Three cheers for teammates, the friends who never leave really leave you.
‘Tis the season of giving thanks for all that we have. ‘Tis also the beginning of ski season. To honor both of those things, I want to give a shout-out to a gift that has lasted me a lifetime—the gift of a team.
That may sound odd coming from someone who spent her formative years immersed in an individual sport, battling daily for everything from the coach’s attention to the last banana on the breakfast buffet, from the fastest skis to a coveted spot on the Olympic team. To be clear, I did not always feel this love-affair with the team concept. There were times I wanted to pause, mute or delete, nearly every member of the team as individuals, and the entire team as a group. But time and space grant perspective, and with that comes the realization that no bonds are wider, deeper and stronger than those that can grow through a team.
Being part of a team has obvious advantages. It’s fun, social and provides a sense of belonging. It provides an organized structure for learning broad concepts and skills. But it can also provide early lessons in tolerance, self-awareness, humility, forgiveness, honesty, trust, confidence and all manner of things that serve you well beyond sport. The longer you are part of a team, the greater the benefits, the stronger the ties and, of course, the greater the potential for conflict.
You don’t choose your family. And, unless you are the alpha kid in elementary school, you don’t choose your teammates. This randomness assures that within each team a set of archetypes exist. These roles may include: the primadonna/danny, the drama queen/king, the clown, the worker, the whiner, the intellectual, the nutcase, the rock, etc. A team is constantly recalibrating to balance these enduring archetypes. Just when you are rid of one particularly vexing character, as sure as in Whack-a-Mole, another one pops up.
Of course, this is no different than in school or in the workplace. Creating a great team is not about assembling the most talented or even compatible players, but about fostering an atmosphere of respect that allows optimal performance amidst individual strengths, weaknesses and quirks. It’s about learning to live with each other and value each other’s efforts.
Just as true love is not all hearts and flowers, being on a strong team is not all Kumbaya. It can get hairy—it will get hairy—when the heat is on. Pressure and adversity crush team members even closer, distilling individuals to their essences, which is often not a pretty sight.
In the run-up to the 1988 Olympics things could not have been worse on our team. Accidents and injuries had us dropping like flies, team selections kept everyone on edge, weather and snow conditions were horrific, reporters and cameras followed our every move, and each of us wished we could hole up in a single room. The night before the Olympic team selection a coach with better perspective than his athletes (a key feature in a coach), arranged for a dreaded group TV interview. The scene demanded close physical proximity and the questions revolved around our experiences as teammates: how we balanced friendship with competition and mutual respect with individual goals; what we did together for fun, etc. The cameraman staged shots of us laughing, nodding in agreement and looking at each other kindly. By the end we knew we’d been manipulated, but we also realized that we did, indeed, need each other and that tearing down each other only tore down ourselves.
Conversely, anything that strengthens the team can strengthen the individual, which is particularly good to remember in bad times. Two events, one year apart, crystallized this point for me. First was my breakthrough moment, reaching the World Cup podium after years of successive injuries. The result was as unlikely as it was redemptive. After the race, the interviews, the autographs and the well wishers, I found my teammate, who was in the midst of her own downward spiral, stowed in the ski room. She managed to smile and congratulate me, and even through the tears of frustration I saw an unmistakable glint of something else in her eyes. It was wonder, and genuine happiness…for me. I marveled at the difficulty, honesty and complexity of the emotions in that moment.
Less than one year later, she stood in the hotel room we shared, with a bouquet of flowers in her hand and an Olympic medal around her neck. My entire season had been disastrous and now, with the roles agonizingly reversed, I understood how it was possible to be so happy for someone even while steeped in one’s own misery.
On a team that scene replays countless times, in varying degrees of intensity. Seeing the magic happen for a teammate transcends the personal realm. It reminds you that you are indeed all in this together, and that if you just keep working and believing and making each other stronger, “it”, whatever that shared dream might be, can happen to any one of you.
I recently interviewed a veteran Ivy League baseball coach who recruits players on their skill and grades, and also on their potential as “team players.” He tells the story of a talented kid who dissed his mother for not bringing the proper material (which was his responsibility) during a school visit. “Apologize to your mother, and thanks for coming,” the coach said, while getting up to shake the applicant’s hand in dismissal. “If he was that way with his mother he wouldn’t think twice about shirking responsibility on the team,” the coach explained. “It’s ok to want to be good for selfish reasons. But it is not ok to play selfishly. Those are two different things.”
On that point team and individual sports converge. Sure, in skiing you have to look out for Number 1, proactively seek what you need to excel. But that doesn’t mean you have to wear blinders. The ability to step away from yourself—to congratulate someone even at your low moments, or to be sensitive to a struggling teammate when you’re riding high—that ability is what makes an individual, and a team, strong.
Being part of a team is neither static nor finite. You can be on many teams at once, and some teams truly last a lifetime. My son was recently on a ski trip with his new, Vermont-based school ski team. While there he bumped into friends he had gotten to know at regional race series. They were his “New Hampshire” team. At the end of the week he joined up with our local ski team, the kids he had been skiing with from age 6, his “home team.” All of them are part of his growing team, and share unique relationships.
Seeing each of those reunions made me warm and fuzzy. It also made me think of my own friends from a variety of distinct and overlapping teams and how easily and comfortably we fall into place whenever we meet. These are individual relationships, to be sure, but they only exist because of the team construct. Through good times and tough times, bad hair and sometimes worse behavior, we ultimately made each other better, and I am grateful for every single one of them.
So, team players everywhere—go out there and win, or not, with a smile on your face, and take the advice of a parent/coach who recently chimed in: “Don’t be a good teammate, be a great teammate!”