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What Tom Brady and My Son Can Teach You About Success — It’s Not About What You Do

What the gurus never mention about swimming with the big fish

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Author's son's hockey team on ice after championship game

Lorne Park Clarkson Wild, winners of the Oakville Classic 2024 Tournament — Photo courtesy of Lindsay Quattrociocchi

Last weekend was the championship final game of Canada’s largest youth hockey tournament . My son and his crew of 13-year-old friends were losing, badly. Down 5–2 against the number one rated team in the province. Nine minutes left in the final period.

What happened next was going to be the subject of this article. This was supposed to be a story for me to share with the other parents on my son’s team, a story to memorialize an event we’ll remember for years, perhaps for a lifetime.

But as I wrote, I realized that this story wasn’t going to be about winning a tournament. This story wasn’t going to be about grit or perseverance or coming from behind. It wasn’t going to be about never saying quit.

This story was going to be about something more important.

A Little Fish in a Biggish Pond

Three years ago my son was ready to quit hockey. He had been trying to succeed in a bigger pond, at a ‘higher level’ than he plays now, AA vs single-A. He’s a good goalie with some natural talent, but hockey isn’t his purpose in life, which as near as my wife and I can tell seems to be playing video games and checking daily to see if he’s grown taller than his brother.

His previous coach was fond of pulling Rishi from the net if the game got off to a bad start, replacing him mid-game with the other goalie. It’s a tactic that many coaches use, but one that can be humiliating to a goalie in a way that makes them feel like they’re the ones responsible when the team struggles.

I didn’t like it any time Rishi was replaced, but I hoped that it was building character in my son. A little adversity never hurt anyone. But I knew it bothered him. It certainly bothered me.

Near the end of the season, Rishi was pulled in yet another game, after a much better team scored on him while his own team was down a player after a penalty. Being pulled is an embarrassing experience, and completely uncalled for in this case.

I left the viewing area, walked down to the ice and at the next whistle, I yelled across the arena, waving for Rishi to leave his team’s bench and skate towards me. I’m sure his coach and his team thought I just wanted to speak with him, maybe tell him to turn his frown upside down.

He skated across, I opened the door to the rink and motioned him to step off the ice. I said, “Let’s go. We’re leaving.”

“Oh, thank god,” he said.

We didn’t go back. The coach of that team never called me. I met with one of the assistant coaches a few days later and confirmed we weren’t returning. He said, “I don’t blame you.”

A Smaller Pond

I knew one of the coaches of Rishi’s current team, the single-A Lorne Park Clarkson Wild, Mike Crumpton, from speaking to him the previous year. The team needed a second goalie and Mike was interested in Rishi. I was nervous though — the Wild is a team of kids from our neighbourhood, and has been the same group of friends for five or six years running.

Mike told me, “The coaches on this team have the philosophy that we want to put in the effort to get better and put ourselves in a position to win, but it isn’t about winning in the end. We want to have fun. I think that’s why the kids stay.”

I liked the sentiment, but I worried that Rishi would have to break in to a group that had known each other for years, many of whom go to school together. Would he be rejected as an outsider? I told Mike we’d stay in touch.

Now a year later, I called Mike and said, “Are you still looking for a second goalie?”

Learning to Swim

When Rishi played his first game for the Wild, my heart was in my throat. Mike had assured me he wouldn’t pull a goalie unless there was something seriously wrong, but the other goalie’s Dad was one of the bench coaches. It seemed possible that there could be preferential treatment. There would be no room for error.

Rishi played well. The team won, and I sighed in relief.

A couple of games later, I was starting to relax. My chest was still tight when games began, but Rishi was playing well.

Then, disaster.

The score was tied late in a game and Rishi mishandled a long clearing shot from the other end of the rink. The puck was going to miss the net entirely, but it deflected off Rishi’s stick and went into his own net, putting his team down by a goal.

I felt like throwing up. It was my nightmare scenario. A mistake. He was going to get pulled.

His teammates went rushing down the ice and swirled around Rishi, to berate him for letting in a soft goal, to tell him he wasn’t good enough. But no, that’s odd, they seemed to be patting Rishi on his helmet. One of them is hugging my son. What is happening?

I was standing behind the team bench, and one of the coaches looked up at me. He could see I was nervous and said, “Don’t worry, everyone makes mistakes, it’s just more obvious when it’s the goalie. This team is supportive, they’re telling Rishi it’s going to be ok.”

Rishi went back to the net. His teammates went back to work. They scored twice and won the game, everything was ok.

As the season went on, the team was doing well. They had some great players and I didn’t understand initially why they played on a single-A team instead of at a higher level. Half the team could easily play a level up, and with training, some of them could even be among the elite players of AAA, the largest pond in Canadian hockey.

But I had never seen such camaraderie and inclusiveness among a group. Nobody was ever left out of an event. Nobody was ever criticized unfairly or yelled at, not by the coaches, and not by each other.

I began to understand why there were so many great players and why even the best of them stayed on the team instead of moving up. They cared more about who they were with than what they could accomplish as individuals.

It’s been two seasons now and I no longer fear that Rishi will get pulled from a game or that he’ll want to quit hockey. He has found his pond. His team wins a lot of games, but that isn’t what this story is about.

The Biggest Fish in the Biggest Pond

Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski hugging on a football field

Tom Brady hugging Rob Gronkowski after winning one of six Super Bowls with the Patriots - Created in Midjourney. I gave up trying to get the jersey number right.

Tom Brady, by the numbers, is the greatest quarterback in the history of the game. Seven Super Bowl victories after being drafted 199th overall. But he was never the highest-paid player in football. Hell, he wasn’t always the highest-paid player on his team.

Brady was known for giving up his own salary potential to free up money to pay other players. He wanted to play with the best.

When Brady left the New England Patriots to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, critics jeered. They said he couldn’t succeed without his teammates, without the support of the stars that Bill Belichick had assembled around Brady.

What happened next is the stuff of legend. Rob Gronkowski, the greatest tight end in the history of Super Bowls, came out of retirement to support his friend Tom Brady. And Brady and Gronk went on to win an unprecedented seventh championship with the Buccaneers. Together again.

What This Story Is About

Success isn’t about your salary. Success isn’t about trophies or medals or bragging rights. It isn’t about promotions, corner offices, or private jets.

Success is about being with the right people, for the right reasons. It’s about doing your best and showing up for your team.

At Audiobooks.com, the same group of people that I hired twenty years ago are still running the place. They’re all doing fine financially, but they’re there because they like each other — they like their team. Several of them commute two hours every day to work, even though they could get a higher salary closer to their homes.

It is, in the end, about people. It is always about people.

Success in life isn’t about winning tournaments, no matter how prestigious. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who have the same beliefs and goals that you do.

Success comes from supporting your friends and colleagues when the chips are down. It’s knowing you can count on them to give you a hug when you put the puck in your own net.

So in the end this story is about grit and perseverance and not giving up – on each other. It’s about trusting your teammates, trusting your colleagues.

They’ve got this. They’ve got you.

Sometimes your team will win a Super Bowl.

Sometimes your team will overcome an impossible deficit to win a kids' hockey tournament. Sometimes your father will turn away from the roaring crowd, wiping away tears of joy for a son who has found his tribe.

It feels great to win. But that’s not what this story is about.

It doesn’t matter the size of the pond or how large you are in it. It only matters who else is in there swimming with you.

I write so I can connect with my readers. You can reach me by responding to this email, by commenting on my website, or by responding to the poll below.

Thanks for reading!

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