Back in high school I was on the football team. I weighed 145 lbs soaking wet, was slow and couldn’t catch a football very well, but I loved it. My coach often used the phrase “ There is no “I” in team”. He worked hard to build the mentality that every player did their job to make the team successful. Everyone put aside personal aspirations so their sacrifice could help the team win.
It is because of these selfless actions that help the team move towards a unifying goal, some of the deepest and most connected friendships are formed. Every high school reunion I go to, stories of the old football days fondly flow during our conversations. Reliving the moments that helped shape us as young people that gave us an experience that was special and connecting is almost impossible to pass up. Most teams have many shared experiences: long hours of swim practice in the early morning, grueling workouts in the weight room and hot summer days running wind sprints are elements of what binds a group into a team.
The greatest example I can think of in the formation of a team is the men and women who choose to support our country through military service. There is no greater example of risk, sacrifice and fulfilling a duty towards a common goal than what those in the armed service experience. Although, in my opinion, everything else pales in comparison to the depth of the experience of the military, the basic dynamic is the same. Shared struggles, common goals, a culture of selfless sacrifice are all a part of what deeply bonds people together.
In today’s world of the “me” generation, finding an environment that lets someone else claim the glory after your suffering and effort, is the holy grail. Making a choice that will surely result in personal failure is hard to be classified as anything other than a fool’s errand. Admitting that there is someone better than you, stronger than you, craftier than you is a hard pill to swallow. Embracing the effort, no matter how much it hurts because the team needs someone to step up is never an easy decision.
I think that because those kinds of choices are so historically “unnatural” for most people and certainly more so in today’s selfie culture, it is all the more impactful and impressive when a person chooses to go down the path of sacrifice. Great teams have a culture of members wanting to make an impact in how ever they can. People notice when you do something that purposefully elevates the team’s chances of success.
I was at the Butler Women’s Soccer 2014-2015 end of the year awards ceremony. They were recognizing the seniors, who I hadn’t had a chance to work with because their playing days ended a few months before I started working with the team. One of the Seniors stood up to give her farewell speech and I wasn’t prepared for what she said. She didn’t play in any of the games her senior year. Any. She rode the bench the entire year, but she was a huge part of the team. Don’t get me wrong, she was devastated and heartbroken that she wasn’t on the field as a player scoring goals and impacting the game on the field, but she knew that there were others that were better than her. Despite not getting any playing time, she still wanted to win. She was still very much a varsity soccer player. So she made a choice. She would be the best support person the other players and coaches had ever seen. If they needed someone to run and get a ball that was kicked out of bounds, she ran and got it. If they needed a cheerleader on the sidelines, she cheered. If they needed someone to challenge the starters during practice, she gave it her all. She was going to do everything and anything that her Butler Bulldog squad needed to help her team win. There are many ways to be a part of a winning effort.
In high school, I was also on the track team. As erroneous of a choice as it was to be on the football team instead of running cross country, I was a “sprinter” and high jumper. Even though I faked being a high jumper pretty well, I was nowhere near worthy to be called a sprinter. But I did have a role and a purpose with that group. I was the “geck ostrich”. The other sprinters would tie their running spikes together and chase me around twirling them like the old hunting bolas. They would say after practice, “Run you geck ostrich!” I would take off and they would hurl their shoes at me and trip me up. It was all good fun really. But one day, my coach, pulled me aside and asked me why I let them treat me that way. I reflected for a moment and said that the top sprinters would always argue with each other about their relay handoffs and timing and if they had a common activity that would allow them to come together as a group, that the relay might work better. At the end of the season, the coach gave me an award for that.
So, what does it mean? What does it mean to be a good team member?
The answer to that changes every moment. Sometimes it is giving a water bottle to a teammate because they were underprepared and you weren’t. (thanks Brian!) Sometimes it is driving back from the Muncie 70.3 triathlon to watch people race. (thanks Jason!) Sometimes it is playing a waiting game to see if the break-a-way will work even though you are super fit and ready to win. (thanks Justin!) Sometimes it is helping set up the tent and put spare wheels in the wheel pit so others can go and register. Sometimes it is getting to the front and pulling until your legs just don’t even work anymore to bring back a break. Sometimes it is risking attacking and going off in a break to shake up a race. Sometimes it is riding respectfully in traffic and not swarming around a car at a red light that just safely passed you. Sometimes it is simply loving and understanding the sport of cycling and just being around to talk about the Tour de France.
I always tell people that what attracts me to cycling so much is that it is a chess match with 50 people all playing the same game. The move that one person makes in a particular moment changes all of the possible moves the other 49 make in the next moment and every moment has 50 possible moves. There are an infinite number of possible outcomes over the course of a race and each racer has the opportunity to be or not be in all or any of them.
Just like a bike race, there are in infinite number of opportunities and ways someone can be a good team member. There is no shortage of ways that someone can share in the common experience, fill an important role and feel a part of the group. Take a risk and be a part of the team.