I can think of no more human endeavor than exercising leadership. I also believe that leader or follower, no matter where you exist in the food chain, how well you do at either comes down to how you interact with others, and what you demand of yourself. Isn’t that the essence of any good employee, at whatever level? Is there any profession whereby your success is solely contingent upon your efforts in isolation of others? Whereby you can exist in a bubble? I cannot see how one can really get around the people aspect in their professional lives. At some point you will have to interview for a job, or market yourself or your product to someone. While of course there is a sliding scale of how significant an impact your interpersonal skills have on your professional success, I think it is fair to say that it will never be at zero. It is for this reason that I think team sports are excellent in teaching life skills. In a team setting, you are never the sole determiner of your fate. It is an important lesson to learn.
Team sports require you to think of the collective first. The adage, “There is no ‘I’ in team,” is absolutely true. A selfish motivation will rarely yield the best results, but if you are truly vested in the team, and are motivated by a desire to not disappoint your teammates and coaches, the team stands a better chance of rising to the occasion. You quickly realize that Aristotle really was a smart dude, and knew what he was talking about when he said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” I would rather lose on a team that plays as a team, than win with a team of individuals. That team of individuals will meet their match at some point, and when they do, it will not end well for them. I say that from personal experience.
Teams are comprised of a variety of individuals with different strengths and weaknesses, and are asked to perform in specific roles. Diversity on a sports team is not related to gender or race, but rather diversity of skill set. A volleyball team comprised of natural setters is likely to struggle. You need your hitters, middle blockers, defensive specialists, and libero to have a balanced team and increase the odds of success against a variety of opponents. It allows flexibility to adjust the tactics for each match. Everyone has a role, and teammates develop respect for each other in their ability to perform in that role. Players learn to trust, respect, and rely on their teammate for the skill set that they bring to the table, knowing that they need them to win. If you will be working in a multidisciplinary organization in the future, or even in a collaborative or team setting, recognizing the value of other roles will be beneficial.
Team sports are set within a certain context. They are constrained by the laws of the game, and there are the differing perspectives of the two opposing teams, spectators, coaches, and officials. The playing conditions can vary depending on the environment or weather. Some days the wind blows at your back, and others you have the sun in your eyes. Some days the ref misses a call and it works out in your favour, other times lady luck is not at your side. You learn to develop a winning attitude that encompasses a respect for those in a position of influence over you as a player (the coach, the officials), and a resiliency to adapt to adverse conditions that you cannot change or influence such as weather. You do not choose your teammates, yet you are required to work with them. As in life, there are times when there is very little you can do to influence the parameters upon you, regardless, you need to make the most of those conditions.
It goes without saying that commitment, effort, discipline, physical or technical ability, strategic or tactical awareness, game sense are all components that combine to form the foundation of any athlete. But, these traits alone will not generate the best team without what I mention in the above paragraphs. It is when these are combined that teams truly start to realize their goals, and the natural leaders of the pack emerge. Those leaders, the team captain, may be the most technical player, but my not-so-scientific gut and experience tells me that technical ability is rarely what determines the leader. It is their attitude. It is their ability to remain calm and focused. You do not see them ranting and raving at the officials. You do not see them whining. You do not see them give up. You see them communicate on and off the field, verbally and non-verbally. You see them motivate. They embody the mantra of team first, and strive towards individual excellence so that they can contribute to the team to the absolute best of their ability. If you have been around teams at all, you know what I mean when you say that you can see the team leader emerge.
Growing up in a small town, going to a small university, and being part of a small military, I have always been on teams where we were the underdogs. We had to be the little engines that could. We had to out-work and out-smart if we had any hope. Every individual player had to be committed to the team goal and focus on what we could influence, and if the stars aligned we could perhaps have a positive result. More often than not, those stars did not align. But, we learned as much from those results, if not more, than from the little successes we may have had. I had a coach that used to say he could accept a loss, but he could not accept a loss for lack of team effort. I still won’t step onto the soccer pitch with dirty cleats because my U12 coach said that dirty cleats were a sign you didn’t care enough and you weren’t ready to play. Think of that translation to adult life – present yourself in a professional manner that demonstrates confidence and preparedness.
I could go on with a long list of gems I have gleaned from coaches over the years, and while I fully realize that these gems also come from other avenues, I still maintain that I am who I am today because of team sports. They are a vehicle for life lessons. One of the most important things I can do for my children, and for other youth in my community, is to volunteer in youth sport organizations so that kids do not miss out on the opportunity for some very valuable lessons in life.