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Individual Roles Within a Team

I’m just coming down from 2 back-to-back ultimate tournaments and I feel awesome. I feel strong, healthy, powerful, effective, and influential. I’m 33 years old and feel fortunate that I’m able to throw my body all over the field in the spirit of the game and come away with minor bruises. And I’m well aware of how ridiculous that seems to anyone who does not play ultimate, or competitive sports in general.

Myself, along with a handful of others, got a tremendous amount of playing time. Others were not so fortunate. Others stood on the sideline waiting their turn, waiting for their name to be called to the field while I just walked on, unassumingly.

Do I feel guilty? Do I feel bad that others spent time and money traveling to the same place as I did and played half (or less) as much? Do I feel bad that I was chosen to start and finish most games? Do I feel bad that others are working as hard as me but aren’t getting the rewards of playing time? Honestly? No.

Why not? Because that’s not how the (competitive) game works. It’s not about equality. It’s about performance and whoever can perform the job of scoring or defending points, will and should play. I’ve been playing competitive team sports my entire life. My experiences on teams have shaped who I am and what I am able to achieve as an individual in life. Who I am is based as much on the time I spent playing as it is on the time I spent sitting. My very first ultimate nationals in Montreal, 2003, I sat most of the time. I was one of 6 or 7 girls on a co-ed team and was not a top player. I paid for a flight, hotel, tournament fees, and I sat on the sidelines. Similarly, my last game playing varsity year for Dalhousie University, I played very little. When I played for team Manitoba in soccer and went to nationals in Ottawa I played maybe 15 minutes in 4 games and 4 days. One season of basketball, we dominated with a 33-0 record. We went to a tournament every weekend, had shooting practice 3 mornings a week, and after-school practices every day, and I sat on the bench most of the time.

Why did I endure this?

Because, for me, that is the nature of competitive team sports – you win some you lose some, you play some you sit some. It wasn’t because I actually enjoyed sitting on the bench in any sport or because I readily adopted a “cheerleader” role. In fact, sitting on the bench was disheartening, de-moralizing, and utterly disappointing most of the time, and I rarely got used to the feeling. And above all, I was pissed off. I wanted to play, not be a spectator. Who in their right mind wants to put all of this time (and money) into something only to be ignored, unappreciated, and undervalued for that hard work? I remember a coach once saying that if you weren’t pissed off that we were sitting on the bench and not on the ice, you were in the wrong place, that there was no place for that mentality on this team. Sitting on the bench challenged me constantly. It made me continuously ask myself “Why am I doing this?!” But I always came up with the same answer – it’s because of those times when I’m playing, people are watching, and I’m a star.

It’s an interesting experience to sit on the bench and watch others do the job that the bench riders are yearning for an opportunity to do. One game in particular, I learned a lot more about teams than I had in all of my experiences beforehand. It was during my very last varsity hockey game. We (Dal) were playing Saint Mary’s and the game was tied and there were 5 minutes left in the third period. I hadn’t been on the ice since warm-up. It was sometime within that period of the game when I realized this game was no longer about me or my sucking. Whether I played or not no longer mattered. We were tied and if we lost I was sure never to play again. If we won, maybe I would. At that point, it became clear that I two choices: 1) I could pout and complain about not playing or 2) I could do something with this energy. It was that point that I realized there was a huge role for me, glaring at me. Our team needed inspiration. The others needed to know that those of us who were not playing were watching, waiting for a star to emerge, hoping that they could do whatever it took to win. We had to invest our trust in them to achieve our common goal. They needed to feel our positive energy, and not our negative grimaces.  So I started cheering, as loud as I could. Others joined in. The energy was incredible. I had never before been so excited for OTHERS to play. This lasted for quite some time and then much to our surprise, my line was called on. The others needed a break and more important, we were on fire. That time on the ice ended up being one of my all-time favorite hockey moments ever. Everyone was so excited that we were going on. WE were so excited that we were going on. We went on flying and almost scored a game-changing point. I wish I could say that we did score but too many people know the truth.

The moment lasted less than 45 seconds but it continues today to remind me of the impact of team support. It continues to remind me of the difference between me, as an individual on the team, and me, as part of the team. I felt 110% apart of the team JUST because I brought a level of intensity and excitement that others needed to borrow. I was both inspirational and inspired. People wanted to know they were playing for something bigger than themselves. They were playing for the fans, which, at that point, included myself sitting on the bench.

In team environments, success is about having everyone contribute to the desired outcome, as best as they can. Every single person on a team has a role available to him or her. Sometimes it takes a bit of creativity and exploration to find it, but it is there. Whether we are there for physical support in case someone else gets injured, to bring good energy, to score or defend points, to identify a defensive or offensive strategy before anyone else can, or to play the best sideline defense that we can, we are part of the team we agreed to play on. Being a star, sitting on the bench, or being injured, are all the faces of a competitive athlete. Once we learn how to get over ourselves and surrender to the team, we end up embracing and enjoying our role much more. And then we start to use that role to contribute to the team success and it’s at that point that we can truly enjoy the success of the team, knowing that we were an integral part of that success!

According to sport psychologist David Yukelson from Penn State “teams are made up of a collection of interdependent individuals, coordinated and orchestrated into various task-efficient roles for the purpose of achieving goals and objectives that are deemed important for that particular team.” Many sport psychologists suggest devoting time and resources into helping each team member identify and then develop his/her unique role within the team in order to enhance team cohesion and ultimately promote greater team success. Sport psychologists also suggest developing team goals together, but we’ll have to wait till next post to deal with that topic!

2 thoughts on “Individual Roles Within a Team”

  1. Mandy,

    This is a fantastic post. Too many times people complain when they're not being played enough yet when you ask them if they want their team to win, they will almost always say yes.

    However, for those people to play more would mean that there's a good chance their team won't win so they need to have that understanding and realize what role they play on the team. I find ultimate to be difficult in that way since many teams don't have a true coach – just player coaches. When you have a coach, they tend to tell you straight up what your role on the team is. However, hearing that from a player coach can be tough since there are emotions involved, issues of pride and sometimes jealousy from the play time that the player coach gets since they generally tend to be one of the better players.

    I think this article does a wonderful job at describing the feelings of many players who find themselves sitting on the bench when there is more at stake for their team and it does a great job at describing how they can feel more a part of the team instead of sitting on the sidelines feeling frustration for not being played as much as they would like.

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