November 14, 2012
Dartmouth professor Thomas Cormen has held a number of distinctions in his life: author of a landmark computer science text, chairman of his department, and certified barbecue judge. But in a game in Vermont some years ago, Cormen, a longtime goaltender in his local rec hockey league, earned another, more dubious title—he became “that guy.”
If you've spent enough time playing adult hockey, you’ve probably encountered “that guy,” or “that girl.” Though they may be skating in an adult league game with friends on a random weeknight in Anytown, U.S.A., in his or her mind they’re playing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. There's nothing wrong with playing with intensity, of course, but "that guy" shows his competitive spirit in all the wrong ways—yelling at referees, playing without regard for opponents' or teammates’ safety, and various other forms of poor sportsmanship. In short, "that guy" can take the fun out of a game in a hurry. And even an Ivy League computer science professor isn’t immune.
"I was playing with a group from Woodstock, Vermont," Cormen recalls. With his team up 2–0 early, Cormen was unexpectedly caught in a scrum with the puck in his end. Suddenly pushed out of the crease from behind, the opposing team had an easy chance to score on an open net, which they did.
"I was [mad,], because now it's 2–1, and although we should be leading by a lot, now it's a close game,” he says. “I'm yelling at my teammates, 'Next guy that comes down here is going to get it!' I'm just really upset at the other team. Well, off the ensuing faceoff, the puck comes down to my end, and I decide to cover it. Late whistle, one of the guys on the other team is jabbing at my glove, which is covering the puck, and I just lost it. I went after him."
Looking back, Cormen acknowledges several problems with this decision. For one, as Cormen notes, "You can't fight in goalie equipment.” But that, he recognizes, is missing the larger point, which is that starting a fight in an adult league at a local high school is a clear indicator that you’ve lost perspective. As it turned out, though, that wasn't the biggest mistake. "It turned out that this guy that I was going after was a Vermont state trooper," Cormen recalls with a laugh.
Despite his ill-considered attempt to fight a state trooper—who later became a teammate in another league—Cormen was able to avoid any major trouble thanks to his teammates, who stepped in to calm him down and hold him back from any possibility of fisticuffs.
That's the greatest challenge when encountering this type of player. How you handle him, both as a teammate or an opponent, can make all the difference between preserving a pleasant night at the rink or suffering through the kind of controversy and headaches that you play hockey to escape.
Michael Blinn knows this situation well. Before moving to New York to work as a web producer for the NHL, he played in a men's league in New Hampshire. "Some of the teams we played definitely had guys who took it all too seriously," he recalls, "like they thought there were scouts in the stands."
As it turns out, Blinn's assessment generally isn't all that far off. According to Dr. Justin Anderson, who is both a sports psychologist and an adult hockey player in St. Paul, Minnesota, "that guy" tends to be playing for a lot more than fun when he comes to the rink.
"I've seen or played with a lot of these guys and there's two reasons why I believe they act the way they do," Anderson says. The first of these often involves a kind of “glory days” mentality, he says, where “their identity is still caught up in being an athlete.”
"The other reason I think guys [behave this way] is because of insecurity,” Anderson explains. “Other parts of their lives aren't fulfilled, so they really need that sport to be great. If they do well there, then they feel a little bit better about themselves."
These reasons don't necessarily apply across the board—just ask Prof. Cormen—but understanding their motivations can be helpful. Still, why they do what they do is many ways less important than knowing how to deal with them. Complaining to him or telling her to “take it easy” probably isn't going to do much good, and may even exacerbate the problem.
"If they're past the threshold," Anderson says, "if they're angry or yelling, it's difficult to talk them off that ledge, so to speak.” To avoid reaching that moment, he advocates doing some pre-emptive expectations setting. “That's either their own teammates saying, 'Hey bud, let's take it a little easier today,' or 'Let's try not to get ourselves kicked out of this league.’
"Some of these teams you play over and over again if you're in a league, and you get to know who those guys are,” Anderson notes. So, if “that guy” is a frequent opponent, it might be worth chatting him or her up during pregame. “Going over there and saying, 'Hey, how's it going?'…that kind of stuff, can defuse some of that anger and competitive drive."
If "that guy’s” play makes him a danger to himself or others, however, it’s time to appeal to his teammates or to the referees to intervene. If one of your teammates is “that guy,” let him know in no uncertain terms that his behavior is unacceptable, and that you’ll sit him down or kick him off the team, if necessary. Otherwise, the best thing to do when confronted is to stay calm and just keep on skating.
"Everybody has to go to work tomorrow," Blinn observes, "so if someone needs to score a goal to get their water cooler glory, might as well let them."
In one similar situation that Blinn recalls, he and his teammates tried to gently joke with “that guy,” calmly letting him know that they all understood where he was coming from. “Whatever happened on the ice, we were all going to grab a beer together after, so we might as well have fun."