The recent sporting headlines revealed the exploits of many Olympics athletes, who rose above from the shadows of obscurity and anonymity to establish themselves as transcendent superstars. The signature image of the Olympics featured the exploits of Usain Bolt, and the indomitable and historic achievement of Michael Phelps.
However, as one sits down and tries to absorb the magnanimity and surrealism of their achievement, a particular unresolved and inconclusive debate comes to the fore. The Olympics wasn’t all about the Jamaican speedster, or the American swimmer. Every medal in the Olympics was special, whether it eulogized the individual or a team.
So, why is that the exploits of the enterprising and intrepid Mexican football team remains diminished in the face of the exploits of David Rudisha and Usain Bolt. Why does a Hector Herrera or Oribe Peralta not feature in the same rostrum in the minds of fans all over the globe. These players lose their identity amidst the spangle that coronates the El Tricolor brigade. But should these players complain about the same, or rather derive pride and satisfaction from their combined efforts?
The team as they say is more important than the individual, but what is the value for individual recognition in the world of sports? What is the basis that can help us resolve the debate between individual sports and team sports? The paradigms are varied, and the qualities too diverse to compare.
Individual sports showcase the skill, talent and the pedigree of a singular athlete. The arena has the players as the center of attraction, where they are left to themselves; nobody to cover their slip-ups, nobody to help them stand when they are faltering. They are surrounded by a vast assembly of fans egging them on, critics and skeptics prying on their moves, ready with a scathing response to every mistake and a bloviating extolling of every moment of success. The arena echoes with the songs and rants of the vociferous crowd, causing their heart to pulsate ever so fast, and making it tough for their minds to think clearly amidst the cloud of hype and expectations. It is up to their temperament to be fazed by it or to derive the extra adrenaline and effort to overcome the obstacle. The grit, determination, and perseverance; the sweat, the blood and the pain, all those hours in the gym comes down to just the one question, “who wants it more?”
The motivation and the strength has to come from within their own self, the courage and the certitude needs to be garnered and the thoughts need to be collected. He can’t fall back on any shoulders, and has to rely on his mind and body to carry him through, his ideas, his plans, his strategies and the will and desire to execute the same. Maybe, the best example of the same would be the historic duels between Frazier and Mohammad Ali. Three fights, 41 rounds, lots of bloodshed, quite a few bones broken, many a sporting memory created, and a fight that just didn’t see two individuals fight each other, but fight the doubts and limitations in their head, a test to see how much can they take. Ali might have won the series, but the fight between these two greats still remains unresolved. The duel was much above the scores, the media, the money, and the differing ideologies. It was a duel between two men who just didn’t know how to lose. Greatness indeed!
The team sport on the other hand is an optimistic assemblage of talent, with a hope that the individuals can come together, adding up their talents to produce greatness. Ideally this makes sense, but the reality is very different. The dynamics of a team can’t be easily quantified by just the sheer weight of individual skill and promise. To ensure that the combined talents add up and gel together, players need to make an effort to adapt and mould their abilities, mentalities and playing styles to complement the other members of the team. The clash of egos, the difference in opinion, the sacrifices, the responsibilities, the motivation and the support are the various facets that every team possesses and gives the team’s its own distinctive identity.
The advantages of team-play are huge. When you are tired, beaten up and lacking confidence, there is nothing more comforting than the luxury of looking over your shoulder to find somebody in the same color as yours taking over, patting your back, picking you up, saying those few words of wisdom into your ear. The very feeling that somebody is there to cover your back, in case you fail, somebody ready to take a hit for you, somebody who is going to run with you, fight with you, put his body on the line and believe that you will do the same for him, the belief that when the moment comes he can trust you to return the favor, the belief that the glory and the fall won’t fall on his shoulders alone but will be shared by the whole team, define the very essence of a team. Maybe the best example of this would be the 1980 USA ice hockey team. The team that had a core of amateur college players would go on to shock the Ice Hockey Universe, winning the gold medal in the Winter Olympics. The team wasn’t given a chance by the pundits, huge underdogs who would go on to script history. The victory was memorable as the united efforts of the team would held them surpass and supersede the indomitable Russian and Swedish teams. The efforts of this team were very beautifully summed up in the immortal lines “do you believe in miracles….yes”.
But yes, the sport and the media is pagan by nature and the sporting fraternity driven by its obsession to put stars into hierarchy and order ensures that achievements in both fields are quintessentially categorized and patterned. Legends, Stars, Bust-ups; the three major categories that these players see themselves classified into.
A living example of the same would be the christening of Bolt as the greatest of all time after he successfully defended his 100m and 200m crowns. But the other side of the fence isn’t as rosy, with skeptics and pundits ready to rip apart even minuscule mistakes by an athlete. Be it the singular time when Mike Tyson was knocked out by the little-known “Buster” Douglas. Tyson was 42-1 till then, and the world champion, but the shock victory unseated him from the throne and caused people to brand his career to be over. The intense media criticism and negative sleigh ride was uncalled for, and had a severe negative impact on the belief and confidence of Tyson, who struggled to vindicate himself after that debacle. Unjust as it may seem, this is the way the uncompromising world of sport operates and the severe down-side of failing as an individual athlete.
On the other hand it may seem that the players involved in team sports are spared of the two extremes of attention and spotlight. Well, it may be true for the majority of the squad; maybe for the role players, and the lesser significant cogs of the team. This is because every team is identified through its leader, someone who commands respect and is the most pivotal player in the team. The leadership qualities are very important in a team, to ensure that the whole team gets a purpose, and is just not a confused mix of individuals trying to make reason of each other’s abilities, and impose each other’s will and ideas. The laurels rest with these stars and leaders while the role players are devoid of much of the spotlight. On the downside, the leader also has to take most of the blame for the team’s failure. A great example of this is the scathing criticism that the USA basketball team had to go through after failing to win the gold at the Athens Olympics. The star-studded team made up of the leading players in the NBA, would falter against Lithuania and this caused a barrage of criticism on the duo of Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. The two stars didn’t have a very inspiring Olympics, but considering the quality of the team, it wasn’t fair to single them out for the loss. The two stars would never make themselves available for the USA team again, hurt and disgruntled on being used as guinea pigs.
The major advantage of the individual sport is that the player can design and plan his strategies to suit his abilities and complement his strengths, and give him a chance to express himself in the best possible way. However, the individual brilliance may sometimes be bogged down in team sports. The players in a team have a responsibility towards each other and the team and have to play a brand and style that satisfies and suits the strengths and needs of the entire collective talent of the team, rather than focusing on a single individual. Many a great individuals have suffered, being bogged down by their responsibilities to their team-mates, sacrificing their individual brilliance for the greater good of the team. It also several happens that a great individual player never gets a good enough supporting cast to transform his talents into success. A great example of the same would be the insuperable Brian Lara, who in spite of wining respect from all quarters due to his batting skills, turned up on the losing side more often than not due to a less than impressive supporting cast. If only Lara had been born a few decades earlier and featured in the indomitable West Indian squad of the 1980’s, his legacy would have been much greater.
Another major distinction between the two paradigm’s is the varied approaches to high pressure situations and the possible temperamental issues involved. Sport be it physical or not, is always about how you can focus and control your emotions and channelize your energies in the most effective way. In an individual sport, the player may end up succumbing to such demands, and with no teammates to look for help, may end up trying too hard. This rash attitude and loss of control can cause him to get over-aggressive, lose a grip over the scheme of things. Many an individual sport encounters are not judged by the difference in skill and talent, but just by a measure of who responds well to pressure. The pressure in a team sport is somewhat distributed, but still the temperamental problems reside in the sport. And the issue with team sports is that, the whole team needs to keep its focus and control over the situation. A temperamental lapse by a single player can cost the whole team dear.
However, on a more objective scale the issue of personal motivation and desire in an individual sport and that of combined responsibility, sharing and sacrifices in a team come down to the individual’s intelligence and his sagacious ability to understand and put his resources to the best use. In an individual duel, his assets are his confidence, perseverance, energy and skill-set. He needs to chart his strategies and adapt to the changing tides as per his abilities. In a team, the individual’s resources aren’t limited to just himself. He has the combined talents of his team-mates along with his ability. Then it is upto him to decide on the best course of action, to find the easiest way to win. He doesn’t need to push his limits in search of the spectacular, but rather be wise and look to do the simple things. Thus though people might say that there is no “I” in a team, the “I” is what defines the team. A successful team requires all the I’s to come together, understand their combined strength and weakness, adapt their game to the same, sacrifice their individual talents, shed their ego’s and pride and be selfless. The resources are different, and so are the weaknesses, but the mentality on a very objective level remains the same.
A responsible “I” can lead the team to greatness, while an “I” lacking the right attitude and temperament can handicap the team’s chances. The very idea of sports is to find and identify the “I” inside you, and channelize the “I” in the right direction. The dramatics, the hysteria, the path to glory all can be accomplished if and only if the player acts smartly as a responsible individual. This is the very essence of sports, the basis and the secret of winning. The laurels and the accolades might not always come to the deserving, but true sportstars and heroes don’t play for such material benefits. The true mark of a real sportsman is best defined by these famous lines.
Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down because you told them the truth. And that truth is you did everything you could. There wasn’t one more thing you could’ve done. Can you live in that moment as best you can, with clear eyes, and love in your heart, with joy in your heart? If you can do that gentleman – you’re perfect!