A FEW WEEKENDS AGO, the American Ryder Cup team received its now routine drubbing by the European team in their biennial matches. As they usually do, the Americans boasted a far stronger team on paper than the Europeans, and so it’s not without merit that the Americans come away scratching their heads about what happened…yet again. People often comment on how difficult it can be for people to play individual sports in team format, moving from competing for yourself to competing for a collective. But, this answer is insufficient because the Europeans are making a similar switch. So where are we to look?
In some research I did comparing international and American squash players, I looked at the various messages these players were receiving from their environment (parents, coaches, and peers) on their squash participation to try to answer a similar question: what made the international players seemingly more invested and more successful than their American rivals at pulling off the switch between playing for themselves and playing for a team? Here’s what I found:
1. American players received the message from early on in their playing careers that playing squash could help them get ahead in life, whereas the international group in the study received the message that playing squash could be a good way to have fun, meet other squash players, and see the world. That is, their participation was framed less in terms of personal advancement and more in terms of personal engagement with a broader canvas outside the self.
2. International squash parents were less part of the atmosphere of competition, whereas American parents were seen directing all aspects of the athlete’s experience. Thus, participating in sport was seen, by international parents, as a developmental move away from parental control, whereas American sport participation was experienced as staying connected to the parental orbit. In that sense, international sport participation was viewed as moving out into the world to form new bonds, and American participation was seen as strengthening familial bonds and controls.
3. International squash players learned from an early age that major decisions about continuing or discontinuing sport participation resided within them, whereas American athletes were often kept on track by parents, who made all of their coaching, scheduling, and tournament decisions.
In short, everything about the international experience moved that athlete closer to the collective, whereas everything about the American experience moved that athlete more closely to themselves and their parents, with more limited reference points for success and achievement. If we apply this rubric to the American Ryder Cup experience, we can see some of these forces manifest. The Americans have more superstars, which means that for them, the necessary lowering of ego boundaries required for successful team play is much harder. This phenomenon is a version of our well-touted cultural “individualism” at work. Secondly, it appears that their team leadership, Tom Watson, had a similar, insular vision of his own powers, when he engaged in unilateral, non-inclusive decision-making, and expected excellent play just because he, Tom Watson, demanded it.
The European superstar, Rory McIlroy, was quoted as saying: “Personally for me, it puts the icing on the cake of what's been a fantastic summer, and obviously looking forward to more Ryder Cups and more great weeks with these guys." And, of his Sunday singles match: “I was probably up for this match more than I was for the final rounds of the majors I won this summer.” Can you imagine Tiger Woods making such comments?
So: the future success of American team golf will reside in the next team’s captain’s ability to break down the very strongly enforced value of American exceptionalism. It is not impossible, as the last successful Ryder Cup captain, Paul Azinger, showed, but it is coaching against the grain for us. But it is very worth it, for everyone's sake. Imagine telling our children, “One day, son, you will have a great time contributing to a great team effort,” rather than, “one day, son, your name will be in lights.” Now, that would be the day.