I held the second-to-last shift too long, the immutable law of never change when the puck’s in your end having been burned into my reptile brain by a hundred overserious hockey friends. The puck had been stuck in our end, our attempts to break out muddled by the growing fatigue, and by the time it got enough across the line for me to head to the bench I fairly crashed through the door and slumped, gasping, against the back of the boards, eyes unfixed.

There is no kind of tired quite like hockey-tired. There is a kind of hockey-tired, the mid-game version, that is packed with nervous, hyper-focused energy, but by the time the end comes near, the tired has spread from your legs to your brain and even attention feels like too much work. Hell, breathing feels like too much work. It doesn’t even hurt anymore. I’m too tired to feel pain.

It is 7:00.

I still have one more shift.

There’s no way I can skate one more shift.

***

A lot of hockey clichés sound like nonsense. Most hockey people are not great wordsmiths. Having spent more of their life in rinks than in classrooms, consequently more comfortable expressing themselves physically than verbally, they often speak in rote formulae that, exhaustively repeated, come to sound ridiculous. If you watch a lot of hockey, I guarantee there is at least one such phrase that you just cannot hear anymore without a great snickering and rolling of eyes. “Compete level” seems to be pissing off a lot of journalists this particular postseason, but others nurse a special hatred for “take away time and space.” For me, personally, it’s “get pucks in deep”, which has to be the most inane description of hockey strategy yet developed, and fills me with five seconds of sarcastic rage nearly every game.

But I would venture few clichés are more widely mocked than “give 110%”. 110% has been so widely and roundly criticized that even players seem a little reluctant to say it nowadays. To do so is to open oneself up to an immediate snark-assault: 110%?!?! You can’t give 110% of anything! 100% is by definition the maximum amount available! That’s, like, third-grade math! HAH! Nothing labels one more clearly and cruelly as a dumb jock than resorting to the 110% cliché.

I used to be one of the ones snarking. Then I started playing, and things changed. I have seen the light; I have been converted. I believe in 110%.

The anti-110% logic is based on the notion that one only has a finite amount of effort to give, the maximum amount of which should be described by 100%, period. Like in the third grade, when you first learned percentages with M&Ms. If I have ten M&Ms and I give you all ten, I have given you 100% of them. I cannot give you 110%, because that extra candy doesn’t exist. If I had 11 M&Ms, then 11 would be 100%

But human skills are not like M&Ms. They’re not known quantities that abide, fixed and set, to be used in varying fractions. I do not have a set maximum of ten effort-units available. Rather, our abilities change as we change. Used, they grow. Neglected, they atrophy. The first time we do something we can only reach a certain limit, a certain 100%. The next time, though, we can go further. We can hit that previous 100% and go just a bit beyond. Every time we push to the limit of our possibilities, a little bit more becomes possible, until we look ahead and realize that there was never a clear limit at all, standing like a wall in front of us, but rather a long road stretching out into mists and darkness, going someplace we cannot see.

All of our capacities work this way. Some things are finite- the number of hours in the day, the lines on the field, the rules of the game- but within those confines our abilities grow and grow. Sometimes it’s beautiful, like when we think we’ve given all the love we have to give to one child only to find we can give twice as much when the next comes along. Other times it’s crueler, like when the same thing happens with a lover. But sweet or bitter it always goes the same: the more you have done, the more you can do after.

Our bodies understand this. Run every day and you will inevitably run farther and farther with time. Your heart will get stronger and your lungs more efficient. Lift weights every day and you will inevitably lift more, your muscles growing harder and lumpier bit by bit. Do yoga every day and eventually you will find yourself some sunny afternoon contorted like an Escher pretzel, joints bent serenely in directions you could not have imagined a year before. That process, from weakness to strength, from incompetence to mastery, is one long succession of 110% efforts.

Sports are all about 110%. That is the essence of the competition. That is why the Olympic motto isn’t the in superlative but the comparative- not Fastest, Highest, Strongest, but Faster, Higher, Stronger. There is no most, only more and more beyond. The -er is the extra 10% Somewhere out there is a limit, fixed by time and will and genetic capacity, but often it is far further than we believe when we set out, and most of us probably never get near it before age makes the pursuit impossible. And even where one of us fails, another can keep going further still. Even though the limits of an individual may be fixed, the limits of the species are still unknown.

This is the hopeful part of sports, for in no other arena are the best ideals of progress exemplified in such a literal way. Other parts of life go in cycles of fashion and sensibility, one thing superior to another in no definite way save for accidental popularity. Even technology- the sine qua non for our concept of progress in the modern age- is full of compromises and double-backs, a problematic development. But in sports, there is always improvement. No matter how incredible the record or beautiful the play, it will always be one-upped. No matter what astounding feats you have seen, you know that the future will bring something even more so. Every time we think we have reached the very utmost limit of what a body can do, some remarkable body comes along and does more. Because the trying is constant, because athletes are always aiming for 110%, the possibilities are quite literally infinite. There are no happy endings in sports, because nothing ever ends.

***

I often wonder what players hope for going into the Stanley Cup Final. Winning, obviously, but that’s just the result, dependent heavily on calls and bounces and what the other guys do. But what do they hope for personally? When they lie awake at night thinking on the coming confrontation, when they send up their little half-serious prayers to the hockey gods, what do they pray for? For steady nerves and steady hands, probably. For knees that hold up and nagging injuries that stay down. For energy, for composure, for luck. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are still praying for that 110%, to be able to find some extra measure of strength or effort that they never had before but might still find. Where they are now, at the peak of the peak of their profession, they might not have it anymore. Their capacities might be well and truly maxed out. There might never be another 10% more. But I bet some of them are hoping for it anyway. You don’t get this close to the Cup if you haven’t spent most of your life chasing 110%

I know I chase it, in my own small and inadequate way. In the slow, uncertain process of hockey skill development, it is the only thing I can directly control. I cannot make myself know how to pivot properly or get my wristshots higher off the ice. I can practice, I make myself try to do it again and again and again, but I cannot know when, if ever, it will finally click into place. I cannot make the ability come at will. The only thing I can truly summon is the effort. The only thing I can truly choose is the 110%.

I can choose, sitting on this bench with my legs quaking and my face burning red and the sweat in my eyes, feeling as if there is nothing left of me but ache and exhaustion, to go back out one more time. I can choose the next shift. I can take stock of what I am and what I can do and refuse to accept it quietly as my God-given limit. I can choose to make myself more. A little bit more, every time.

That’s the superpower hockey has given me.

I used to max out at 100%.

But now, this girl goes to 11.

Comments (9)

  1. (Nodding silently, in affirmation.)

  2. Is the reason we talk in terms of giving 110% because the possibility that we’ve actually only been around the 50%, 60%…70% mark an extremely heart breaking proposition? If we keep “raising the bar”, then it becomes an accomplishment. If instead we realize we were never even close to 100% then it becomes a huge dissappointment.

    I remember somebody talking about cycling and how he felt like the entire race, his work outs, everything was about tricking himself. Fooling his mind. Creating ways to believe, because the moment he stopped to think about how much lied ahead of him, the harder it became to get there.

    I think we have to think in terms of accomplishment and to believe that we just need to push a little bit more, harder, and further or else the sheer bulk of what hasn’t been done will stop us in our tracks.

  3. Echoing everyone who has said it before me: you need a book.

    I would *gladly* plunk down the full price of a hardcover to read an extra +200 pages of your musings.

  4. Ellen,

    Great post. I won’t make fun of another 110% comment every again.

    I remember a playoff game where we had to win in order to advance to the next round. It was an industrial league, long after my youth hockey, and several players gave up on our team because they felt we didn’t have a chance. We played with only 6 forwards and myself and 2 others on defence. We lost the game 3 – 2 and I didn’t believe that I could go out time and time again but ended up playing over 45 minutes and survived. Your lead paragraph brought back that memory.

    I remember a story that Gretzky told, I think it was from his autobiography. The night the Oilers lost the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals to the Islanders, he and Kevin Lowe were walking out of the arena and passing the Islander’s dressing room. They thought that there would be a lot of celebrating but what they noticed was more important. Trottier was icing a painful knee. Potvin was getting stuff rubbed on his shouler. Guys were limping around with black eyes and bloody mouths. Gretzky and Lowe made note of the fact that the Oilers were perfectly fine and healthy. That’s why the Isles won and the Oilers lost. They took more punishment, dove into more boards, stuck their faces in front of more pucks, threw their bodies into more pileups. They sacrificed everyting they had. That’s when Kevin Lowe said ‘That’s how you win championships’”

  5. I love 110%. Because, if I can say 110%, I can say 125%. Well, make that 150%. O.K., let’s get silly, how’s 1001%?
    This is all possible because the impossibility of even 101% is 100% true. Getting to 110% is as mathematically possible as an all Canadian Stanley Cup Final…which means fans North of the Border will be putting in at least 125% of a cheering effort in the 1012-13 year.

  6. Good lord are your “insights” inane.

  7. total bullshit
    you clearly have not fucking idea what 100% actually is
    if you gave 100% you would be dead since it would kill you
    people don’t even remotely get close to 100%
    just because it hurts or is hard doesn’t mean its 100%
    if you can still walk afterwards its not 100%

  8. First off, learn what ‘percent’ means.

    In the context that you are using it (effort). 100% is everything. Period.

    Sure, people can do better with hard work and determination, but that does not mean you are giving more than 100% just because you achieved a personal best. You give everything you have, that’s 100% effort. If you work hard and you grow stronger/get better. You are still giving no more than 100%

    A baby can try his hardest to walk, if he falls down does that mean he’s not giving 100%?

    That same baby 1 year later is walking around, is he giving 150%? 200%?

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