How Hockey Prepared Me For The White House


"This is all wrong!"

The President of the United States was not happy - and he was staring right at me.

It was June 27, 2005, and I was in the White House family theater with George W. Bush, as he practiced the nationally televised Address to the Nation that he would deliver from Fort Bragg, N.C., the next night. This was my first time as the lead writer on a prime time presidential address - and now I was in the commander in chief's crosshairs.

Not good.

The day before in the Oval Office, the president had been happy with the text. But now, as he read it aloud for the first time, he was decidedly unhappy with a speech he would have to give in less than 24 hours. 

I should have been rattled. My job was on the line. But for some reason, I was not. I knew exactly what was causing his unhappiness, and I knew exactly how to fix it. I just needed to execute the changes.

As the president tore into the speech draft, I took careful notes, as did the other senior White House aides in the room. Once the brutal practice session was over, we all reconvened in the West Wing to go over the changes and make sure we were all on the same page.

The president's chief of staff walked in.

"Can we cancel the speech?" he asked.

Not exactly a vote of confidence.

No, communications director Dan Bartlett, told him. It had already been announced to the press - but we were fixing it. He left looking decidedly unconvinced.

After we had all settled on a game plan, I went back to my office along with my then-boss, chief speechwriter Bill McGurn, we ordered sandwiches from the White House Mess and pulled an all-nighter to fix the speech. Around 5 a.m., we sent a new draft to up to the president in the residence, so it would be there for him when he woke up. And then we waited.

At 6:45 am, the phone in my office rang. The called ID said "POTUS."

"Marc, it's the president."

I took a deep breath.

"This is much better," he said.

I exhaled.  

He gave us a few small changes, and told us to "put it into big print" - the large text he used for delivery. That was always the sign that he was through editing. We were in the free and clear.

The speech was well received. On the flight back to Washington on Air Force One, the president called us up to his cabin.

"Good job, lads," he said, shaking our hands. "A little rough getting there," he added with a laugh, "but good job."

Bill and I went back to the staff cabin, and collapsed in our seats - physically and emotionally spent.

The next day, after we had recovered, Bill asked me: How had I remained so calm? With all that pressure, why wasn't I curled up in a ball in the corner?

"Simple," I told him. "I was a goalie."

Growing up in New York City, I played travel hockey for the New York Stars in the Greater New York Ice Hockey League, and later at the Taft School in Watertown, Conn. After spending so much of my childhood in the crease, I was used to being the last line of the defense and was not intimidated by situations where I was the only thing standing between success and failure.

So, when the president was unhappy with the speech, I did not think about the fact that my job was on the line - just as I did not think about what would happen if an opposing player scored with seconds left in a tie game. I just focused on the task at hand. I trusted my skills, training and experience, and did my job.

The mental toughness hockey instilled in me is just one of the many ways the game prepared me for my career after hockey. Now, two of my children are playing youth hockey. My 11-year-old daughter, Lucy, and my 16-year-old son Max both play AAA hockey for the Washington Little Capitals. They are far better than I ever was. But even if they achieve their hockey dreams, the sport is also teaching both of them habits of success - mental toughness, discipline, resilience, and team work - that will help them long after they eventually hang up their skates.

Hockey is teaching them to dream big. If they learn to dream big on the ice, they will dream big for the rest of their lives and pursue greatness in whatever they do. Hockey is also teaching them that success requires hard work. No one makes it to the NHL, they Olympics, or any other worthwhile pursuit on natural ability. 

The kid who makes it to the next level is not necessarily the most talented, but the one who quietly decides that he or she going to be the hardest worker, and makes the sacrifices necessary to achieve his or her goals.  

Hockey is also teaching them resilience. Every player fumbles the puck, lose a heartbreaker in overtime and blows a tryout. The question is: Do you respond by beating themselves up and saying 'I'm not elite material?' Or do you learn from their mistakes, get back to work and try again? Resilience is critical on the ice and life after hockey too.

Hockey is teaching them that assists are as important as goals. Unassisted goals are rare in hockey, and in life. And often it's the person who makes great play away from the puck (who does not get credited on the score sheet) who makes a goal possible. Ronald Reagan had a saying he kept on his desk: "It's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit."

Every hockey career comes to an end at some point, and then every player needs to figure out what to do with his or her life after hockey. Hockey prepares you for that moment in ways you cannot imagine. Because my kids are developing habits of success playing hockey, they will have the tools necessary to master other skills - whether they eventually become athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, inventors, or even presidential speechwriters.

Marc Thiessen was White House chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He is columnist for the Washington Post, a commentator on Fox News, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and also a hockey dad.




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