Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Is your team a cross country team or a soccer team?

While touring a college campus with my daughter, one of her prospective cross country team mates said something that gave me pause. In effect, her statement was that she really liked cross country because everybody on the team was always pushing for you to do your best. Also, she continued, it's nice to know that you either succeeded or failed because of your own effort and training, not because of anyone else. I've thought about this for quite some time and I realize there is a VERY big distinction between "individual" sports like wrestling, swimming, or cross country... and "team" sports like soccer, football, or basketball. These differences are important not just on the playing field, but in any situation that requires teamwork.

On "team" sports, you very often will have competition within the team that actually works against the team's objective. Additionally, individual team members may have to forgo performing at the best of their ability because of a particular game situation. For example, there are many good reasons for a soccer player to NOT dribble the ball when they have possession: They could be covered by a good defender, they might not actually be a very good dribbler, or they might have a teammate in a much better position to do something productive. This means at any given moment, they need to not only take into account their own situation, but the situation of 21 other people plus a ball and a referee or three.

With an individual sport, it is the performance of an individual that is paramount. In cross country, I supposed there are situations where it might be good to lose a few places individually in order to help pace a teammate, but there is not really as complex an interaction with the other players on the field. Put another way, the SPORT of cross country doesn't require as much social intelligence as something like soccer... it is much more purely sport for sport's sake and a measure of an individual's ability to perform.

At the end if the day, both styles of team are important and beneficial, but from my observation, there are some interesting implications. First, on a "team" sport, there are often social conflicts due to the complex interplay of individuals and game situations. On an "individual" sport, I think these conflicts are less common (or severe). It seems like this is because even if two cross country teammates are in fierce competition with each other... they're only helping the team and each other out and making both stronger. In contrast, if two soccer teammates are in fierce competition with each other, nothing good will happen and it will likely destroy the team.

When working with teams in general, it's important to understand if the situation is a "individual" situation, or if it is a "team" situation. If you're trying to motivate a team and it's more important that each individual do their best and the individual's contribution ONLY has positive effects, foster and reward the individual regardless of the performance of everyone else. If, on the other hand, your team has more complex interactions, it becomes more important to be sure to let players know when they might need to behave in a more altruistic manner for the good of the team.

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