Is There an ‘I’ in Team?


The world celebrates sports, particularly team sports. Soccer matches are so contentious in Europe that it’s not uncommon for riots to break out over the game’s outcome. In the United States, football has arguably eclipsed baseball as America’s national pastime.

Beyond the entertainment value itself, many see special value in the teamwork epitomized in sporting events.

Broadcasters and fans typically praise team players for their “selfless” play, for putting the team’s goals ahead of their own. And while we sometimes recognize individual achievement, we often do so only in the context of the team: coaches routinely remind their players of the proverb “there is no ‘I’ in team.”

This mantra of subordinating the individual to the group is explicit in sports, but it also has wider influence. So we’re told that sports offer a moral lesson for life in general: it is the success of the group that counts, and individual concerns are either of lesser importance, or even in conflict with that goal. But is this true?

First, we should recognize that a team is ultimately just a collection of individuals working cooperatively towards a common goal. If the team is successful, it’s because the individual players on the team each independently fulfill their respective roles.

Consider scoring a goal in soccer, when one player moves into position in front of the goal, receives a pass from a second player, and kicks the ball into the net. Each of the players acts independently to score the goal. The team did not act through a collective mind to score—there was no group brain maneuvering each of the players. There were only individual players, acting toward a common objective.

This may seem obvious, but it’s important to emphasize, because the idea that “there is no ‘I’ in team” suggests that one should act “for the good of the team”—as if there is some component of a team which stands to benefit over and above the individual players composing it. This mantra also suggests a conflict between the goals of the player and those of the team. Only when the individual subordinates himself to the team, we’re told, can the team achieve success.

One reason people focus on the group in sports is the fact that there are no individual end-goals in team athletics. Individual athleticism is always admirable, but does not add up to anything significant unless it helps the team score points.

For example, how would we react if the quarterback, instead of acting cooperatively with his teammates, ran the ball every play? We might call him “selfish” and insist that individual players need to give up their own interests for the good of the team.

But is this quarterback’s behavior really in his self-interest? Defenses would quickly adjust and the quarterback would not score his team any points. Hogging the ball would not help him win the game. Athletes who try to do it all themselves do not achieve any long run success. Ball-hogs only feed their own vanity, and vanity does not have any objective benefits – whether in sports or life.

The individual works with the team for his own benefit. Mutual cooperation does not require the individual to subordinate himself to the team. Instead, the individual works with the team to defeat his opponents, and in this way benefits himself.

So the fact that the player acts to achieve the team goals does not mean that he loses his individuality. Rather, the player functions within the context of the team to achieve his or her own goals. Each player on the team wants to win to further his own career, to experience the psychological rush that comes from overcoming obstacles an opponent has placed in his way, to achieve something with his teammates that he could not do on his own. The team goal only exists because individual players find value in it.

Why devote so much time to properly understanding sports? Sports are analogous to other aspects of our lives: winning at sports means overcoming obstacles and following rules to obtain objectives. Understanding the relationship between the individual and the group is of crucial importance to each of us.

For example, business is an important area where individuals act in concert with each other to achieve a common goal. In joining a company, a new employee does not sacrifice his individual aspirations for a corporate mission. Rather, he joins because his personal goals align with those of his peers under a common set of objectives. In this sense, businesses are not faceless collectives; they are a team of individuals working together for mutual benefit.

The division of labor explains the benefits behind mutual cooperation. Business people specialize in different areas to maximize their productivity and achieve corporate goals. Likewise, athletes organize themselves according to each of their skills in order to win the game. In baseball, nine players spread themselves out on the diamond according to their unique skills: faster players may play in the outfield while slower players may play catcher. Sports teams and businesses divide their labor so as to best achieve the team goals, and by extension, benefit the individual team members.

Whether it’s in sports or business, we should remember that groups exist for the sake of individuals, not the other way around. We should act not for the sake of the team, but with the team for our own sake.


Image by Flikr user StacyRG

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