- Many youths participate in organized sports, so they must serve as environments for healthy development.
- Building a sense of belonging on a team is foundational for individual success and team goals.
- Fostering cooperation and interdependence is key to elevating each player and building team cohesion.
My first team was called the Raindrops.
We were a small but mighty band of six-year-olds who played “soccer.” In true Pee Wee fashion, we ran around in a big mass chasing the ball and falling on each other along the way. It turned out that the little club team would become the group I would spend the next nine years playing with before landing on the high school varsity team.
All that time and space together–Saturdays on the field, afternoon practices in blistering heat and freezing cold, weekend tournament road trips–became the classroom where we learned how we show up as players and as people. It was where I was taught to deal with real conflicts and strong emotions and where I realized what it meant to truly belong.
Yet, at that time, belonging to the team often meant putting individual desires aside for the good of the whole–whatever it took to accomplish our goals. Maybe that wasn’t the healthiest approach.
The Sports and Fitness Industry Association surveyed 18,000 individuals at the end of 2020 and found 73 percent of those ages 13-17 play a team or individual sport. Young people are playing an average of 1.75 sports, despite the effects of the pandemic. With hundreds of thousands of young people engaging in sports, it’s all the more important those environments balance what it means to succeed as an individual and still be all-in for the team.
So when Benjamin Murray, head cross country and track coach for the South Fulton Cooperative in central Illinois, offered this question at Springtide’s recent Conference on Gen Z, Mental Health, and Religion, the former athlete in me stood to attention:
I often wonder how athletics ‘does it wrong’ and creates toxic environments rather than making places of purpose and belonging. I am a track and field coach, and I like to emphasize individual accomplishments. And football guys are saying that ‘it is all about the team, and individual stats don’t matter.’
My teams are growing and winning, but the opposite is happening for the ‘team’ sports here. So I am wondering, how do we fix the interplay between individual accomplishments and team accomplishments to help the mediocre or self-critical athlete better flourish?
The key to creating healthy team environments for young people is viewing individual and team accomplishments as inextricably tied rather than mutually exclusive. Here is a two-step, psychologically-based approach to team building that supports positive development for adolescents and young adults:
They first have to feel they belong.
Researcher Josh Packard often says, “Young people have to belong before they believe,” which in the sociology of religion terms means people often need to feel safe, accepted, and able to be themselves before they have the capacity or interest in believing in a higher power.
The same holds true in athletics–a young person must feel like they belong on the team before they can commit to and believe in the team. Focusing on the relationship first with adults and fellow teammates is crucial to foster belonging.
Young people, in particular, need time and space to develop friendships. Coaches can structure practices and other activities in a way that focuses on getting to know each other, recognizing the abilities of others, or using cooperation to meet a goal.
Focusing on any or all of these elements bolsters individual contributions while simultaneously building the rapport necessary for a sense of team cohesion. When young people feel like they belong, are competent enough for their tasks, and have a say in how their work gets done, they’re more likely to be invested, highly motivated, and self-determined–those are the people who win games, tournaments, and championships.
When they feel they belong, they’re ready to believe.
Once a player feels like a valued team member and has bonded with teammates, they want to deliver their best so the team can succeed. Taking a collective approach helps bring that eager player into a team-focused framework where individual actions are necessary for group success.
All of those individual contributions are woven together by task interdependence or activities that call for positive, repeat interactions between team members to achieve the desired outcome. While teams are always going to have their star players, ones that use task interdependence emphasize that each person has something important to contribute. Without all those individual offerings (regardless of the strength of each), the shared goal can’t be reached.
It’s crucial that members believe their contributions are necessary to reach the goal. If coaches say that, but the players don’t actually believe it, then interdependence falls flat.
What if it’s an individual, not a team, sport? It’s important to remember that even individual sports are rarely a solo effort. Athletes train with peers and coaches, and they can very much affect motivation and social comparison–interdependence is still present in an individual sport.
Research shows that collectively-oriented athletes enjoyed their individual sports teams and had greater intentions to return. Coach Murray may be fostering a level of teamwork and support that helps athletes flourish in their individual events but also keeps them connected to the greater goals of the team.
You may be reading this and thinking, “I feel that adults could use this, too.” The truth is that the same elements that help young people to thrive are the ones that can foster greater health for the more seasoned among us.
We all need to feel like we’re accepted and belong, and what we bring to the table matters. Focus on creating a team where individual value and contribution are the keys to collective success and everyone benefits.
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