Poor Laura Bassett. In a cruel twist of fate, last night England’s football Lionesses were knocked out of the World Cup semi-finals by the unluckiest of misdirected touches by one of their best performers in the tournament. Unlike for penalty-misser Gareth Southgate in Euro ’96 and red-carded David Beckham in France ’98, the public response has so far been one of support and sympathy rather than vilification and blame. This might be of some vague consolation to her, but Bassett will probably always feel – however inaccurately – that losing this match was “all her fault”. Football may be a team sport, but our memories and perceptions of games are so often related to individual players.
Successful teams can be defined by many factors: camaraderie, work ethic, each individual knowing and performing their role, good communication, tactical awareness, ability to cope with pressure… and many other ‘one percenters’ that combine towards that perfect performance. But even within a team that wins or performs well consistently, a whole matrix of other factors may need to be acknowledged and managed in order to maintain equilibrium and to provide support for individuals who aren’t having such an easy time.
These issues may include things like injury and a lack of form or self-confidence. However, my own most difficult sporting experiences have been related to non-selection. Just missing out on two Olympics (wrongly, I believe – but I would say that!) has given me a lot of experience in dealing with inner conflict in this area. Maybe one day I’ll build the confidence to try and write about what this really feels like and how I’ve dealt with it. Some aspects of my experiences make me extremely proud, some make me feel a bit ashamed – but I always tried my best to put the team first, because I wanted to be able to look back with no regrets. I went through pretty much every emotion before, during and after Beijing 2008 and London 2012. I cried when the girls lost, I cried when the girls won. I’ve been simultaneously delighted for the team and devastated for myself. I’ve been absolutely gutted about a result whilst thinking ‘I told you so’ inside. I’ve done the most horrific, seemingly pointless running sessions, whilst being glad to finally have something else (needing oxygen) at the forefront of my mind than how unhappy I felt. I’ve been proud to be a tiny part of the team that won an Olympic medal, whilst also feeling like I wasn’t any part of it at all. Mixed feelings doesn’t really cover it, does it?!
Of course, ‘the I in team’ isn’t always a bad thing. Individuals often make headlines in team sports for positive reasons too. The goal scoring hero, the inspirational captain, the big name player, the kid who has a tough upbringing and makes it to the top… whilst as sports fans we usually hold teamwork in extremely high regard, we also love to pick out individuals. That’s one of the reasons why we score footballers out of ten individually, we have a bottomless pit of stats on every cricketer and we give out Player of the Season awards.
I always find team performances within typically ‘individual sports’ intriguing to watch. The sprint relays in athletics and the magic of the Ryder Cup put an interesting new slant on the ability of sportspeople to compete when their performance affects the success of others too. Rowing and kayaking crews’ success aren’t just determined by who can sit on a machine and crank out a few hundred metres the fastest – it’s also about how well those two, four or eight individuals can climb into a boat and transform themselves into a team. Bradley Wiggins may be a Tour De France champion, but he would never have won it on his own. Even the sportspeople out there who do generally compete alone in battles against another player or the clock – tennis players, triathletes, boxers – are often the first to acknowledge the ‘team’ behind them when they achieve success.
On a personal level, I have always preferred playing team sports because I take the greatest joy from sharing my experiences with others. That doesn’t mean I feel any less brilliant if I score the winning goal, or any less terrible if I make the crucial mistake that leads to a defeat. It also means that I have always had the help or hindrance of subjective judgment from coaches as well as more objective statistics when it comes to selection. If I’ve learnt one thing from my own experiences, it’s to acknowledge their impact, but to try not to allow one particular success or failure to define me as a hockey player – and just as importantly, as a person. I hope that in time, Laura Bassett manages to look at things in this way too.
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[Photo credit: The Telegraph]