We love our teams, and beyond sports many other professions, particularly businesses, have taken to the team approach. We need team players, they always say. We need people who are willing to do not only their part, but also make personal sacrifices for the betterment of the team. It’s “next man up,” when a teammate suffers a setback. There are many values that we can learn from the team environment, whether it is sports or business. We are all familiar with the lessons.
A while ago, I had a conversation with a very successful high school and college wrestler who I was working out with. We talked about the similarities we shared in our experiences when it comes to competing in individual sports.
Individual sports are dynamic in that it is you out there alone. And while there is nothing worse than feeling like you let down the team, there is something different about knowing that success or failure is completely up to you. It is both liberating and terrifying.
Individual sports reveal character. There is not a team to hide behind, to blame, or to ride the coat tails. In individual sports, you are accountable for your performance. If you lose, it can be humbling and you know you need to work harder. If you win, you get to celebrate your effort and the accolades are yours alone. If you quit, you quit on yourself—and you know it.
Individual sports also build character. It is not easy losing, and it is not easy losing to friends or foes—or in front of your fans. It teaches you how to be a good winner—there is far less “showboating” in individual sports. Sure, there are cocky players and athletes, but usually there is also great respect between competitors—and a shared love of the game. If you act like an idiot each time you win or lose, you will lose that respect and will be shunned by other players. Win or lose, you learn how to shake hands at the end of the contest.
I also think that individual sports build work ethic. In individual sports, the competition is the field—you against everyone else. There is a tremendous burden to work harder than all of the other athletes. In other words, if you know that one competitor is working out three hours a day, then there is pressure to work out three and a half hours a day. If your competitor is running five miles a day, then you have to run five and a half miles a day.
You also learn how to deal with expectations. Most athletes in individual sports start on the bottom and work their way up. They start as an underdog or unknown—without expectation. However, with success comes expectation and for those that make it to the highest level, the pressure can be difficult. Not only do friends, family and fans expect a certain level of performance, but your opponent is able to compete without anything to lose—and everything to gain.
Individual sports are a lot like the “real” world, in which you are on your own—and you are competing against others for jobs, spouses, etc. To get a job, you have to be better than every other candidate that applied—sort of like winning a golf or tennis tournament. There is only one winner. Of course, once you get the job, then you become part of team.
These tribulations can really help prepare teens and young adults for some of the challenges they might face in life. It takes real commitment—and while it can be “all about me,” it can also be the antidote to narcissism. Not everybody gets a trophy.
There is perhaps no better feeling than winning as a team and sharing that success with teammates. But being the best is pretty cool too.