Attitude of Gratitude

November 27, 2023

Matt Thomas

As we’re taking stock of our gratitude each morning and our thoughts turn to hockey, let’s spare a moment for everyone who makes it possible. And at the conclusion of that exercise, by all means—say ‘thank you’ to more people more often. But maybe just as important, let’s allow that gratitude to make us more resilient, optimistic, empathetic, gracious, and forgiving as we navigate this hockey world.

Hi everyone! My name is Matt Thomas and I’m excited to be onboard The Hockey Think Tank. It’s been an exhilarating couple of months getting acclimated and diving into some new initiatives.

There will be plenty of time in the future for my full biography, and I’m eager to engage with all of you… but for the purpose of today’s post, the most important detail is this:

Thanksgiving is the best holiday of the year. You’ll never convince me otherwise. Here’s a quick list of reasons why:

  • The recognition of American history (yes, I know your Thanksgiving is older, Canada!)
  • Non-denominational origins means everyone is welcome
  • The benevolent purpose is right in the name—a day to pause and give thanks
  • Thursday holidays = 4-day weekend!
  • The football
  • The Macy’s Parade
  • Spending time with family and enjoying unique traditions
  • The calm before the Christmas frenzy

Last Thursday, for the sixth consecutive year I spent my Thanksgiving holiday deep frying a diverse variety of marinated turkeys for a crowd of 50 in-laws on the sunny banks of the Chesapeake Bay.  So maybe add “it’s my Culinary Super Bowl” to the list.

I know what you’re thinking… Matt, nice to meet you, but you’re a week late with the Thanksgiving stuff.

You’re right. But this isn’t a Thanksgiving article.

No, I’m waxing poetic about my favorite holiday precisely because the day has come and gone. And because it’s gone it’ll be so easy to forget a concept that should be daily and timeless:

Gratitude.

Gratitude isn’t merely the expression of thanks, but that’s certainly a good start. My catholic school upbringing left a few indelible marks on me—and not just ruler scars on my knuckles. For instance, I recall the concept of ‘gratitude’ being described as the “overflow of a thankful heart”. When we take a moment to express a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to the people who impact our lives, we’re spreading that joy like wildfire. It costs nothing, it feels great for you and the recipient, and it inspires both sides to continue building that momentum elsewhere in their daily lives.

But that outward expression of gratitude also has inward effects.  Imagine starting every day with a thoughtful pause to recognize all the reasons you’re lucky to have that day… your thoughts may go to loved ones, creature comforts, health, climate, finances, or the potential of the day ahead. But regardless of items you can muster, the exercise itself provides the benefit – for gratitude makes us more resilient, optimistic, empathetic, gracious, and forgiving. Gratitude is the first quality from which all others spring forth.

Gratitude in the game

Within the hockey ecosystem, gratitude is too often in short supply. That truth is frustrating and surprising given the interconnected nature of our sport.

After all, hockey isn’t just the ultimate team sport—it’s maybe the ultimate village sport. Don’t believe me?

Let’s start with the players.  Show me the player who doesn’t owe gratitude all over the place. Is there a player who pays for all his equipment and registration fees? Is there a player who knows exactly what to do on the ice, possesses fully developed skills, and needs no mentoring or tactical insight? Is there a player who can accomplish his personal hockey ambitions without teammates, opponents, referees, and Zamboni drivers?

Or show me the coach who doesn’t owe gratitude. Is there a coach who can somehow do his job alone, without a squad of passionate and committed young players? Is there a coach who can accomplish his mission without supportive and dedicated parents of those players? Is there a coach who can continue his own professional development without the mentorship of those more experienced? Is there a coach who can dedicate the requisite passion to the game without a network of supporters in his own personal life?

Even parents–yes, even the group most due their own thanks– show me the parent who wouldn’t do well to consider gratitude for the entire village.  Are there many parents who’ve never appreciated a carpool, meal, or hotel cot from a fellow parent? Are there parents willing to entrust their kids to coaches who aren’t solid educators, mentors, and citizens? Heck, even the players deserve some thanks—the joy we experience as parents watching our kids grow up and pursue their dreams through hockey isn’t possible without a big group of great kids.

So as we’re taking stock of our gratitude each morning and our thoughts turn to hockey, let’s spare a moment for everyone who makes it possible. And at the conclusion of that exercise, by all means—say ‘thank you’ to more people more often. But maybe just as important, let’s allow that gratitude to make us more resilient, optimistic, empathetic, gracious, and forgiving as we navigate this hockey world.

Coaches: A practical exercise for Gratitude

Reinforcing gratitude is my first culture-building act each season. It goes something like this:

Speaking to the players in a locker room or classroom setting, I’ll lecture for a bit about the importance of gratitude (see above), but eventually we’ll come to the assignment. The homework is simple; go home and pen a handwritten ‘thank you’ note to someone in your life overdue an expression of your gratitude, and then return that letter to me in an unsealed, stamped, addressed envelope so I can mail it. No tricks—the players are warned in advance that I’ll be reading their letter before mailing it.

As teachable moments go, this easy assignment touches a wide spectrum, from the simply practical (Where does the stamp go?) to the deeply reflective (Who in my life is overdue my gratitude?). Everyone involved takes some tangible value from the exercise— Coaches learn about the support network that surrounds each player, Players are humbled and challenged to ponder some big questions, and some unsung hero feels an unexpected jolt of gratitude when the mailman arrives the next week.

The exercise is not always perfect; in my years of doing this, I’ve seen disappointing attempts and been forced to mentor players on the objective of the exercise (and coerced gratitude simply isn’t gratitude). I’ve seen terrible penmanship, stamps in the wrong corner, addresses written so flawed it’s made me laugh out loud… But I’ve also had parents seek me out to tell me this exercise was a profound moment for their families.

But regardless of the precise process or outcome, the existence of the exercise itself serves an added purpose to me as coach: it establishes the first pillar of our culture as gratitude. The players are clear about what I care about. All the attributes that spring forth from gratitude? That’s what we’re about. I expect each of my players to aspire to be more resilient, optimistic, empathetic, gracious, and forgiving… because we’re all going to need those skills as we work to accomplish our goals each season.

Show me a player who can always muster a reason to give thanks—who fills his heart with gratitude each day—and I’ll show you a player who will be a pleasure to coach.

I’m eager to interact with The Hockey Think Tank community more in the future. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy some leftover turkey and that we can all make gratitude a daily endeavor. Our hockey world will be better for it.

Happy Holidays!

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