People love to talk about the “community” aspect of sports. They talk about the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a team, about the human instinct to work together and how sports facilitate that. They talk about teamwork and fulfillment and friendship and trust. But those are the sociable sports – the team sports.
There are lonely sports, too. Sure, you make friends with your cross-country teammates or your buddies on the tennis team, but in the end, you’re all out there for yourselves. You are, of course, technically on the same team, and you all participate in the bonding activities and genuinely care about each other. I’m not here to tell you that playing high school tennis will make you lonely and depressed, that your cross-country team can’t be a great support system and family. But I am pointing out something obvious, but often unmentioned: when you walk out to the court or the start line or the mat, you’re walking out by yourself and for yourself. You’re there to win, you alone, and that means beating your ‘teammates’, too.
It’s not always catty or malicious. You don’t pretend to be friends while secretly hating or resenting each other as a result of the competition. Generally you are friends, you do wish each other well. But you don’t, ultimately, want your teammates to win, not over you. And you know that, ultimately, they don’t want you to win either. Not over themselves.
The team parties aren’t lonely. The bus rides aren’t lonely. But walking out to do the very thing that brought you together at all, to play the match or run the race…that’s as alone as it gets. You cheer each other on if you’re not in the same race, or on opposite sides of the net, but the competition is yours and yours alone. They’re not there to help you win, they can’t give you anything more than ‘good lucks’ and ‘go get ’ems’.
It’s not all bad. In these individual sports, these lonely sports, you don’t resent each other for bringing you down or putting pressure on you. The weakest link on the team hurts only themselves (excluding overall scores and rankings, which matter of course, but aren’t felt in the heart the way the competition itself is). And it makes your cheering squad bigger, when your teammates can only watch and support, excluded from the points or the steps or the pins themselves.
And with these lonely sports, your accomplishments are all your own. Perhaps that’s a selfish positive, a mark on the pro side only for the egotistical and self-absorbed. But I think everyone wants their wins to be as theirs as possible. It feels good to share, to be part of a winning team and feel the love and appreciation for and from that small community of players. But it also feels good to look at your trophy or ribbon or ranking and know that was all you. That title or number reflects your standing, your talent, your pain and sweat and hard work.
It’s a trade-off. There’s something decidedly more wholesome and Hallmark about the team sports, the power of community and teamwork and sharing the glory. The lonely sports lack that human component, that life-lesson-y aspect of the activity. But the lonely sports make you independent. Strong. Confident. And that’s good, too.
I’m not advocating for any particular sport or subcategory of sport, though I only ever did really play the individual ones. All sports have their merits, and I won’t claim any one is better, in any general sense of the word, than any other. There are pros and cons to weigh across any two, of any kind. But it struck me recently how different the school sport experience is for those who play team sports and those who play individual sports, how ‘sports’ encompasses such a vast range of different things, that all draw different kinds of people, and all shape those people in drastically different ways.