Individual sports teach team values

The women’s swimming and diving team had an historic weekend. Nine school records fell as eight different Bulldogs scratched out old names and entered their own in the Yale record book. But the team finished third, behind Princeton and Harvard. Taken totally out of context, a Yale team that finishes third, especially with the Tigers and Crimson in first and second, would not consider its effort a success.

What is thought-provoking about this juxtaposition of record-setting individual performances and a bronze medal team showing is that swimming, like many other sports, is an individual sport dressed up for collegiate purposes as a team sport. Nevertheless, athletes placed onto a team of any variety are still teammates. They can’t avoid it. And sports of this nature perhaps display that fact better than more traditional team sports.

Other sports of the “individual-but-team” ilk include track, wrestling, tennis and golf, none of which is considered a team event at the highest level. Michael Phelps never really needed to concern himself with the performance of his fellow U.S. Olympians. First place is first place, and whoever finishes second, whether American or Australian or Chinese, is just another competitor tenths of a second too slow.

It’s rare that competitors in these sports really even pay attention to the performances of their teammates. Those who do likely put themselves at a disadvantage, as they spend too much time supporting their companions and too little time focusing on their own event to come. Indeed, individuals competing for themselves under the guise of competing for a team are faced with a tremendous conflict of interest. On one side, they can decide to pay attention only to themselves, in which case, on the surface, they appear selfish. On the other side, they can sacrifice their own performance to support the team. However, this act of selflessness actually detracts from the team’s end results, making it ultimately worthless. The answer is clearly to worry about oneself, to eliminate any outside distractions from one’s mind and to execute. But that seems to defy the common laws of teamwork.

If this is a verifiable conflict of interest, then why does it even exist? Probably because colleges and universities are obsessed with being number one, and it’s hard to determine that without having a way of ranking teams in some way. Thus, an artificial team aspect is installed into individual sports.

To provide for this team aspect, most of these individual sports assign a number of points to a given performance. In swimming, placing first in a race merits 30 points for your team’s overall score. In wrestling, an individual accrues team points by advancing through the bracket, winning by pin being worth more than by points, continuing on the championship side of the draw worth more than on the consolation side. At any rate, the tallies are artificially assigned outside the real competition.

But maybe this type of sport truly identifies what teamwork and playing on a team is all about. Every team sport is about doing one’s best as an individual in order to contribute to the greater whole. A team centered totally around one standout cannot truly succeed. Whereas a team with depth, with a core group of performers all dedicated to self and thereby to each other, usually excels. Such is the case for many of these “individual-but-team” sports.

I return to swimming to prove this point. Relays are one of the last remnants of team competition in both swimming and track. But in reality, especially in swimming, where there is no handoff, the way a single competitor can best contribute to the relay team is still just by performing his or her best, never relying on direct interaction with teammates. Nevertheless, Michael Phelps, — whom I used as an example of how athletes in individual sports worry only about themselves — made a gesture worthy of national admiration.

On Aug. 20, 2004 in Athens, Phelps touched out countryman Ian Crocker by .04 seconds to win the 100-meter butterfly. Then, contradicting personal desire, Phelps turned over to Crocker his newly won and much-coveted spot in the 400-meter medley relay. Both Phelps and the U.S. coaches conceded that Crocker, 21, was one of the finest relay racers in the world, boasting a relay takeoff far superior to that of the 19-year-old Phelps. That Phelps recognized what seemed best for the U.S. team’s chances of winning gold and set aside his own (no doubt enormous) ego in order to make that happen is truly remarkable.

In any sport or competition where groups are united under a banner, whether of their country or their school, a team aspect exists. And athletes competing in individual sports will reveal themselves as superb or poor teammates no matter what. That’s just the way it is.

Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His columns usually appear on Wednesdays.

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