness, which is where the hockey connection comes in. So the more I thought about the comment by MacLean, the more I saw some lessons and linkss between hockey and communicating. See if any of these “hockey lessons for the communicator” resonate with you too:

  • You gotta play hurt – in hockey, this is pretty obvious. Hockey is a physical sport, and the players get hurt pretty much every time they skate onto the ice. But because they love what they do, and they are competitive, they play through injuries. Communications isn’t a physically aggressive activity, but there IS discouragement – granted it’s of a more mental and emotional sort, but still – when the people we’re working so hard to help just don’t agree with our advice. So, in communications, “playing hurt” means we take a deep breath, and we start looking for other ways to help our clients and business partners communicate, even if those ways aren’t exactly what we recommended. Because . . .
  • Hockey is a team sport – you can’t win a game, let alone a Stanley Cup, with one player, no matter how great that player is! Good hockey is about having a great team filled with enthusiastic, motivated and connected players who WORK TOGETHER to win, as much as it is about having the best talent. communicating is no different. You can’t communicate successfully without that same great team filled with enthusiasm, motivation and connection. So when I’m frustrated that MY ideas don’t end up being THE ideas we go ahead with, I remind myself it’s about the team, and delivering what’s ultimately the overall best result.
  • Hockey requires fast action but is based on strategy – The game itself is very fast-paced, and the players have to make choices and take action on the fly without stopping to have a focus group, or do a survey about what is the best way to get the puck into the net! But that said, before the players go out on the ice on game night, they have spent plenty of time in practice BEFORE game night, where they discuss with the coaches where the strengths and weaknesses of the team lie, and how best to use the strengths and offset the weaknesses when the team goes out to play. Being a communicator is the same. In truth, our ratio of “strategy to action” is probably different from your average NHL hockey team, because business is sometimes more comfortable with planning and discussing strategy than in diving into the maelstrom and just doing stuff. But business DOES communicate, and when it communicates, being able to move quickly, and change direction unexpectedly if circumstances demand, is just as critical in launching a new product or answering media questions, as it is to leveraging a power-play, or taking the slap-shot.
  • Hockey requires taking the check, but not taking it personally – checking is part of hockey, period, full-stop. It’s part of what makes watching the game exciting, so I don’t want checking to stop. As long as the checks aren’t dirty, it’s okay to let the other guys on the ice know how you REALLY feel, and hockey players – Sidney Crosby aside – don’t whine about getting checked. They just shake it off, get back up and head to where the play is, because that’s how the game is played.  On this point, too, communicators will relate, because while the “checks” in communications are more likely to be emotional than physical [other communicators may have different stories to tell, but, for myself in 15 years as a communicator, I’ve never actually had an SVP hip-check me in the hallway!] the result is the same – we don’t get the play we were “skating” towards with the course of action we recommended. And while that’s a disappointment, you have to shake it off in business too, because we don’t always know everything our executives know, and there may be a really good reason your recommendations weren’t used. It isn’t personal, and if you want to keep doing this job, you can’t make it personal. Just like the hockey players, you pick yourself up shake it off, and move on to the next project.
  • Building a winning hockey team requires looking out at the long-term – hockey is a game that requires both young, fresh aggressive players, as well as seasoned, experienced and aggressive players. A smart team makes sure that they have both on their team, and that they are constantly thinking about the best ratio of new and experienced players for their club, so that they are watching for draft picks that fill in whatever their need is now, and what it’s going to be 3-5 down the road. You need a clear understanding of the big picture. Being a communicator is similar. Although we do a lot of immediate or urgent projects, we also have to be looking at the longer-term strategy of our company, and thinking about what effective communication practices might look like in that same 3-5 year time-frame. Because while the “now” has to get handled, if you aren’t also keeping an eye on the “later” you can’t plan for it, and be thoughtful and creative with the kinds of recommendations you make as part of your role. Being a visionary, and, yes, sometimes, a soothsayer, is a key part of the communicator’s job, and to do that, you need to make certain you carve out time to just THINK – about your company, about its audiences, about the environment you do business in, and how that might change in the coming years. Because much of a communicator’s job involves action, it can be difficult to make the time to think about possibilities. But we MUST, because if we don’t, we can’t be the trusted advisors we really want and need to be for our organizations.

Well, those are the similarities I see between playing hockey and being a communicator. What do you think? Did I miss any? I’d love for you to add to this list if you have other thoughts.

And, in case hockey just isn’t your thing, I’ve written a few posts where I find communication lessons in weird and wonderful places. What can I tell you? I love what I do, so I think about it a lot, and I find similarities and lessons in lots of places. Things like being a mother, watching the movie The Princess Bride, the Academy Awardsfairy tales and even Country Music song titles. So if this one didn’t float your boat, maybe one of the others will offer some insights . . . or at least a laugh or two. Because that’s another thing I find absolutely imperative for a communicator – a healthy and well-nurtured sense of humour!


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