Sports | Sports Columns

QUAN: Solo athletes also get team experience

I’ve been competing athletically ever since I was five years old. However, unlike most of my friends and classmates who were playing on soccer, basketball, and softball teams, I swam. On the weekends, instead of running around a soccer field or up and down a basketball court, I competed in individual swimming events. As I look back on my overall athletic experience, it’s obvious that I’ve only ever participated in individual sports.

In middle school, my friends joined the soccer and basketball teams. Having no prior experience playing either of those sports, I felt at a disadvantage and decided to try out for the cross-country team instead. Running was something anybody could do, and my swimming background had endowed me with an exceptionally long-lasting endurance. During these middle school years, I also followed my older sister’s footsteps and took up tennis.

Later, when I went to high school, I continued to run on the cross-country team and play on the tennis team. But, by that time, I had stopped swimming. In search for a winter sport to keep me occupied, an upperclassmen suggested that I try out for squash. I had never played before, but I decided to go for it and joined the freshman team. After learning how to play, I quickly became obsessed with squash. Today, I’m lucky to be a part of the Columbia women’s varsity squash team.

So why only individual sports? Maybe it was a coincidence. My parents were not very enthusiastic when it came to driving to away swim meets. They probably wouldn’t have been able to stand the commitment of a travel soccer team. Or perhaps, as immigrants, they didn’t understand the popularity of recreational soccer and basketball. I never really complained about it, but was I missing out on something? Do team sports have a particular edge over individual sports?

Gatorade took a recent poll on Facebook, asking its followers, “Individual Sports vs. Team Sports: which do you like better?” An overwhelming majority of the comments answered individual sports. The main, recurring reason was the sense of self-control people had in the outcome when they competed individually. There was no one to blame but themselves if they lost and no one to praise but themselves if they succeeded. They only had to account for their own efforts and depend on their own skills.

But there were also a couple of comments that spoke of the merits of a team sport. On a team you learn to work with a collective group towards one goal. You gain the support of your teammates, who “always have your back” and “become like family.” Some comments even suggested that success is more rewarding when you have a group of teammates to celebrate with.

Although I’ve only competed in individual sports, I feel like I’ve experienced many of the merits that the supporters of team sports have touched upon. Even though I stepped on the court alone whenever I played a tennis or squash match, I too felt the backing of my teammates and coaches on the sidelines. They helped me through tough losses and celebrated my success with me. And as I supported them, we all became a family.

Perhaps I wasn’t missing out on anything special. Competing as an individual on a school team probably gave me a dual experience. However, several comments on this Gatorade poll aptly pointed out that all sports are actually team sports.

The person who wins the New York City Marathon, that one individual, is part of a team: a team of coaches, trainers, physical therapists, and supporters. Even Roger Federer (arguably the greatest tennis player in history), who has played without a coach for many years, finds a team in his training partners and his family. Every sport is a team sport.

Every sport tests your physical and mental limits and forces you to overcome difficulties. Every sport teaches you how to work with different people and find support in followers. Athletics enables you to dust off losses and appreciate successes. The way sports bring together a group of strangers, into a team or a fan base, is why they are some of the most popular pastimes. There is no debate to be had: sports are sports. No qualifier is needed. Every type of experience shares in the same greatness.

Katie Quan is a Columbia College senior majoring in financial economics. She is a member of the women’s varsity squash team. In the Zone runs biweekly.


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