It’s hard to imagine that an 18-year-old lacrosse player who was selected fifth overall in the National Lacrosse League (NLL) draft – who was named to both the all-star and all-rookie teams in his inaugural season, who proceeded to win the NLL championship in each of his first three seasons in the league, and who made the shortlist of the Lou Marsh Award for Canada’s top athlete in 2014 – would struggle with confidence or have trouble fitting in with a team.
But these are challenges that Johnny Powless has had to overcome in his relatively short career.
Powless, 23, grew up on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve in Ontario, which he refers to as a lacrosse community. “I was pretty much born into it,” he says. “Started playing when I was four. My dad played, my uncles played, my cousins – so that’s how it started and since I was little I had dreams of playing pro.”
He trained and played with other players his own age from Six Nations throughout his youth, winning the Midget Canadian Nationals in 2009 with Team Iroquois as tournament MVP, before entering Junior “A” as a 17-year-old. Despite leading the Ontario Junior “A” league in goals scored and claiming rookie of the year honours, Powless says he struggled to fit in.
“That was the thing I struggled with and I still struggle with today is just trying to fit in with the team,” he says. “When I was that young guy at 17 I didn’t talk to any of the guys who were 21.”
Powless entered the NLL draft as an 18-year-old after his second season in Junior. He suddenly found himself surrounded by guys who were more than a decade older than him. Again, the feelings of being welcomed and supported were missing. He played three years in Rochester, New York before being traded to Vancouver for a year. “I don’t know what happened, but I just did not fit in,” he recalls of his time in Vancouver. “It was hard because it was a pretty big change of scenery for me and the dynamic was different.”
For competition to be meaningful it must create experiences that support learning for the competitors. Competition should contribute to the positive development of all athletes. Feelings of disconnect from one’s team can hurt the competition experience, and Powless says that his confidence would get easily shaken in those first few years as a professional. “If I had a bad game or I didn't score that kind of stuff could get in my head and affect my confidence and affect my next game and maybe the next one after that, so it's really important to be confident in yourself.”
Over the past few years, Powless has come to understand the importance of mental preparation. “You have to put in the work at training and in the gym, of course, but the biggest part is the mental component and how you think about things,” he says. “You’ve got to be confident in yourself and believe you can compete at whatever level you’re at.”
Coaching also plays a critical role within an athlete’s competition experience. Having experienced the highest levels of competition in both the Aboriginal and mainstream sport systems, Powless says he’s fortunate to have had constructive coaches. “I was pretty fortunate to never have any of those big screamers who put their players down. Those are the kinds of guys I can’t really connect with, guys who are just yelling at you the whole time . . . that’s a big key is to be positive towards your players, especially at that Junior age. At 17 and 18 we are just young men and we're going through a bunch of changes.”
At 23 Powless is still a “young” lacrosse player, despite all he has accomplished so far. For his part he’s now trying to make the competition experience of those around him as positive as possible. “Since I’m a veteran guy now and I’ve been through what I’ve been through, I just try to talk to the younger guys and try to make them feel welcome and a part of the team right away.”