Young athletes are often introduced to the old saw that there is no “I” in team. On its surface, the message seems obvious: the team only succeeds when the individual puts his or her own needs aside. Those needs generally mean thinking that we should be playing a certain desired role, get a huge portion of playing time, and receive the lion’s share of the attention. Instead, this dictum succinctly reminds us to sublimate the self in order for the common good to succeed. Any thought of the self, this statement suggests, is selfish.
The problem is that this statement is often offered to rather young athletes, people for whom the concept of joining a collective is not yet developmentally appropriate. We may remember that becoming husbands, wives, co-workers and citizens is a pretty advanced developmental step, because doing these tasks successfully involves already having a pretty fully formed sense of self to bring to those relationships. But, young athletes, from pre-little league to almost the end of college, are caught up in the tasks of defining self-hood. That is their full time job. So, telling a latency-aged or adolescent athlete to have no thought of themselves is a developmentally confusing message. Furthermore, ignoring athletes’ developmental level often leads to behavior that seems downright selfish. That is, the more we try to tell the athlete to not have a big self, the more we will see that self asserting itself in ever more frantic ways.
So, what am I saying? Am I suggesting that young athletes cannot join teams? Absolutely not! But, what I am suggesting is that parents and coaches help clarify for young athletes what their role is in any given team situation so that the young athlete can be invested wholeheartedly in mastering that role. Fulfilling that role to the best of the young person’s ability, then, can be the way they show up in their full selfness for the team or athletic moment. In essence, I am arguing for a concept of self-fullness over selfishness.
To make this difference between more clear, let me give a simple chart comparing common forms of selfish behavior in an athlete and how that can be redirected to more a more self-full orientation.
The Selfish Athlete
The Self-Full Athlete
The selfish athlete feels as though s/he needs and deserves to play the starring role (quarterback, pitcher, batting clean-up, short stop), get the lion’s share of playing time, make the winning play. The selfish athlete does not see the value of practice.
The self-full athlete knows his/her role on the team and delights in learning and excelling at that role. The self-full athlete enjoys both practice and game time, and sees them as both valuable opportunities to master their role.
The selfish athlete cannot tolerate setbacks, and blames teammates and referees for them. The selfish athlete throws temper tantrums in the face of these setbacks.
The self-full athlete feels but manages intense disappointment, and has a balanced appraisal of blame and fault. S/he does not make a spectacle of him/herself in victory or defeat.
Since, for any athlete, a loss represents a threat to the self, the selfish athlete takes losing as an opportunity to quit. Quitting is never far from the mind of the selfish athlete.
The self –full athlete abides a loss. And based on that perseverance, s/he can mine the valuable data that a loss presents. The self-full athlete gains strength from a loss.
The selfish athlete can’t really identify any reason they play the sport.
The self-full athlete can quickly identify several reasons why they love playing their sport, aspects that make them feel more alive.
There are a few important lessons here for coaches, and parents, and athletes.
- For coaches: make sure to clarify for your athletes what their role is at every moment, and what success looks like in that role. Role clarification is not just good for the team dynamics, it’s an essential component of good team performance.
- For parents: from a very early age with your athlete, adopt a mastery orientation over an ego orientation (see http://altiusperformanceworks.blogspot.com/2013/03/sport-parents-ii-ego-mastery_6.html), and make sure to model that orientation in your own life. If you espouse it, but don’t believe it, your young athlete will detect the difference and be more aligned with your intent than with your message.
- For athletes: if you notice that the comments in the left-hand column of my grid apply to you, maybe it’s time to re-assess your commitments, and either reconnect with your primal joy for your sport, or, in fact, find another endeavor. In moments of wavering affiliation, always come back to what you love about your sport, how it feels when you do it right, how uncluttered it feels to have intention and action so closely linked. It feels great. It feels like flying. It feels so full of self, that, at its far edges, it feels selfless. Those are moments when you’re ready to attach yourself to a bigger canvas, a bigger picture, a bigger plan.