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Friday, June 13, 2014

What's the big deal with Team Sports, anyway?

[Also available as a podcast]

When I was a child, I didn't like sports. 

Well, that's not exactly true - I loved swimming and spent almost every day during my young summers in the water at our local pool, and was part of the swim team. Wrinkly skin, and a persistent smell of chlorine - it was a wonderful way to spend a good part of your summer's day. Besides, when your town had an outdoor pool that was only open for 3-4 months out of the year, you made the most of it. The rest of the year it was either too cold, or just plain closed, as the pool was left drained for 6 months of the year while the temperatures plummeted from freezing down to -40 degrees Celsius in the coldest months.

In the winter, starting sometime in November, the outdoor ice rinks were getting into full swing. I spent a few winters trying to perfect long, graceful glides around the temporary oval of a Speed Skating rink on our Elementary school field, while my younger brothers were just starting getting into ice hockey at the PeeWee level.

I think I managed two or three years of Speed Skating before I stopped going, while my brothers went on to play hockey with a passion - and still do today, over thirty years later.

My favourite sport fell back to swimming, which I pursued through to Bronze Medallion, and still enjoy today.

The key thing about swimming is that it is very much a solo sport, even if you are on a swim team. Separate swim lanes, individual competitors - even when they held "team" races like a relay, you were still the only person in your lane at one time.

I did not enjoy team sports at all - not even Hockey, which is close to sacrilege for anyone born in Canada.
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One for All and All for ... Someone Else

When I say I didn't enjoy team sports, that is exactly what I meant. Of course, everyone had to try a range of sports in school during PE and I was no exception, but as a general rule, I did not enjoy it.

I wasn't trying to be difficult, but a combination of poor coordination and being smaller than the sporty kids left me on the sidelines or regularly ridiculed when I tried each sport. Even though I tried to improve my skills through practice, in a small town it was hard to get away from the sporty kids, who were also my ever-present horde of bullies. When there were only 30 kids in your grade level in the town, it was even harder - the kids you played with all tended to be from your class. The result was the sporty kids got better playing after school, while I continued to be sidelined, or ridiculed further at my attempts to improve. Eventually I just gave up trying.

Needless to say, those experiences left a sour taste that lasted for years - long after my coordination and abilities caught up with my growing frame and I tried my hand at darts, golf and other skill-based solo sports, and some hoop practice with a basketball. 

I had come to see most team sports as a place for jocks and the sporty ones - but not for me. I didn't even bother to watch professional games on TV - except for the hockey playoffs when the level of excitement infected even me.

The "I" in Team

There is no "I" in team, or so the saying goes. It is all about the team, not being an individual, blah blah blah.

But for me, I just couldn't see the point of team sports - as far as I could see, it had no value. People running or skating about, whacking balls or pucks around, bashing each other and trying to get an object through - or into - some type of net.

Even though I was part of a hockey household with wildly varied dinner times as my younger brothers dashed about to hockey games here, there and everywhere, I just didn't "get it". I could see they had fun - and more than a few trips to the emergency room over the years. Dislocated joints, broken bones, concussions, but I just could not see why they continued to play, year after year.

While recovering from a dislocated shoulder, my youngest brother forgot his left hand on the bathroom counter one evening. He had been brushing his teeth, and his left arm was so weak he could not even lift it.  He had to step back into the bathroom and pick up his left hand with his right, smiling sheepishly as I passed him on my way in to brush my teeth. Even then, he couldn't wait to get back onto the ice rink.

Sometimes I thought I must be the only sane person in the room. My brothers had to be nuts to get back out there after each major injury.

Just last year (in his forties), the same brother lost the end off of one finger trying to catch a slap shot in his glove. I shook my head when I heard about it, half way around the world. His hockey team will always be "short-handed" from now on.

I came to believe, through observing my brothers and other people over the years, the "I" in Team must be "Insane", where sports was concerned. 

A Change of Heart

If you have read any of my other articles, you will find that I feel quite strongly about the positive value and virtues of teamwork. So how can I reconcile a dislike of team sports with being a strong supporter of teams today?

Well, a few things have happened over the years to give me a change of heart.

The first was in 2001 (at the age of 34), when I was managing a system implementation project outside a major eastern US city.  I was sitting in a bar on a Friday evening with a work colleague, winding down from a long week's work. An American College Football game was playing on the TV behind the bar, which I was busy ignoring as I dipped deep-fried cheese sticks into sour cream and jalapeno jam. My colleague had ordered them to share, and they were fantastic - hot and spicy, but perfectly balanced with the sour cream and some celery. My colleague had also brought us to the bar to watch the football game, as she was a big fan of football, held parties during the SuperBowl, the whole bit.

She was busy yelling at the TV in between jalapeno cheese bites, encouraging the players or complaining about bad plays. She noticed my comparative dis-interest, and asked if I watched football much.

"Not really," I said, feeling awkward. She had brought me to watch the game, but aside from knowing the basic rules, I didn't go out of my way to watch it. I had only been to one live football game in my life, and someone else had bought the tickets.

She took it as a challenge to help me enjoy the game, so she explained the rules in more detail and commented on each play as the game unfolded on the TV behind the bar. We finished the plate of jalapeno cheese sticks and ordered another. I soon found I was paying more attention to the game than I was to the fried cheese sticks, and they were starting to get cold. I was, for the first time in my life, enjoying watching a football game - but it wasn't the score or the throwing of the ball itself that interested me. It was the interaction of the players.

Something had switched on inside my head - I was seeing organized sport in a whole new light. I could see the coordination within the team, the players working together, trusting someone to be in the right place to catch the ball just as they were tackled. I could see the results of a well-executed play that relied on the whole team working together - and the failed play where one player tried to do it all on his own.

In that one evening, I had suddenly gained the ability to appreciate watching football, albeit from an unexpected angle. I was now seeing the game with a leader's eye.

The second revelation was not a particular event, but more of a gradual progression since that evening in 2001. Over the past 13 years, I have come to appreciate almost any other team sport - as long as I know the basic rules. I am now able to relate the teamwork I see every day on my projects to the teamwork I see on the sports field - whether it is basketball, rugby, baseball, soccer or any other team sport, even Cricket.

Although I still don't go out of my way to watch that much sport on TV, if I am watching it with someone else, I will enjoy watching it with them. Of course, live is often better than TV, so every now and then I will actually buy tickets for the family and we will go watch a live rugby game. I even went to a Cricket match with my teenager, and loved it.

The best joy of all, however, is now watching my own children play team sports - soccer and hockey. Not much ice in New Zealand so it is Inline Hockey, but hey - Hockey runs in the Canadian blood, even if it skipped a generation.


When I was younger and did not appreciate team sports, I saw them as unimportant and without value. I literally could not understand why anyone would enjoy them - let alone watch them on TV for hours on end every week. Yelling at a glass screen where the players could obviously not hear you made even less sense.

However, what I came to realize - and finally accept - was that even though sports was not important to me, it mattered to others that I cared about. And you know what? That was OK.

So my final revelation is this: 

There is only value where you place value.

Each of us determines the value system for our lives - those things that are important to us, such as family, friends, code of ethics, causes we believe in, and so on. We may inherit them from our families as we grow up, but over time we fine-tune our value systems to model what is the most important to us. This helps us shape how we fit into the world - at least, as we perceive it.

Our value system also strongly affects how we interact with others, and how we behave towards each other in a variety of situations. The foundation of a strong team is a core set of common values, and learning to appreciate that other people have different values than yourself.

The most common source of misunderstanding and frustration is where values do not align, and you cannot seem to sort out the differences. However, the value of a great leader is being able to take that group of people with different skills, beliefs, backgrounds and attitudes - and then craft them into a Team with a common vision and shared values.  

The principle is always the same, whether it is on a construction site, in the project office, or on a large patch of muddied grass.

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Good luck on your projects, keep an eye on the ball - and no matter where you go or what you do, support your favourite Team.

Email: Gary Nelson, PMP