The challenge of “I” versus “team” in youth sports

Having confidence and wanting to “be the guy” are part of what make many athletes so outstanding.  But there is always, on successful teams at least, a balance between a focus on individual achievement and the ingredients needed for successful “team” play.

Defining what a real team player is can be a difficult chore, at any level in sports.  We’ve written on the subject here and at our youth sports site (Taking You Beyond the Game) as it applies to those involved in youth sports and it is a challenging topic.  In broad terms, coaches, for their part, should inspire and build confidence in their young players but also remind them that while healthy self-esteem is a good thing indeed, how they interact with teammates is important as well.  This can include attitude, demeanor, exhibiting positive behaviour on and off the field of play, supporting a teammate when they make mistakes and not being a selfish player.

The “I” versus—or within—the team concept was brought home during a recent Major League Soccer (MLS) game involving the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC.  In the second half of the contest, Toronto was awarded a free kick from just beyond the box. Two prominent Toronto players—Gilberto and Jermain Defoe—immediately went to grab the ball to take the free kick. A brief but very noticeable disagreement and minor scuffle ensued between teammates. While the apparent hostility was short-lived, it was certainly evident for all to see.

A moment later, Gilberto fired a rocket into the back of the Red Bull net, and there were embraces and smiles all around as Toronto claimed the lead in the game, which later ended up tied 2-2.

Even though it “worked out in the end” because a goal was scored and all was perhaps forgotten, incidents like that at the professional level send, at best, a mixed message to those playing youth sports.

One wonders what the reaction of teammates, coaching staff, fans and media would have been had Gilberto not scored.  Would the brief incident have been discussed?  Would anyone see a public display of teammates fighting over who gets to make a free kick as an issue?  Or would it just be seen as a minor disagreement between two talented teammates who both felt they were the best man for the job?

Unfortunately, at the youth sports level some coaches overlook attitude or work ethic issues in their so-called “star” players because they feel they need those players to help them win games.  Poor on or off-field behaviour and selfish or indifferent play are ignored, especially if that player scores a goal and, again, helps that coach “win the game”.

Professional athletes are not necessarily thinking about their behaviour sending “messages” to impressionable youngsters in the heat of battle.  And it needs to be stated that in sports, at any level, it’s not realistic to expect teammates to get along all the time.

But while it was only a very brief moment, one hopes that youngsters will not emulate the behaviour of Defoe and Gilberto as they fought over who would take the free kick—though all aspiring young soccer players would certainly love to develop the skills to be able to finish the way Gilberto did.

It’s difficult enough at times for youth coaches to try to instill the right values in impressionable young players without high-profile professionals offering up a less than stellar example themselves.