There is no "I" in Team
All-Time Princeton great Chad Kanoff explores the importance of team sports and how being a part of a great team outweighed his individual awards.
I feel really lucky to have gotten to have played organized basketball, flag football, tackle football, soccer, volleyball, water polo, track and field, and baseball all before I entered high school. I just recently found out that the fact that 7/8 of those sports were team sports was not an accident; my parents specifically encouraged team sports instead of individual sports because they thought they provided the best learning opportunities outside of school. They couldn’t have been more correct. While you can learn a lot playing any sport, you learn even more playing team sports.
In team sports you really don’t have to be the best. You just have to help the team. Figuring out your role on a team is one of the most important things you learn to do. Sometimes you are the star player, sometimes you are just a practice player. Some of the best teammates most just show up everyday and work their butt off in practice. Without even playing in an actual game, you can have a huge influence, and get to revel in victories in a similar way to your teammates that are in the game.
Another great thing is walking into a room and meeting lots of new teammates. It’s almost cliche to say now, but sports really are a great uniter. People from different ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, faiths, and life experiences coming together to work towards a common goal. I haven’t found this sort of different group mixing in any other experience in my life, and am so grateful for the diverse group of friends its given me.
Moreover, you get to have a coach that decides who plays and what tactics you will do to win. It’s a lot like having a boss. You have good ones, bad ones, crazy ones, smart ones, stupid ones and everything in between. It forces you to learn to focus on just what you get to control, which is improving every day and not worrying about when the coach will call your number. Looking back on all the complaining I did about various coaches, I feel so lucky to have had them all. Even the craziest ones; I really feel like I can handle feedback given in any way and that I can find a way to work with anyone.
Lastly, the biggest and most important thing you learn in team sports is to shift your focus from ‘I’ to ‘We.’ In a team sport, you learn it needs to be all about we. It’s about the team winning, not about you individually winning. While it might feel good if you play at your best and you lose, it feels a lot better when you play poorly and win. I learned first hand the importance of this idea in college…
I won the starting job my junior year, or so I thought. Really there was no ‘job.’ I wasn’t entitled to anything. The only thing that mattered was that I went in first because that’s what my coach wanted (and by extension, what he thought best would help us win the game). When we’d get in the redzone, I would often be subbed out for a tremendously talented quarterback and athlete that now plays fullback for the Green Bay Packers. What started as just a redzone thing became an any time any drive thing.
As a competitor, you always want to play no matter what, and selfishly you want to be the one scoring the touchdowns. I definitely felt down when I would get pulled out, but that’s a natural way to feel and is ok initially. What is not ok is pouting, rooting for your teammate to do poorly, and not doing your job when you’re actually in. If I had done any of those things, I would actually be hurting the team. So instead, I just controlled what I could, and when I was out there (I still got to play over 80% of the snaps at QB), I did my best to be perfect. That year we won the Ivy League Championship, and the other QB that was subbing in for me won the player of the year after breaking a rushing touchdown record that had stood for 30 years.
The next year, I won player of the year, but our team didn’t come close to repeating as champs. I can tell you firsthand that I would trade the individual accomplishment year for the championship year 10/10 times. There is no greater feeling than working towards a goal with a group of people and then actually accomplishing that goal.
Play as many team sports as you can, be a good teammate, and you’ll learn more than you could ever learn in any class at school.