What I Know Now is an interview series in conversation with leaders about the failures and successes of their careers.
Hayley Wickenheiser is in her car driving to the ice rink for practice with the Toronto Maple Leafs, when we talk on a winter morning in January. Her new role as the assistant director of player development keeps Wickenheiser in the game she started playing professionally at 15-years-old and retired from more than two years ago. Now, 40, she’s completing medical school at the University of Calgary and learning how to save lives, “Emergency trauma is what I like,” says Wickenheiser.
As one of the greatest female hockey players in the world, doctor-in-training, author, speaker, and mother, Wickenheiser is incredibly humble about her journey. Yet she’s not shy to state what she’s had to overcome to break gender barriers in sport, reach her potential, and even today continue to challenge stereotypes in medicine.
Her self-assuredness about the way forward in life is a testament to all of us who have dreams and goals to fulfil: anything is possible. We can have it all in life, if we work hard and believe in ourselves. One might expect someone as accomplished as Wickenheiser to feel a bit lost after retirement from a sport she’s known and played her whole life, but she says her transition has felt normal, “I've always wanted to do medicine, since I was a little kid.” On her commute we talked about what she’s learning about herself, how she’s overcome failure and criticism, and her message for women and girls:
YouInc: Why did you want to become a doctor?
Hayley Wickenheiser: Since I was a little kid, I've wanted to do medicine. I thought I would play in the National Hockey League for the Edmonton Oilers and then I wanted to go to Harvard Medical School. Those were my goals as a kid growing up. I like helping people. I enjoy the challenge of learning things. There's still so much we don't know about the human body.
YI: Has medical school taught you anything different about yourself that hockey didn’t teach you?
HW: I’ve applied what I’ve learned from hockey to emergency medicine, like making decisions fast, and working with a team. The stakes are higher when there are lives relying on your team versus gold medals.
When you have a human life in your hands and the decisions you make may or may not save that person's life, it's a whole other level of pressure that I hadn't experienced. I was very overwhelmed the first time I did CPR in a code blue in a trauma bay, because I realized I better know my stuff.
You can't fix ignorance, you can't fix stupid, but you can decide how you're going to respond.
So every day that I go to medical school, I feel the pressure that I better have knowledge when I get on the wards and that I can be competent in my job.
PREPARATION IS EVERYTHING
YI: So, by practicing and preparing, you’ve learned how to better deal with the pressure?
HW: Yeah. Preparation is everything whether you're an athlete or a doctor. If you're not prepared, you can't perform. Being prepared and having a certain level of confidence and a certain level of competence go hand-in-hand. If you’re not confident, you're not going to be competent, because you have to be able to perform in the moments that matter. You have to have a belief in yourself, even when you think others don't.
YI: In your TED Talk, Make a new status quo, you recall being cut from a boy's hockey team. You said something inside told you to say, "buck it." Is that something you still tell yourself in moments of defeat?
HW: Oh, every day [laughs]. I hear it every day of my existence, because I'm doing things that women don't do. People aren’t sure how to handle that. Now, I take it all in stride. I tend to look at it with a lot of levity and humour. You can't fix ignorance, you can't fix stupid, but you can decide how you're going to respond. I continue to do what I do and eventually those people end up going away.
A key theme for my whole life is learning not to listen to the critical opinion of others.
If I'm in medicine and I'm in the emergency room, some male doctor will say something to me like, "Well, you sure were a good hockey player, but you don't know what to do in here without a hockey stick in your hand.” I'm at the rink and I get a backhanded comment because I’m a female in a male-dominated world. People don’t realize what they’ve said.
DON’T LISTEN TO THE NAYSAYERS
YI: Is there a message you want women and girls to take from your experiences?
HW: Well, there's a few themes. It's that nothing comes without sweat equity. Things seem really hard sometimes when you first start on a journey, and it's overwhelming, but if you chip away and break things down into small pieces, anything becomes manageable. So, staying in the game and getting through moments helps.
A key theme for my whole life is learning not to listen to the critical opinion of others. There's a lot of people who have a lot of opinions, but few people who take action and actually do things that are meaningful and have influence. I respect and listen to those people and the rest of it just rolls off my back.
Failure is not a bad thing. Failure is a part of life. Every single day we fail and make mistakes as human beings.
FAILURE IS A PART OF LIFE
YI: How do you help your players overcome failure?
HW: By having honest conversations. They're young guys. It's like having a conversation with my son many times. Players need to know that you genuinely care about for them to be receptive to feedback, whether it's positive or constructive. Failure is not a bad thing. Failure is a part of life. Every single day we fail and make mistakes as human beings.
Sometimes in hockey we get stuck with our face right in the glass, instead of stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. We can help people take away pressure and focus on the fact that it's just a hockey game at the end of the day. It’s not an emergency trauma bay, with somebody's life in your hands. That perspective in medicine helps me a lot in this scenario.
YI: What do you want to achieve this year with the Maple Leafs?
HW: Well, number one, you always want to win in professional hockey. The most important thing is performance. But on the development side, we're looking to give players tools to improve their game. If we continually challenge and make players better, then as a development staff, we're doing our job and the team performance also gets better.
YI: How will you measure success in this role?
HW: Success will be measured by creating relationships and leaving an impact on players. I don't think it's an overnight thing. It’s going to take time to build relationships and establish myself within the group and the organization. Being able to add something unique that helps people will be success for me.
YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL, BUT NOT ALL AT ONCE
YI: What’s your message for entrepreneurs?
HW: You can have it all, but not necessarily in balance. There are times in life when you have to work, you have to travel, you have to invest in growing your business. You leave your family behind. I left my son behind months at a time to be on the road, but I think the important thing is then there's times when family and your health have to be a priority.
I don't believe in a balanced life, but I believe that we need to have balanced things in our lives.
Life ebbs and flows in certain ways, and it doesn't have to be exactly balanced in a perfect way every single day. I think women sometimes get stressed about creating that balance, especially the guilt of family, raising kids and leaving kids, or thinking you can't have a family at the same time you're achieving something. I think with good support, organization, cutting out extraneous stuff, and knowing what you want, it’s possible. I don't believe in a balanced life, but I believe that we need to have balanced things in our lives.
YI: So, you can't do it all at the same time.
HW: It’s different than what men feel, because of what our society expects us [women] to be. Acknowledging that and talking to moms or women with kids about that has helped me through the years. I was the first one to have a kid on my team, and my teammates had kids, and I remember many conversations, "Don't worry, they'll be fine with grandma or grandpa. We're just gone for a week."
Then, when your kids grow up, they thank you for showing them that you lived your dream and you loved what you did every day, and then they want to do the same thing. It's great role modeling.