Leading Fredonia Hockey: Mike Freeman On Emotional Intelligence, Culture, And Why The World Doesn’t Care About Your Excuses

Fredonia Hockey senior captain, Mike Freeman (image by Joe Conti)

Mike Freeman might be the most emotionally intelligent student-athlete I’ve ever coached, as he says, “. . . having a delicate touch when I need to, but also being a hard-ass when I need to too, and not really caring about the fallout.”

I wanted to know where that intelligence comes from, and how it helps him captain Fredonia’s most prominent sports team.

Our conversation started by recalling February 3rd, 2018:

Ryan Maloney: You were scratched at the end of last year for Pink The Rink against Oswego. Can you take me from then until now?

Mike Freeman: That was especially hard because that’s when all the families are here; my parents flew into town from California. It’s never easy to hear that you’re scratched; I remember going into Coach’s office and saying, “Hey, what’s going on? Why am I out?” I felt like I was playing fine. He said, “You need to go take a look at your clips from last game and get a more objective look at it,” which I did. He said, “You can take clips out and come in my office and we’ll talk about them.” I watched the first period of clips and I was like, “Okay, I see the changes I need to make,” so I went back to him and said, “I don’t even need to have that conversation with you. I know what I’m doing wrong.” It’s hard to take an objective look at yourself, but I think if you can set emotions aside and make an honest effort to improve it will only benefit you in the long run. I feel like that’s what I did, and since then I don’t think it’s been a question that I’ve cemented a lineup spot.

Maloney: What were the things you needed to change?

Freeman: They were just minor things: Stuff positionally, hesitation in certain areas when I just needed to stop overthinking and go. Honestly, whenever I’ve been in a funk or feel like I haven’t been playing well, if I start talking more on the ice, even if it seems pointless–calling for a pass or letting someone know I’m there when I know I’m not going to get that pass, “Back here! Back here if you need me.”–that always pulls me out of my own head and brings me back into the moment of the game.

Maloney: So now it’s more about other people than about you.

Freeman: Exactly, because if I just sit and don’t say much during a game–even on the bench–if I’m not saying anything I’m not actively engaged in the game. I’m sure that can sometimes annoy people, but that’s what I need to do to make sure I’m in the zone.

Maloney: Were you surprised when you were named captain?

Freeman: I’m not going to say I was surprised–and that’s not coming from a place of cockiness or arrogance–but there was a lot more communication between me and Jeff (Head Men’s Hockey Coach, Jeff Meredith) over summer. And that’s not something I did in the past two summers–it would be once a month or once every two months, just a quick call or a text, “Hey, how are you? How’s summer going?”, just to maintain some communication. This summer I was talking to Jeff weekly, if not biweekly about, “What do we need to do once we get here? What do you want the first couple of weeks to look like?” Stuff like that, and just keeping in touch personally, casual conversation. I’m not going to say I was surprised, but it’s still an honor and you feel a lot of emotion when you hear that.

Maloney: What were the things you were talking about specifically–the things you needed to do to prepare for the fall?

Freeman: A big focus for me–and Jim (Morgan), because Jim stepped up the conversation as well–the biggest thing was paperwork, the actual minutia of, “What do we need to have from the guys in terms of SWOL forms and athletic compliance?” I was hounding Jeff all the time: “Send us all the forms we can do so we can all get together that first week and bang them out so we don’t have to worry about it.” Because he told us at the end of last season, “You guys won’t have access to your locker room until we have all the necessary paperwork in.” That was my number one goal, to get all these papers in so we don’t have to deal with not having our locker room.

Maloney: So when you are having these conversations over the summer was it Coach saying, “I want you and you to step up and do this.”?

Freeman: No.

Maloney: What was that process like?

Freeman: That was me and Jim staying in communication, saying “What do we need to do to get our locker room?” That’s not something that’s happened before. Looking back it lit a fire under us to do that. He never explicitly said that we needed to be the ones spearheading this to get all the information in. Frankly, we’re coming off a tough season where we lost in the championship game, and we scratched and clawed to get there. Maybe there was a touch of an entitled feeling, but we saw that’s what we had to do to get it back and that’s what we did.

Maloney: You said it’s hard to be objective about yourself, but if I could ask you to be a little bit objective, why were you named captain? What makes you stand out?

Freeman: I feel like I’m just willing to do certain things that people realize need to be done, but might not have the get-up-and-go to deal with. There’s a lot of stuff I deal with on a weekly basis that I don’t really want to do. I don’t necessarily want to have to sit in on the tough conversations with Jeff about who’s doing their job and who isn’t. I don’t necessarily want to be the one who has to sit down with a guy and say, “You need to step it up.” But I just feel like I can navigate those situations better than my peers right now, and that’s not a knock on anybody at all. Just having a delicate touch when I need to, but also being a hardass when I need to too, and not really caring about the fallout.

Maloney: I would agree in the sense that I think you have more emotional intelligence than anyone else right now.

Freeman: Thank you.

Maloney: Where does that come from? Is it something you always had?

Freeman: Honestly, I attribute the incredible bulk of my success to my older brother, Thomas. I was a younger brother all the time: He’s four years older than me, he’s my only sibling, my favorite hockey team is his favorite hockey team, I started playing hockey because he was playing hockey, and I played for the junior organization he played for. I followed in his footsteps in almost every area. He’s a tremendous person; he showed me how to be who I am now, frankly. It’s hard to describe; it’s emotional, and I have to take a step back after having been away from him for so many years to realize how much I’ve followed him. I just think he set a tremendous example for me. I’m excited, he’s coming up this weekend. It’s going to be fun.

Maloney: So what now? You’re in the captain role, you’re doing hard things, so where are we at in your mind?

Freeman: I always see the areas for improvement. It’s tough to not get bogged down trying to make everything as tight as it can possibly be. I guess I find myself focusing on what we need to fix rather than what’s on track. But overall–and this goes for all four of my years here–we have a great group of guys who genuinely care about each other, who genuinely want to see us do well. I think all of our success stems from that. We have a great culture in the room that we’ve been cementing over the last two years. We got a taste of success last year, so people know what that’s like. We’ve had some adversity this year in our first periods. Basically, we’ve seen what makes us successful and what doesn’t, which is massive.

Maloney: You mentioned culture. Where does that come from for your team? I’ve noticed that on your team there are no “problem athletes.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “problem athlete” in my few years of working with this team. There’s nobody who’s not on board. Where does that come from?

Freeman: Jeff will do a lot of talking about last year’s seniors–the Jamie Young’s, the Oskar Gerhardson’s–they had to have some hard meetings and pull themselves out of the basement of the SUNYAC where they were the year before we got here. I think it started with them and it continued with my class coming in. Jeff stated multiple times that he recruited captains; most of the guys he called in from my class were either captains or assistants on their junior teams. I think that had a big part to do with it because these kids are automatically more responsible than their peers in a lot of ways, and they know how to handle themselves. I think the culture stems from a man, each guy coming in and knowing what works for them and what doesn’t. You have so much to figure out when you come into college, but as the younger guys keep coming in and see the older guys–your Todd Schauss, your Bobby Polachek, your Jon Carlson–who know their routines, who know what makes them successful, and who do it every day, it’s pretty easy to see, “Okay, this guy has his stuff figured out. I want to be more like him.” Then it stems down, and it breeds the culture.

Maloney: When you tested your hang clean with me you didn’t get the result you expected. I am so often in the habit of trying to build athletes up when they fail, by telling them it’s okay, that they’ll get there. I instinctively did that with you, and your only response was, “There’s no excuse.” Where did that mentality come from?

Freeman: In my household growing up it was always, “Why didn’t you take the garbage out?” I’d make up some excuse as a little kid and my mom’s like, “No, you need to take care of your stuff before you get to have fun.” You don’t make an excuse if you can’t get something done; you either find a way to get it done or you don’t. And if you don’t you learn from it and get better so one day you can get it done. That’s just how I try to operate and live my life. A big part of what I realized last year is that this isn’t school anymore–it’s just life. So you need to take care of your stuff or you’re not going to be successful in anything–there’s no excuse to be made. The world doesn’t care about your excuses; your boss doesn’t care about your excuses; get it done.

Maloney: It was this small moment for me: “Oh, yeah, you’re right.” I try to live my life that way but I don’t know that I’ve always done a good job expecting the athletes here to live their lives that way. It was an important moment for me, so thank you for that.

Freeman: Of course. I appreciate that you noticed that.

Maloney: Personally, what’s next for you? Either this season, this school year, or after graduation?

Freeman: I think what’s most important for me right now is to make sure that I get everything I can out of my time here, where I have 29 built-in friends. Like I said earlier, it’s hard to not get bogged down with things that are going wrong and trying to fix them. And I want to make sure that before I start freaking out about finding a job or a career, I’m getting everything I can out of the position I’m in. I think what’s next for me is just to keep on top of the day-to-day, get my stuff done, and just enjoy it.

Maloney: I like to end with this question for everyone: If you had to get a message out to every athlete in the department, what would you say?

Freeman: I would say something similar to what I just said: Make sure you enjoy it. Make sure you focus way more on the the positives than on the negatives. Everybody has something to complain about–within their team, or their life–but are you going to make that the focus or are you going to make the most of the incredible opportunity you have here, with these built-in friends and with people who care about you. Like I said, the world doesn’t care about you. Once you’re done here you’re on your own. Yes, you’ve got friends and family who care about you, but you’re not going to have anybody watching you on a day-to-day basis who genuinely gives a shit about what you’re doing. Just enjoy it. Take it for what it is, and don’t get bogged down on a day-to-day basis about things that aren’t going well.