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The Feelgood Paradox - Can Camaraderie And Competitiveness Coexist?

Can camaraderie and competitiveness coexist in sports?

In most athletic teams camaraderie is a desirable quality; it can foster a sense of security and belonging; it can boost an individual's confidence while creating synergistic well-being within the team and it promotes cooperation. It can also enhance the enjoyment and fun associated with being part of something bigger and more important than oneself.

In the cycle of a typical college school year I spend a considerable amount of time promoting the benefits of an inclusive and cooperative team culture by initiating mentor groups, peer leadership exercises, social activities and good, old-fashioned conversation. Maintaining a palpable feel good factor in the squad is a significant goal and I check its pulse on a regular basis.

But there is an issue, and that is whether camaraderie actually undermines competitiveness and vice versa in the context of modern-day athletic teams.

From the time kids are introduced to organized sports they are often immersed in a great contradiction. They are encouraged to participate in win-loss activities, which by their very nature require the separation of individuals and teams from each other via the keeping of a score, but to do so in a manner that suggests that the score is not as important as being uniformly cooperative. While non-results-based sporting activity may be desirable at an early age and may foster important social and other learning skills, its benefits may not be so helpful later in the young athlete's career when the ability to compete in a more goal-oriented environment is required.

Coaches nowadays can often be heard bemoaning how "soft" their athletes are. Not necessarily lacking physical attributes or ability but lacking a deep reservoir of the psychological strength to single-mindedly persevere and do whatever is needed to win. A coaching colleague at a high-level Division 1 collegiate soccer program recently told me that he was going to Scotland to recruit a couple of players because he was distressed that all his current players wanted to do was " be nice to each other and be friends." Presumably Scottish players are neither nice nor friendly.

The prevailing sentiment among coaches seems to be that maintaining an environment with a high feelgood factor is important but not at the expense of the type of competitiveness that enables individuals and teams to be effective and successful. However before one becomes too enamored with super-competitiveness it is important to note that a ruthless, goal-oriented approach can be even more problematic and divisive than perceived softness. Youth sports that are overly competitive can breed self-interested athletes who tend towards a "win-or-quit" way of thinking and run a high risk of results-focused burnout sometimes before they even reach their teens.

Collegiate level athletes will usually have ascended through stratified levels of increasingly higher and stronger competition but it appears that the non-competition side of their pre-college training and environment is having a more noticeably profound effect than in the past. In the view of those coaches that rue the onset of softness, " fun" has become something of a buzzword and whereas in the past the most surefire means of having fun was to win; nowadays it is tied less firmly to outcomes and more closely to the quantity of a person's playing time. Similarly "fairness" is another prevalent concern and the old-fashioned "dog-eat-dog" notion that you get only what you earn has been undermined by a way of thinking that suggests everybody works hard and therefore everybody should be rewarded. Although many coaches at the college level will be unbowed by such ways of thinking it is impossible to discount them entirely and therein lies a great challenge; how to manage and maintain an environment where one can pursue both process and goal-oriented ends by having high levels of camaraderie and competitiveness.

It seems counterintuitive to expect that camaraderie, which pulls people together, can effectively coexist with competitiveness, which requires that they separate themselves, often at each other's expense. The ideal state would be to have high levels of both in perfect balance because too much of one will almost certainly lessen the benefit of the other. Too much emphasis on the feelgood side may engender the softness that impelled my colleague to go to Scotland while a reckless concentration on competitiveness can trigger divisions that cause teams to crack when cohesion is most needed.

I spoke above of our efforts to create team spirit but it is also true that we have stepped-up our focus on ways to breed decisive competitiveness in the practice and game environments; we are constantly looking for ways to spur individuals and the team as a whole to relish and respond to situations that demand they go for broke in their efforts to succeed. A generation ago teaching athletes to have competitive fire when they played would have been viewed as laughably redundant, but this is an age where social and emotional well-being matters a great deal more than in times past. As a consequence athletes are routinely faced with the challenge of smoothly transitioning between distinctly different on and off field personas. Coaches are required to fashion teaching environments that can make sense of these opposing forces and often find themselves undertaking a challenge akin to walking a season-long tightrope with uneven weights in either hand where equilibrium is elusive and constantly changing.

It is possible to have both and there have been famously successful examples but finding that magical blend is not easy for today's youngsters or their coaches because in sports as in life, the trick is in the balance.