What the Puck?

How a new sport helped me find clarity in grad school
MAY 2019

In my first year of graduate school, I fell on my butt a lot.

It’s as if I would forget about my feet. I would be gliding along smoothly, comfortably shifting from one skate to the other, but if a puck slid in my direction — and I had to get it! — my skates would be gone from under me, my heavily padded limbs would clatter to the ice, and I’d watch the other players skate by.

My first September in Cambridge, I received an email from Ashdown, my graduate dorm, about intramural sports. I can’t quite recall what the other options were, but I do remember lingering over the option “ice hockey.”

I can skate. I can also hold a hockey stick and have reasonable hand-eye coordination. However, what I didn’t expect was my total inability to do both at the same time.

Every time it would look like this: skating along, stick sitting in my right hand, easy—puck is coming towards me. Put the stick on the ice, bring it back just a bit and swing at the puck—fall.

Luckily the pads make it so I hardly feel a thing, but as my bottom is getting cold on the ice, I suddenly think about how nice it is to have clear, tangible merits of successes and failures along the way to goals. In the case of ice hockey, literal goals. Fall on my butt: fail. Receive a pass from the left defender: success. Cause an offsides call for my team: fail. Score a goal: success. Score more goals than the other team and win the game: bigger success. When I play hockey I feel grateful for this clarity.

At the start of my second hockey season, I was pleasantly surprised by how well I could stay on my feet. I wasn’t rusty from the summer break. By needing to focus less and less on staying upright, I could concentrate more on the ice around me; watching my teammates, watching the defender behind me, thinking about where I should go to open myself up to a pass.

At the same time, I didn’t punish myself when I did slip and fall. I was so new to this game that I didn’t have any expectations for myself to perform well, or to be the best. I can’t help comparing my new sport to my new academic experience. I felt small and underprepared both in the lab and on the ice, but hockey provided a low pressure environment to practice forgiving myself for not succeeding.

When you’re a student in high school and college, metrics for success are still very clear. Of course grades don’t mean everything, but an A is given when you are successful and a D is given when you are not.

There are no such obvious metrics for success as a graduate student. Am I working hard enough? Is this experiment important? What project should I prioritize at this very moment? Am I doing as well as I could be? There is no clear-cut way to measure this; you have to come up with metrics for yourself.

Even passing my qualifying exam (which was very satisfying, don’t get me wrong!) did not feel like sending a puck into a goal. When rushing towards the puck, it’s the moment of urgent mental dialogue, “Go, go, GO! Get it!”. And then a physical action happens. I crave this. Either I ‘get it’ or I ‘don’t get it’.

I remember standing in front of my thesis committee moments before my qualifying exam started, in the new white slacks I got that looked good only if I stood in a certain way, absolutely terrified and, I hate to admit, focusing mostly on preventing sweat spots from forming. I was not thinking “Go, go, GO! Get it!” It was a different kind of adrenaline rush. I was nervous and exhausted, but also thrilled to share what I had been working on with my committee. I wanted to do the absolute best I could because the exam is a rare and important opportunity to receive critical feedback from five MIT professors. I felt a lot of pressure.

See, this is why I’m glad intramural hockey is run the way it is. There’s no existential pressure to succeed according to certain guidelines that are almost always unclear. In hockey, it’s just the sticks and the pucks. You either skate hard or you don’t. Your team either scores a goal or it doesn’t.

So you better skate hard. Even if you have to construct your own goal.