Don’t Judge Me Because I Play Hockey with Other Middle-Aged Men

It turns out that playfulness is a bigger deal than I’d thought.

I have a complex relationship with sports. On the one hand I enjoy watching and playing them, but on the other I’m aware that they’re just games and not where the deep meaning of life is to be found. As an intense, meaning-focused person, sometimes my interest in sports makes me feel pretty shallow.

And I know plenty of people who in no way share my fondness for sports. My wife comes to mind. When we got married, she knew that I liked sports—but I think she thought it was a boyish thing that I’d grow out of. One friend who knows I like hockey won tickets to a local AHL game and offered them to me, saying that I might as well use them because the boredom would kill him. I do like watching hockey, but I’ve been finding that I enjoy playing it even more. On Mondays at 10 p.m. I play in an over-40 men’s league, the type of league that is affectionately known around the country as a beer league. Monday evenings are a highlight of my week.

But these games trigger a personal litany of self-flagellating thoughts about my shallowness. I make a mental list of the costs. There is the literal monetary cost: I pay to play. I pay for my equipment. I risk driving in awful weather, like the night the wind chill was minus 20 degrees, the snow was falling at an inch and a half a hour and the weather people urged everyone to stay home unless it was an absolute emergency. There’s the potential cost of an injury; so far, I have seen other players sustain a broken ankle and broken ribs. On game night, I usually do not get to sleep before one in the morning. And, of course, the whole thing is ridiculous. I’m 44. A husband. A father of four. I have a masters degree and a semi-serious job. And the depth of a watermelon.

A while ago, though, I had a different thought as I was entering into my self-flagellation ritual: maybe I could press pause and try to learn something about what makes Monday nights so enjoyable.

My first thought was the obvious—hockey is an escape. But a moment’s reflection helped me realize that wasn’t it. Escape is easy with the internet. I do my share of mindlessly falling down link holes, but I never look back and view those moments as a highlight of the week. A temporary escape? Sure. A highlight? Not really.

Or maybe: on Monday evenings I’m fully present to the moment. I am after all on ice. I have a stick in my hands, and I’m surrounded by other fully-grown men with sticks who are moving quickly towards me. During the game there’s no pull or opportunity to be anywhere but right there. I’m unplugged and present. In those moments on the ice I am free of the persistent, dull-but-seemingly-pressing messages that my brain constantly sends me. (I need to get all the paperwork together for our taxes. I think we’re out of eggs.) I’m absorbed in the moment, a brain/body state called  flow, which evidently is crucial to an overall sense of well-being.

On Mondays I’m also surrounded by other people who are present to the moment. During the hour and half of our game, no one’s checking their phone. There’s a united focus and presence that feels rare in my time with other people during the rest of my week. Yes, no one would mistake our conversation while we’re on the bench as unlocking the secrets of the universe: “Their D is pinching in. . . . 41 is a real asshole. . . . We can beat these guys.” (This last remark is a frequently expressed though rarely realized hope for my team.) So it’s not deep, but there’s a focus and a playfulness that’s refreshing. My work has a serious edge to it. The national conversations I follow rarely seem exuberant. But my Monday nights are. This is the only point in my week where I regularly climb over something—in this case the boards. There’s a door I could use, but when else in the week does climbing over something seem appropriate?

Thinking about playfulness reminded me of something I had read from the New York family therapist Edwin Friedman. He said that playfulness is a key to living and leading well in anxious systems. When I’m overly serious, Friedman tells me' I’m living out of the reptilian portion of my brain. Mammals play, but reptiles are deadly serious. Friedman noted that when we think of playful creatures, we don’t think of animals like snakes or turtles. (The phrase “reptilian seriousness” has stuck with me. Imagine if we talked about a political candidate having or lacking “reptilian seriousness” rather than gravitas.) I liked the thought that on Mondays I’m being playful, a little less reptilian and a little more human.

Since reflecting on all of this, I’ve begun purposely disconnecting from the web and putting my phone on airplane mode for extended periods of time. This hasn’t brought me into a state of constant flow, but there have been moments, and they’re picking up. At a minimum I can say that being present and focused beats by a mile the fractured, disintegrated feeling I often have when plugged into multiple devices.

I’m also purposefully enjoying being a little more playful during my day. I have a hockey stick in my office, and sometimes when I get up to get coffee, I’ll grab the stick and a ball and stick-handle my way to my destination (and, no joke, I often have a good thought or idea on my way). Sometimes I’ll climb over something just to remind myself that though my work is serious, I don’t want to be reptilian. All in all, it feels good to not think of hockey as an escape from my life, but instead to think of how my games hold clues to the fully present, playful and enjoyable life I’m hoping for.

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