Track: Team Sport or Individual Sport

An issue that has been bouncing around my mind lately as the spring season has come to a close has been that of whether track is an individual sport or a team sport. I’m conflicted on this topic, since I can see the merit of both perspectives. In this article I will explore this question in detail, and by the end I’ll make it clear where I stand.

When I first started running track, it appealed to me because it was an individual sport. Growing up, I came from a family of basketball players, and I played basketball through my junior year of high school. Meanwhile, beginning in the sixth grade, I ran track in the spring, just as a break from basketball. I didn’t really start taking track seriously until I started hurdling in the tenth grade. Around that time, my frustrations with basketball were mounting. In comparing basketball to track, I recognized the value of there being no “bench” in track. In basketball, I could work hard and play well in practice yet still never get on the court in a game. And even if I did get on the court, and play well, the coach might decide to give someone else more playing time for any seemingly random reason. But in track, even if I was the slowest hurdler on the team, I’d get my chance to compete in a meet, even if in a slow heat. And if I ran fast enough, I could move up on the depth chart. In track, I realized, I’d always get a chance to show what I could do.

When, in the fall of my junior year, I decided to quit basketball in favor of running track through the winter and into the spring, a big part of the reason for that decision was that in track, I’d have a chance to improve as an individual, to succeed as an individual. I felt some measure of assurance that if I worked hard, my hard work would pay off.

What I disliked most about the basketball team was that it seemed to encourage what George Orwell, in 1984, referred to as the “Groupthink” mentality, which, on the basketball team, meant being very vocal in cheering on your teammates, clapping your hands for every good play, buying into the program, adapting your skills to fit the system. So, unless you were a star player, you had very little room for individuality, for allowing your natural personality to unfold. Unless, of course, your personality was to be loud. I always felt that the camaraderie on the basketball team was contrived, and therefore lacking in authenticity.

I found that although I liked the game of basketball, I sorely disliked the sport of basketball. I could play pick-up games all day long, but the organized version just choked out my enjoyment, enthusiasm, and natural playfulness. It didn’t allow me to have my own personality. I was quiet by nature, and in a team sport, being quiet always seems to be viewed as a sign of weakness.

I found that track allowed me to be my natural self. Hurdling, especially, fit my personality to a tee. It was an intellectual pursuit – this whole thing of mastering technique – and I loved immersing myself in the process of experimentation and discovery. Also, I could strive for individual success. Team success was an afterthought, because even though my teammates were many, I only trained with a handful of them – the other hurdlers, and, on occasion, the sprinters. In my senior year, I won the league championship in the 110 hurdles, but my team didn’t win the team championship. When the meet ended, I remember feeling very satisfied that I had won the 110’s, very disappointed that I had finished only third in the 300’s, but not disappointed at all that we had come up short as a team.

So, as a high school athlete, and on into college, track was always an individual sport for me. I never looked at it any other way. My teams were never deep enough to win team titles, so the issue never came up.

One time in college, my coach was talking to me and another hurdler about one of the teams we were going to be competing against in the upcoming meet.

“This is gonna be a tough one,” our coach said. “These guys have a lot of good quarter milers, some really good sprinters, a triple jumper, and they’re always strong in distance.”

My teammate and I looked at each other, then I think it was me who asked, “What do they have in the hurdles?”

Coach shook his head and answered, “Not much, they’re weak in the hurdles.”

My teammate and I breathed a sigh of relief and laughed at our coach’s oblivion to the fact that we didn’t care about those other events.

But now that I’ve been coaching for the past seventeen years, I can see where the team aspect comes into play. The boys team at my school won the Independent School state championship here in North Carolina in 2005, and that was a very gratifying accomplishment. Seeing that team come together, everybody pitching in to score points where needed, our head coach masterminding the whole plan by putting athletes in events where they could produce the most points – it made me feel better than I ever could have imagined. Even now, when I go into the gym in the athletic center and see that banner hanging on the wall, I feel a sense of pride in knowing I played a part in that, and I recall fond memories of the guys on that team.

But no, that moment is not, by a long shot, among my fondest memories in my coaching career. The fondest memories are of individual athletes. Whether it be one of my freshman girls successfully learning how to alternate lead legs during a practice session, or an elite-level hurdler winning a national championship, I remember the individual accomplishments the most. Chills still run down my spine, for example, when I think back to Johnny Dutch winning high school nationals in the 110’s back in 2006 twenty minutes after finding out he’d been dq’ed for hooking during his victory in the 400 hurdles an hour earlier. Those are the kinds of moments that we live for in track and field. Moments of individual heroism, in the heat of the battle.

I would argue that the team-sport approach to track is most beneficial to the non-elite athletes. Being a part of a team gives them a chance to be part of something larger than themselves, to make a contribution to the team’s success, even if their talent won’t allow them to be a star. Someone who might not be fast enough to make it to the finals of the open 400, for example, could still run a key leg in the 4×400 relay. And the truth is, most kids aren’t stars. For many, the opportunity to run that relay leg, or to score an eighth-place point, might mark the peak of their track careers. And if they’re training hard throughout the year, making personal sacrifices in order to commit fully to the team, they deserve a chance to compete.

On the flip side, though, the team-sport approach is not good for the star athletes. I would go so far as to argue that it is unfair to the star athletes, and that it ultimately waters down the authenticity of the sport. In the quest for team titles, we often ask far too much of our stars, pushing them beyond reasonable limits, increasing the possibility of overuse injuries, compromising their opportunities for individual success not only at the team’s big meets, but also in post-season championship meets. In addition, because star athletes often have individual goals that can conflict with the team’s objectives, these athletes are often unjustly looked upon by their teammates and coaches as selfish and egocentric.

When it comes to squeezing out more points for the team, coaches will consider some straight-up stupid ideas, and usually these ideas involve the star athletes. A hurdler that I coached in the summers several years ago was one of the best 110 hurdlers in the country at the time, and his school coach wanted to put him in the high jump at their state meet. Granted, this kid could jump 6-2 and could’ve probably scored. But he hadn’t high-jumped in three years, and he would be facing some very stiff competition in both hurdling events, so he needed to devote all of his energy to the hurdles. Throw in the fact that at the North Carolina state meet all prelims and finals are run on the same day, did adding another event to an already packed schedule make any sense?

In the name of points, yes. A head coach will justify anything in the name of points. That athlete didn’t end up competing in the high jump, but he had to fight to get out of it.

This past season, the girls team at my school had a legitimate chance to win the independent schools state title. But everything would have to go right; we had little margin for error. With that thought in mind, our throws coach, who had been our head coach the year the boys won the title, suggested that our top girl sprinter, Jenna, try the shot-put. She had never done it before in her life, but she’s powerfully built, has good upper body strength, and because the shot is one of the weaker events in our state, it seemed plausible that she might be able to steal a point or two.

Jenna tried it one day in practice, hated it, didn’t do very well, so the project was quickly dropped.

“In high school,” Jenna said, when asked to provide some input on the topic of track as a team sport, “everyone tries to score team points by participating in an extra event or two that they’re not really as good at or may not enjoy as much.” She added, however, that “track can’t really become a team sport without being an individual sport first. When each individual does her best at her own thing, that’s when the team succeeds. Individuals qualify for higher-level meets, not whole teams.”

Another athlete on my school team who was feeling the pressure to score points for the team was our distance/middle-distance runner Wesley Frazier, who, as a sophomore, is one of the top track athletes in the country. At our conference meet, Wesley won the 800, 1600, and 3200. The races took a lot out of her, especially the 1600, which she won  in 4:48, a good eleven seconds faster than her previous personal best. A monstrous drop. For the state meet, our coaching staff wanted her to add the 4×800 to her list of events so that we could score more points. We couldn’t win the 4×8, but the difference between fifth and third in that event could end up being the difference between winning the state championship versus finishing as runner-up for the second year in a row.

Wesley balked. She didn’t want to do it. She felt like she was still recovering physically from the conference meet, and explained that she wouldn’t be able to run at her best in her individual events if she stretched herself too far by adding the relay.

I don’t coach Wesley, but serve as a mentor figure and a guide. In the school building, my office in the English department suite is about a ten-second walk from her locker in sophomore hall. So we see each other all the time. Plus, having coached several hurdlers over the years who have competed at a level on par with where Wesley is in her events, I’m aware of the sometimes severe demands placed on such gifted athletes. In the week leading up to the state meet, Wesley and our head coach were going back and forth about the 4×800. When talking to her one-on-one after she had finished her workout one day, I explained to Wesley that great athletes are often asked to carry a heavier burden, and that her opportunity to focus on herself and achieve success as an individual would come in the post-season – at high school nationals and similarly competitive meets. But the state meet, I explained, is not the peak of individualism; it’s a school meet. A very high-level school meet, but a school meet nonetheless. Team points come first. So, give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Do the team thing for now, and when the season’s over, do the individual thing.

Wesley understood, and agreed. I left thinking that the issue had been resolved. She would run four events at states.

But the next morning, shortly after I arrived in my office, Wesley came into my office and sat down. That usually meant that something was wrong.

“I really don’t want to do the four-by-eight,” she said. She went on to explain that she appreciated all I had said the previous afternoon, but that she was worried. With the competition at states, she wouldn’t be able to just run away and hide, except in the 3200. But in the 1600, and especially in the 800 (where she was most vulnerable), she’d have to put forth maximum effort.

I recognized the sincerity in her voice. I recognized the pain her dilemma was causing her. She wanted to do all she could for the team, but not at the expense of her own well-being. I found myself feeling guilty. Guilty for being part of the coaching staff that was asking her to run four events at states. Guilty for being part of the staff that was asking her to extend herself possibly beyond her limits, for the sake of the team. Asking her to do something that could even jeopardize her ability to peak properly for her post-season championship races. Did this team title really matter that much?

To me, it didn’t. To me, it doesn’t. Later that day, I expressed my concern to our head coach that adding Wesley to the relay may help the relay, but it could end up costing us points in her open races. It wasn’t worth the risk. Ultimately, our head coach agreed, and Wesley was kept out of the relay. She ran her three individual events, won them all, and set a new personal best of 4:47 in the 1600. We didn’t win the meet (we finished second), but the 4×8 wouldn’t have been the difference had Wesley run it.

At the meet, a coach from a rival school openly questioned one of our coaches as to why Wesley hadn’t run the 4×8. He considered it a major strategic blunder on our part. I think it was a coach whose team could’ve benefited from us scoring more points in that relay. When our coach passed along to me what the rival coach had said, I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t give a damn what he thought. If Wesley had run the 4×8 and that strategy had helped to push us to a team title, but it had cost Wesley the ability to run at her best in the post-season, I would’ve never forgiven myself.

When asked her thoughts about track as a team sport, Wesley acknowledged that “there’s camaraderie in the team concept” and that “no individual wants to let the team down,” but she also argued that, despite the fact that a team tally is kept, track, with the exception of relays, is an individual sport.

“A sport is not a team sport just because we call it a team,” she said. “To be a team sport, it must involve members of a team coordinating plays together or running schemes to produce a score. Basketball is a team sport because one person cannot pass the ball to himself. A football player cannot pass, catch, run and block all by himself. However, a runner runs a race alone.”

Kim Batten, 1995 world champion in the 400m hurdles, has competed at a high-level Division I program (Florida State) as well as at the highest international level; she has also coached at many levels – from youth track to the elite level. Batten stated that, at the youth level, track is very much a team sport. And from a developmental standpoint, the team aspect is very beneficial, even essential. Not only at the youth level, but also at the high school level, and even at the college level, Batten said, the team concept is important for promoting the concepts of unity and sportsmanship.

But, Batten made quite clear, the team approach, particularly at the collegiate level, harms the elite level athlete – the athlete who has the potential to go on to compete at the Olympic level.

“The college systems burn you out,” Batten said. “For some people it works very well. But colleges no longer respect the individual. They are so points-oriented that they sacrifice the development of the elite athlete. So you have to leave that system very quickly if you want to move up.”

In regards to elite athletes sacrificing individual goals for the sake of the team, Batten noted that “the team concept is so built into how athletics are structured in the US, there’d be backlash if you didn’t. But if you’re compromising your ability to move on to the next level, you have to become selfish, or else you end up being a workhorse, which can cost you your future. I’d rather compete at the highest level than compete for a team championship. It’s not selfish to look at it as an individual sport. It’s you against your competitors. No one else comes into play.”

Star athletes often feel guilty about not doing everything that is asked of them. Aware of how much the team is relying upon them, they’ll comply to every wish and demand, wearing down their bodies and their love of the sport in the process.

Star athletes should be allowed the freedom to pursue individual greatness. Yes it’s true that in school meets we keep a tally of team points. Yes it’s true that even at the Olympic level – the height of individual achievement in the sport – we keep a tally of medals for each country. But the sport is about individual greatness. Usain Bolt’s 9.58, Renaldo Nehemiah’s 12.93, Carl Lewis’ four gold medals. These are the moments we remember. These are the moments we celebrate. These are the accomplishments that represent the highest level of success in the sport.

As Batten said, “track and field, in its purest form, is in individual sport.” The team aspect waters down that purity. Team championships are for head coaches. Their success is measured by team success. That’s why I’ve never wanted to be a head coach. I don’t care enough about team titles to ever be a head coach. As an events coach, I don’t like stretching my athletes thin, adding them to events where they don’t excel for the sake of points. I want them to have the chance to excel in their specialty events.

So, if you define an individual sport as one in which an athlete competes without the aid of teammates, and in which individual success is the height of accomplishment, then yes, let there be no doubt, track is an individual sport.

© 2011 Steve McGill

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