Track and field is a weird sport.
Why? Because it’s both an individual sport and a team sport at the same time. Some people love the team aspect of track, while others enjoy the fact that their success all comes down to what they themselves do in their event (except for relays, of course). The dilemma is how do you find the right balance between being a team player and being selfishly obsessed with your own performance? As a former Olympic sprinter, I find that the solution is often a happy medium between the two.
It’s rare for any athlete to be great all on their own. Most people need a team that consists of a coach, a therapist to keep them healthy, and at least one competitive teammate they can train with. There are very few athletes who can prepare completely on their own and thrive in the sport. You need people around you to guide you, push you, and help you achieve your goals.
But on that same note, track is a very selfish sport. When it’s time to compete in an individual event (the category that the vast majority of track and field events fall into), it’s just you out there. If you mess up in a race, you have to claw back yourself. A teammate can’t cover your butt and pick up the slack. Your coach can’t change the strategy at halftime or do anything to save you from your setback. You’re judged solely on your own performance, and the numbers you record do not lie.
To thrive in track and field, you need to thrive within a team environment while also making sure you look out for number one. You need to help your teammates get better so that they also push you to be better, but you also need to know that when meet day arrives, you’re going at it alone. Utilize the five following strategies to make yourself an excellent track and field teammate without sacrificing your own performance.
1. Lead by Example to be a Great Teammate
The truth is that the best way to be a great track and field teammate is to lead by example. Success breeds success because people want to be around winners. Leading by example is not just about winning, however. Ask any coach who has ever had a talented pain-in-the-ass on their team and they’ll tell you that they did not set a great example for their teammates despite the fact they won a lot of races or events. Their selfishness becomes poison for the culture. Leading by example means setting the culture for how everyone else should act.
When I was in college at Iowa State, one thing I was dedicated to was stretching every single day. It did not matter if there were guests at my house or the college football upset of the century going on, I was stretching. I did that because I was leading by example. Track is an individual sport, so I could not make my teammates do it. But my making sure I did it consistently myself, I was showing my teammates what it took to succeed.
2. Approach Practice and Competition With a Great Attitude
There are not a lot of things you can control in life. When you really think about it, your attitude is genuinely the only thing you have full control of. If you come to practice and complain and spread poison throughout your team, that is the opposite of having a great attitude.
People with great attitudes are infectious, and they spread their smiles and positive energy throughout the team. The beauty of having an excellent attitude is that it both helps you strive to be your best while also helping you be a great teammate. If you have a great attitude and no one else follows your lead, then so what? You get to have a great workout and the season of your life no matter what happens. If your teammates do follow you, then you get to be in an environment full of people with great attitudes. That breeds both individual and team success.
3. Encourage Others to Be Great
Encouraging others on your team to be great is another way to succeed both selfishly and as a teammate. Helping others is in your best interest, as the better your teammates are, the more you’ll be pushed to be great. We become what we are around, and if everyone on your team is winning, it is going to drive you to succeed. Sadly, the same is to be said for losing, because that’s also contagious.
Encouraging your team to succeed is great for the team as well, because the better everyone does, the more points your team scores. These points allow you to win the conference, state and national championships. When you win these championships, it encourages donors to support and more people to come out for the team, and everything gets better.
4. Give Credit for Success and Take Blame for Failure
The hardest thing about individual sports is falling into the trap of attributing winning to how awesome you are and attributing losing to how awful everyone else is. The best thing you can do is change that mindset.
When you win, give credit to others. This helps build a healthy team culture where people push each other to achieve success. When you lose, take 100% ownership of that loss. Don’t blame anyone or make any other person feel sorry about the loss. Remember, the only thing you can control is your attitude. Blaming others for your failures sucks, in no small part because you can’t change other people. When you win, give credit to your teammates. When you lose, don’t deflect the blame. Simply take it on the chin and strive to do better next time.
5. Make it About More Than You
You want the thing that drives you to be bigger than yourself. Not only is this true in track and field, but it’s true of anything you want to achieve in life.
When you are trying to accomplish something, and it’s all about you, quitting is easy. When you quit, you know you can walk away easily, because you are only letting down yourself. When you make your success about other people you love, walking away is hard, and it becomes easier to do the right thing day to day.
Track can be hard because when you step out to compete, it is just you against the world. Your team disappears for the moment. If in your heart though, you have a more significant purpose and a greater reason for what you are doing, you will not feel as alone.
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