It is a common occurrence that people ask me, “Why are you still involved in the game?” “Don’t you feel burned out?” “Is there really more to learn or do?” These questions have arisen on numerous occasions during my years as a hockey enthusiast, from age 15 to 35, yet my answer has always been the same - because I love it.
My childhood experience with sports defines the term organic. I never played to earn a college scholarship or to make someone else happy. I didn’t travel to tournaments every weekend with ungodly amounts of pressure on my shoulders. I even quit the U.S. Women's National Team to try something new, only to return 2 years later. Maybe I was oblivious to reality and pressure or, quite simply, I grew up in a different generation. But, one fact always remained the same - I played field hockey because it was fun and when I wasn’t having fun, I always took a break.
I see the pressure that our athletes have in today’s athletic world and it breaks my heart. How and when will we ever turn back to what really matters?
Sometimes I think it is providential that my career spanned over so many years, afforded me to see many new places and allowed me to meet amazing people along the way. But as I get older, I realize it was not luck or simply hard work. It was my passion for competition, my appreciation for the learning process and my love for the people that surrounded me every day that always kept me coming back for more.
The truth is, I have an inner competitive drive and hockey fulfilled that outlet. I am the person racing to get in the door first and the one that secretively wants to win every game of UNO that I play with my sons.
Competition was part of my DNA and this factor became a driving force of my playing career. If you ask most successful athletes, they all say the same. I love competition. Not just the big games, but the competitive drive of winning the small battles everyday at training.
Sports are not always peaches and cream. It’s a process. Whether you are just starting out in a youth league, playing for your high school or club or competing at the highest level, you will always have days were you simply grind it out. Successful athletes don't just understand the grind, but they live for it.
Loving the process and the simple life lessons along the way are exactly what got me out of bed each day. But, one day I woke-up and couldn’t find the desire in the process.
I spent the next 2 years in corporate America. Every day, I put on stilettos and attempted to make my frizzy outrageous hair look somewhat attractive.
At the start, it was fun and fulfilling. I was new to the traditional working world and the learning process was intriguing at the start but soon, the competition of sales wasn’t enough. I wanted to win on the field.
The corporate process was not one with which I connected. I certainly didn’t connect with the people, because for the most part, we had different aspirations, different goals, and ultimately, a different drive than my colleagues. Different isn’t bad - it’s just different, and it meant that I felt myself longing for the complete fulfillment of my competitive drive, which I knew I had in hockey.
I turned back to hockey and the national team where I reconnected with the sport in a much fuller way. Every day I rolled out of bed, put on my training shoes and made my frizzy outrageous hair easy to control as I ran, lifted, practiced and played. The return was natural, it was fun, it was fulfilling. I was back in the world where I simply loved the process, had fun and loved the people that surrounded me every day. I wasn’t playing for money or someone else’s happiness. I was playing because I had fun and I loved the sport.
I had the opportunity to continue to travel to many new places, meet many new people and experience things that I still hold as treasured memories. As my family grew, my love of the sport did not diminish but rather the time available to both reached maximum capacity. I stepped away from playing actively, but I did not step away from the sport, because my competitive drive has been channeled into developing ways to help others capitalize on their passion.
So when I am at a club practice, or at a hockey event, and I’m holding the hand of one of my sons, and people ask me “'Why are you still involved in the game?', 'Don’t you feel burned out?', or 'Is there really more to learn or do?'", it’s an easy answer for me. I have had the same answer since I was 15 years old. It’s the same answer I want everyone to be able to respond with when someone asks them why they play.
“Actually, because I love it.”
Keli Smith Puzo is a Field Hockey Life Club team founder, two-time Olympian and former member of the U.S. Women's National Team