There is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ but what if you’re only playing for yourself? Many factors beyond basic physical conditioning work together to contribute to athletic performance, but one could have a major effect on the psychological aspects of athletic performance—whether the sport is individual or team-based.
Perhaps the biggest difference between team and individual sports is what motivates athletes. In solo activities, such as long-distance running, the athlete is responsible for the training and strategy required to ensure his or her own success, whereas in a group sport like football, team members must work together toward victory. Most people are familiar with the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the drive to do something for its own sake (Deci 1975), and extrinsic would be the opposite—doing something as a means to an end, like a reward or punishment (Vallerand 2007). One theory of motivation, Self-Determination Theory, expands upon intrinsic motivation, stating that it aims to satisfy the three psychological needs of competence, relatedness, and autonomy (Ryan and Deci 2000). One study found that athletes involved in individual sports experienced greater feelings of autonomy than their team-based counterparts, possibly due to greater freedom to make decisions (Gillet and Rosner 2008).
In addition to potentially lower levels of intrinsic motivation, members of team sports face a number of challenges, such as the need for a large amount of coordination in an ever-changing environment. Next, leadership plays a critical role. It is up to the leader to make goals and judgment calls, as well as individualizing training for team members (Zaccaro et al. 2002). Research has found that empathic accuracy, or the ability to accurately gauge the thoughts of another person, among coaches of individual sports is higher than in team sports (Lorimer and Jowett 2009). This could affect individual attention from coaches in team settings, which is incredibly important, as prescribing the same training plan to all team members could result in detraining of athletes in less active roles, and overtraining for those who receive larger amounts of playing time.
Overtraining, defined as an increase in amount or intensity of physical activity combined with inadequate recovery, is a widespread problem (Hoffman 2014). It is generally accepted that some level of overtraining is a prerequisite for peak performance, but pushing too hard can lead to chronic fatigue and underperformance, often referred to as a state of physical ‘staleness’ (Morgan et al. 1987). The incidence of staleness has been found to be higher among participants in individual sports (Kentta et al. 2001). This could be attributed to individual athletes’ greater autonomy resulting in overambitious goals.
Differences between individual and team athletes are apparent when it comes to motivation and training, but what about performance mid-competition? A good indicator of this would be how often athletes enter ‘the zone,’ or a state of psychological flow. Flow is described as an optimal state in which an individual’s ability matches the challenge of an activity, which involves complete absorption and focus (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). Research indicates the positive relationship between athletes’ experience of psychological flow and optimal performance (Jackson et al. 2001). Several studies have investigated the effect of sport type on achieving a state of flow among athletes, but it seems that flow is universal among athletes regardless of what sport they play (Young and Pain 1999, Russell 2001)
Sports psychology research has yielded significant differences between athletes in individual and team sports in terms of motivation, coaching, and training. However, when it comes to overall enjoyment and reaching an optimal psychological state, the type of sport does not appear to have an effect. Satisfaction would depend on the personal experiences of each athlete. For the rest of us trying to decide if one type is better than another, it really depends whether you ask a runner or a football player.
By Alicia Parnell
Alycia Parnell holds degrees in Psychology and Environmental Studies from the University of Utah. She lives, works, and writes in Salt Lake City.
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Zaccaro, S. J., A. L. Rittman, and M. A. Marks. 2002. Team leadership. The Leadership Quarterly 12: 451-483.
Articles by Alicia Parnell.