Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Individual sports and the pressure to perform

I saw where swimmer Michael Phelps set another world record the other day. Then I read the USA Today article yesterday about how incredibly dedicated he is to his sport, where success is measured in fractions of seconds. According to the story:

"Phelps' life is swimming, and swimming is governed by these statistics. The numbers — world records almost across the board for a man who could win up to nine medals at the upcoming Beijing Olympics — do tell a story, though. It's a tale of dedication that is almost unprecedented in the annals of a sport known best for demanding nothing but undying devotion from its athletes. Elite swimmers get up before dawn almost every day from childhood through college to then put their head in the water for hours on end, lap after laborious lap. Enough said?"

There is something to be said for individual sports like swimming, golf, and tennis. I always admired my sister, a terrific gymnast and tennis player in high school. In those sports, there's no one to cover up for your mistakes, no blaming teammates, or team chemistry issues. It's just you out there -- alone.

In those sports, and others like track and boxing, the pressure isn't on the team; it's on you and you only. So the most successful athletes in these sports learn to deal with it early on. In many cases, they thrive on it. It's what drives them.

In football or basketball or soccer, there are teammates around you to help out when you make a mistake. Not so in a sport like singles tennis where, if you swing and miss, there's no one behind you to return the shot. You alone are responsible for the outcome.

Athletes who typically compete in team sports could likely learn a lot from competing in individual sports occasionally. For one, I think it would make them appreciate more the concept of "team" and collaborative effort.

Beyond that, it would condition them to perform better in pressure situations (shooting free throws in the last few seconds of a game, for example).

It might also help them to appreciate and respect remarkable athletes like Michael Phelps.