I remember it like it was yesterday. The feeling of the “pop” in my knee and knowing full well that I was in big trouble.
Yep, I tore my ACL when I was 17 years old. But the story is one that changed my perspective on life and has helped me through some of my darkest times. If you’ll indulge, take a walk with me down memory lane.
It was late September and I was playing for the Chicago Steel in the USHL. I was flying high. The prior weekend was the USHL Fall Classic and as a player without a college commitment I led the preseason showcase in scoring.
For those that aren’t familiar with the Fall Classic, it’s a weekend where all USHL teams travel to the same city to play in a mini-showcase. Pretty much every college and NHL team is represented there scouting as it’s the only opportunity to find every team in the league in the same place.
At the time, there was a rule that college coaches couldn’t speak with players they were interested in until after their final game of the Fall Classic. And after leading the showcase in scoring, after my final game, I had so many schools I dreamed of going to when I was a kid lined up to speak with me.
I was on top of the world.
Now, fast forward one weekend and we are playing in our first regular season game in Green Bay. It’s the second period and I kick the puck on an entry to my linemate on the wall. As I drive the net, he shoots the puck into the goalie who covers it, and as I go to stop – my knee completely buckles and I crash awkwardly into the boards.
Our trainer comes out and carries me off the ice into the locker room. He does a few tests on my leg and it’s bending in ways that legs really shouldn’t bend. I knew right then and there that hockey was going to be taken away from me.
After an MRI, it was revealed I needed surgery for a torn ACL. They gave me a six-month recovery period which meant I was done for most of the season.
Man, that was tough to hear. Devastating.
Luckily, I had played so well the previous weekend that all the colleges I spoke with would hopefully still have confidence in me, right?
Of all the schools I spoke to, only one kept in touch (and I didn’t want to go to that school). Absolute crickets from everyone else.
I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in the span of about five days. Dreams being realized to dreams being crushed in the pop of a knee. I guess a 5’4” player with a damaged knee wasn’t what these coaches were looking for.
I was in a tough spot.
But as it turns out, tearing that ACL was one of the best things that ever happened to me. You read that right. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Over the past decade plus I’ve taken a really deep dive into what makes specific individuals or teams great. I wanted to fully understand what separates the average from the good and the good from the truly elite.
I’ve read a ton of books and spoken to a ton of leaders. I’ve also had the good fortune to lead many team building initiatives with highly successful programs and work closely with some incredibly successful people.
The best part about what I’ve come to find?
There’s no single-recipe to achieving greatness as all of our journeys are different. The journey to greatness comes in all shapes and sizes.
However, I did find a few commonalities between the truly special individuals and teams that I’ve been able to work with.
And while diving into the details, there is one trait that always came to the forefront. One characteristic so massively important to achieving greatness but, unfortunately, we don’t talk about or teach nearly enough.
If you want to be great at what you do, resilience is the main ingredient.
Because achieving anything worthwhile is HARD.
It comes with pain. It comes with sacrifice. And it comes with an excess of ups, downs, twists, turns, and painstaking uncertainty along the way.
The below picture is one of my all-time favorite graphics to show young hockey players. I show it to every team that I work with and on every mentorship call that I do. It’s an astounding graphic that epitomizes the power of perseverance.
Take a look at the number in the middle of the graphic – 87.2%. Why is that number significant?
It represents the almost nine out of every ten players that suited up in the NHL last year…that spent time in the AHL in their career.
And what does that mean?
That means that almost 90% of the players that played in the NHL last year – got cut. They were told they weren’t good enough. They were told to ride a bus, get better, and come back up when you’re ready to play at the level.
When most people think of the top players in the world, they think of talent. They think of the skill that brings us out of our seats.
After seeing this graphic, my hope is that people see resilience. It’s an astounding stat that puts the difficulty of sticking in the league into perspective.
If you want to play in the NHL, it’s a grind to get there and even more of a grind to stay there. Nine out of ten players sent down. If you don’t know how to handle that adversity, you’re not putting yourself in a position to handle the realities of achieving something great like playing at the level.
One of my favorite books of all time is called the “Cubs Way.” It’s the story about Theo Epstein’s journey as general manager of the Chicago Cubs taking them from 100-year losers to World Series champions. In the book, Epstein’s process of scouting players jumps off the pages.
Because the most interesting aspect of his scouting process had little to do with baseball. And it had everything to do with resilience.
The number one priority in their drafting process was bringing people into their organization that could handle adversity. They wanted to know how each player dealt with adversity on and off the field. It was at the top as the most important trait of every scouting report. Not batting average or ERA or power numbers or any of the five-tools. Resilience.
Because in baseball even the best hitters who hit around .300 fail 7 out of 10 times. The best players, when they sign their contracts, don’t typically go to Chicago…they’re sent to spend time in the lower levels of the minor leagues. And not to mention, 162 games playing against the best players in the world is a grind.
They wanted players who knew what it meant to grind and could handle the adversity that undoubtedly would be coming their way.
It matters. It’s everything. And it’s something we can develop and EARN by the choices that we make every day.
Resilience is like a muscle.
When you are throwing weights in the weight room, what are you actually doing to your muscles?
You’re breaking them down.
And how do you make those muscles stronger?
By the way you treat them after you’ve put them through the pain of a workout.
What you eat. How you sleep. It’s how you recover that ultimately makes you stronger physically.
The same goes for resilience.
When the tough times come, and they do every day, adversity is trying to break you down. But when those tough times come, how you treat yourself will determine where you go. The way you choose to see the adversity…means everything.
Unsuccessful people pout. They give up. They blame others. They make excuses. They look for every way possible to deflect responsibility.
They see the adversity as a GIFT. As an OPPORTUNITY to learn something, grow, and come out stronger on the other side.
At the end of the day, what’s most important isn’t what happens to you. It’s how you choose to respond to the things that happen to you.
THAT is what will determine how far you go in achieving your dreams.
Resiliency, perseverance, grit – these aren’t traits that you can buy at Target. These are traits that are learned and earned every day. When the tough times come – how are you going to respond? Each response either builds your resilience muscle up or brings it down.
It’s about finding a positive in every situation. It’s about challenging yourself outside your comfort zone. It’s about learning how to get comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
Adversity comes in all shapes and sizes. Some can change the course of your day and some can change the course of your life.
But at the end of the day, it’s your decisions – not your conditions – that determine your destiny.
Going back to my torn ACL story, I am so thankful that I had a support system that didn’t allow me to feel sorry for myself. My family, friends, teammates, and coaches taught me the valuable lesson of not dwelling on the past but finding a positive in the present to help me get through a that difficult time.
I focused on making my upper body stronger. I turned into a student of the game because all I could do was watch it. And most of all, I became more mentally tough than ever having to grind through a grueling and painful rehab.
Positivity, plain and simple.
While not easy, I try to live this value every day. It’s so easy to make excuses and feel sorry for ourselves when things don’t go our way. But by choosing to find the positive in things, it can help lift us out of our disappointments and propel us towards where we need to go to be great.
So, what choices will you make today?
How will you choose to see the tough stuff? How will you respond to the adversity? At the end of the day, that choice of perspective will be the determining factor in realizing your goals and dreams.