There’s no ‘I’ in team: working as a whole

If a game like tennis involves a particular kind of psychology - one which takes into account the fact that success is reliant on the individual and the individual alone- then do team sports require a different sort of psychology altogether?

Yes, and no. No, because you still need to build psychological traits like confidence, resilience and self-control (and the pressures can sometimes be greater because one wrong turn can lose a game for 10 people, rather than just 1). And, though there’s no ‘I’ in team, there is a ‘me’: a large part of developing cohesion within sports teams and ensuring team success is effective leadership (why else would every sport have a captain?).

Team sports still require individual mental toughness and the ability to come back from losing. And in sports like football, hockey or basketball, the final outcome can be effected by the performance of just one individual.

A penalty kick in a football match, for example, can be one of the most psychologically taxing moments in any sports game, and it requires a considerable amount of concentration and self-control. Research has shown that if a football player takes a penalty during practice, they score on average 85% of the time. During a penalty shootout, however, increased pressure means that this figure drops to 76%.

Some of the most famous football players in the world have said that penalty shootouts have mentally affected them long after the game: after missing, former A.S Roma player Bruno Conti said, “my heart shrank to nothing and I was psychologically destroyed.” Christian Karembeu, a former player for France, went so far as to suggest that it’s like, “loading a bullet in the chamber of a gun and asking everyone to pull the trigger. Someone will get the bullet, you know that. And it will reduce them to nothing.”

So team sports clearly demand a huge amount of resilience in the individual. But they also require a set of psychological traits unique to playing within a team.

Perhaps one of the most important is communication

Perhaps one of the most important is communication. Psychologists, Damon Burton and Thomas Raedeke, define communication in their seminal book Sports Psychology for Coaches, as the ability to relay information and emotions to others as well as understanding that which is expressed by others. And they add that this involves both verbal and non-verbal (body language, for example) methods of interaction.

The key thing here is that being a team player is a two-way street. And not just between players. A study by the Canadian Olympic Committee found that one of the most important factors to a successful performance at the 2008 Summer Olympic games in Beijing, China, was a good relationship between a coach and his players.

Communication is key to establishing a positive culture within a team, especially when things start to go wrong, and a fundamental way to encourage positivity is to have empathy and compassion. It is important to keep an open-mind and an accepting attitude if things start to go wrong (and they aren’t your fault!), and a cool-head, instead of getting frustrated. On the other side of the fence, it’s also important to be dependable and try your hardest for the team.

And, like many things in sports, these are values that are really useful to bring into other collective situations, such as in the classroom, workplace or family life.

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