Of great interest to us in weightlifting and similar activities is why many of us prefer individual sports over team sports. This seems to be true whether we speak of weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, the field events, CrossFit, or the various martial arts. Many have noted that individual sport participants seem to be, well, more individualistic, more idiosyncratic, and what not. They often march to the beat of their own drummer and eschew team sports. This can be good or bad, depending on circumstances, as we will see.
Why do some in our team-sport dominated culture prefer individual sports? Why does there seem to be this divide in the sporting world where some prefer competing with their fellows while others like to compete by themselves, against either their own previous best or against other athletic hermits? To answer this let’s look at why some people prefer these more individualistic endeavors.
Some of us come to the gym purely by choice, for reasons rooted in our own individual psychology. We may prefer solitary sporting pursuits. Such people may be more introverted and prefer to avoid the responsibilities of team play. Alternatively they may prefer the attributional situation inherent when performing an individual sport. Simply put, if they are successful the glory is all theirs. This is very satisfying, since there are no teammates that have to share the glory and there is no question who was responsible for victory. Of course there’s a nasty corollary to that. When things go wrong there are also no teammates to share that and you will have to take full responsibility for any loss. Such people are willing to live with that possibility due to their confidence in their abilities. This is very attractive to an individualist, but is less so to those who prefer working on a team.
There is also a situation where in an individual sport you can train the way you want and you make all the decisions. You do not have to train under a coach’s system that you may not agree with. Whether this is a vice or a virtue depends on your personal values. Those who see teamwork being important above all will see this as selfish behavior. Those who value individual initiative and personal freedom will think the opposite.
“Preference” Based on Rationalization
While the above reasons are probably true for a fair number of people, sometimes the skeptic in me wonders if these are merely covers for someone who tried team sports in youth and then found himself or herself just not cut out for great success on the playing field. This is common in the weight sports. After all, most of us are socialized into sport at young ages via the team sport route. We want to succeed there and be on TV some day. But alas, such is not possible for every recruit.
Maybe you had a body that didn’t grow enough to play football. Maybe you just didn’t make the ball team. It happens to most of us sooner or later. After such a rejection you will often take it very personally. So personally that you may turn against that the sport or all team sports. We react by switching our loyalty to another sport. Due to the high machismo content of the strength sports this new activity seems to answer our athletic dreams, in spades. Eventually we end up in the gyms or other individual sport venues. We no longer have to worry about not making the team.
Some people, even those involved in team sports are forced into individual sports by life changes. You get married, you graduate, you move, and suddenly it’s hard to participate regularly. Team sports require reliable participation. If it’s not you missing games, it’s your teammates. Your star center moves away, your great shortstop is pregnant with her first child, your goalie is injured, and they decide that they have to move on. Eventually opportunities to form a full team for sports like a touch football, baseball, softball, or soccer disappear. You now have to abandon team sports and find an individual sport to your liking.
If jobs or marriage doesn’t get you an unforgiving Father Time will take away all that Mother Nature once gave you. Our bodies change ever so slightly from one year to the next, until one year we can no longer do what once was easy for us. That speed you had in making that mad dash to first base is a tad slower, maybe more than a tad, enough to make those softball games not as much fun as they used to be. Your teammates may subtly tell you they’d rather have that new guy in Sales replace you on the company softball team. Age has a way of re-prioritizing our lives. What was once important to us now is something that must be left behind. Team sports no longer work, so you think about an individual sport less susceptible to the aging process.
Non-Athletic Prior Background
Some people never did have any experience at team sports. These people often come (or are forced) to the gym after realizing their physical condition is deplorable and they have to do something before losing control completely. With no prior sport socialization it does not even occur to them to play a team sport, leaving individual activity their choice by default. Many of these people end up in weight rooms.
The Unfortunate Side Effect
One particularly disturbing side effect of all this is that those with no team sport experience sometimes come to the weight sports with little knowledge of the culture of sportsmanship. Those who say that individual sport practitioners are selfish unfortunately often speak some truth. The lack of team sport acculturation can lead to an ignorance of the rituals of sportsmanship. I heard of one instance recently where one athlete was praying that another did not break her record. This contrasts so much to what you see in both weightlifting and powerlifting where Lifter A sets a new record and then Lifter B tries to break it as Lifter A cheers heartily for him to do so.
For that reason I have always thought that all kids should play some team sport (preferable many) in their early years in order to not only gain some athleticism, but to learn how to act in a team. This should be done regardless of their own preferences or personality characteristics. Perhaps even more important is that this is the best way to teach the sportsmanship so needed in elite sport and more importantly, in life itself.
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