Individual versus team sports

Athletes playing individual and team sports face challenges and often immense pressure. While individual athletes might face more stress performing on their own, individual and team athletes share more similarities than differences when dealing with pressure. Dr. Eric Storch, professor and vice chair of psychology in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor, outlines how individual and team athletes can cope with elevated anxiety surrounding their performance.

Analyzing and reframing

A group of hockey players hug on the ice.Individual athletes must move on quickly from a bad play or performance, giving them little time to regain composure. Additionally, they may lack opportunities to garner support and encouragement from teammates. Storch emphasizes the importance of reframing your mindset for a stronger outcome.

“Appreciate the end goal. How you respond dictates if you will achieve that end goal. If there is a bad outcome, it is critical to have the mental toughness to understand you made a mistake. Frame it as ‘the world is not going to end – this is important to me, but my career is not made up in terms of a single play or a single game.’ That cognitive toughness that is able to put things in perspective can help you make it through,” Storch said.

People often view mistakes or feedback as doubt of their self-worth as opposed to an opportunity to grow and improve. Learn from the experience and that mindset will allow you to reframe your mistakes.

Forming mental toughness is impossible during a game. Storch recommends analyzing the event later, focusing on what happened and what you can do better moving forward. You cannot change the past, so reinterpret the event, then build a positive pathway.

“The hard part about individual sports is that if something doesn’t go well, it’s on your shoulders. You can learn from it and reframe it, but it’s still on you. In team sports, the whole team had a role in contributing to the outcome,” he said.

Support

A support network is crucial for all athletes. For individual athletes, that might include coaches, senior players, captains or loved ones. According to Storch, connect with someone who can give you constructive feedback on performance and provide support after making mistakes.

“With individual sports, there is a team element with coaches and supporters. Being able to engage and receive support from them can be a helpful way to deal with trials and tribulations,” Storch said.

Although team athletes have more people around them for support, being an athlete is about the individual.

“At the end of the day, even though they’re part of a team, there are individual moments, and when those moments don’t go well, it’s all about how that person is able to internalize it, reframe it and move forward,” Storch said.

While being a part of a team can be helpful, it also can be challenging when the environment is not supportive or is too competitive. It is critical to be a part of a healthy versus toxic team environment for optimal outcomes. Athletes cannot have a healthy response to their mistakes in unsupportive environments.

Life-long skills

Whether on a team or individually, starting sports at a young age helps children develop different skills throughout their lives outside of sports:

Team sports

  • Team sports teach a notion of cooperation and collaboration
  • Learning about teamwork and realizing that the game is not all about you – you have to be one among many to win
  • Appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of each other
  • Understanding each team member is different but complement each other
  • Managing others’ feelings, approaches and differences in opinion
  • Being responsive to a coach or leader

Individual sports

  • Hitting personal mastery of a particular domain or individual toughness
  • Autonomy
  • Forming aspects of cognitive toughness and resilience

Playing sports, individual or on a team, teaches valuable skills for how to set goals, how to pursue those goals and being able to achieve them.

Learn more about our psychiatry and behavioral health services.

-By Homa Shalchi

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