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Team players

Why are some athletes better in teams than on their own?


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

This summer past, I took part in the South West Coast Path relay: two teams of 68 runners averaging just over nine miles each. It was non-stop over five days, so some got balmy summer mornings and others gale-lashed midnights. When I signed up, I thought the running would be fun and the WhatsApp chat amusing, and both proved true: but I never anticipated checking the team’s progress so avidly or being so inspired by others’ determination. And I would hazard that almost every one of those 136 competitors ran faster than they would have done had they been competing alone. 

Sport’s endless appeal is its psychology, not its physiology. How do you quantify someone who chooses an individual sport yet shines more brightly in a team? Is it the absence of some quality, or its presence? The negative fear of letting others down, or the positive desire to make a decent contribution? The lack of a final selfish killer instinct, or the humility to join a collective? Or all of these, to one degree or another?

The British 400m runner Phil Brown’s individual best was Commonwealth bronze in 1986, a Games badly affected by boycotts. But give him a baton and stick him on the anchor leg of the 4×400 relay, and he was a different man. In the 1984 Olympic final, he took the baton in fourth place and ended up second, overtaking an individual finalist and the silver medallist from the previous Games. Running for himself, he was upright, almost diffident. Running for other people, his stride became longer, his body-lean greater, his resolve a living thing. 

Swimming had its own Phil Brown in the American Jason Lezak. Of Lezak’s eight Olympic medals seven were relays, and like Brown he made the anchor leg his own. Anchor legs are easy if you take over miles in front and can cruise to victory, but otherwise they’re a shitfight: there are no second chances, no team-mates left to make up ground. 

In 2008, Lezak began the last leg of the 4x100m freestyle almost a bodylength down on France’s Alain Bernard, the individual champion. Bernard should have buried Lezak, and for 75 of those 100 metres that’s exactly what he looked to be doing. But in that last 25 Lezak somehow closed a seemingly unbridgeable gap, something he would never have done had he been swimming purely for himself. 

His best time for the individual 100m was 47.60 seconds: his split here was 46.06. The flying start and the drafting effect of swimming in Bernard’s wake account for some of that, but not nearly all. It is still the quickest relay split ever recorded.

Even golf has its inspirational figures. Take Ian Poulter. He’s never won a major, never finished a year in the world’s top 10, and for a long time he was as well known for his clothing (so loud it should have come with a local authority abatement order) as his golf. 

But in the three Ryder Cups between 2008 and 2012, he won 11 of his matches and lost only two, while between them Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson managed eight wins, 10 losses and three halves. By 2012 Woods had 14 majors and Mickelson four. They would do for themselves what they could not, or would not, do for the team: Poulter did for the team what he could not, or would not, do for himself. 

Poulter it was who first sparked Europe’s famous comeback from 10-4 down in 2012 at Medinah, one of the most staggering pieces of sport you are ever likely to see. It wasn’t just his performance but his contagious self-belief which transformed the mood of his teammates, though he would take no personal credit: “It wasn’t about me, or this putt or that putt, or this birdie or that bogey. It was about collective self-belief, about not accepting it was done. Absolutely nothing is over until it is over.”

Man is a sociable animal, so it follows that most people do better in teams than on their own

Man is a sociable animal, so it follows that most people do better in teams than on their own, and that individual champions are by their very nature outliers. Steve Redgrave’s sole career regret was that he never won a major title in the single scull, which as the only solo boat in the rowing programme is revered for the levels of mental and physical strength it demands. But by the same token Redgrave has priceless relationships with the crewmates in his five Olympic gold medal-winning boats: not always close friendships, but invariably something special forged in the fires of competition.

For Lawrence Dallaglio, the standout moment of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup win was neither the trophy lift nor Jonny Wilkinson’s last-minute drop goal: “The best memory was when we got into the changing room and closed the doors. That team would never be the same again. It was the end of that journey, and it was the sense of shared achievement together. To do that, with that group of players, was very emotional. That hour in the changing room is the bit that I’ll take away.”

The sentiment is valid no matter who you are or what level you perform at. I have tons of old race T-shirts which I now use for training runs, but I wear my Team White SWCP 2023 one with real pride: not because of what I did in mine, but because of what we did in ours. 

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