Clinching in a Clutch: We Before Me

Spring college sports are in full swing. Both my daughters are well into their seasons. Kick-off weekend is long in the books, but it was not without drama. The good kind, of course. The one where your kid gets to be the hero. But instead of swooping in to save the day in a timely fashion, she draws it out, missing chances, letting things bother her, having to reel it in, and having to hear the coach tell her to get her act together because it's no longer a game about you: it's a team sport.

That weekend reminded me that college sports are a very different dynamic. The emphasis on the team becomes front and center. I'm watching her perform as an individual, but the reality is she was just one of six expected to contribute to a win for the team. That clutch moment would clinch a significant victory for her team or mean defeat. She would need to put the team before herself: it is the we before me that is college sports.

That’s a new theme to so many athletes that participate in collegiate sports. Individual athletes like tennis players, swimmers, golfers, gymnasts, track athletes, among others, grow up focusing on their performances. It’s them and a ball or the clock or their score. It has been instilled in them to win/perform for themselves. You have a bad day, let your attitude get in the way, let small things take your focus away from the task at hand, and you can quickly find yourself trying to come from behind or simply lose. When it’s over, it’s on you. With some exceptions like doubles or relays, there are few opportunities to participate as part of a team. Suddenly, these athletes get to college and the dynamic changes in focus from the individual to the team. It is a shift in mindset for players. And, quite honestly, for parents as well.

What happened to my daughter? Nothing new, actually. Wins the first set. Gets down in the second. Let’s her attitude start to dictate play. Loses second set. The coach comes over and has a little heart-to-heart with her. I do love that part of college tennis. I like that the coaches can come in and talk strategy or give positive words of encouragement. Or, in this case, remind the player that it is not about them. The coach could see she was frustrated she didn't close the match the many chances she had. The body language, the attitude, it all spilled over. She needed to change the negative. When she was younger, I would tell her to channel her inner Elsa: Let it go. Sometimes that worked; other times, she was too far gone mentally to reel it back in. Such is the mental side of sports.

Her coach reminded her that she wasn't alone out there on the tennis court. Her teammates were also in tough matches, battling. In no uncertain terms, he reiterated that others were watching her. He asked how she thought her teammates were reading her. Until that moment, she hadn't thought about that. It was a stark reality check that what you do carries over across all the courts. You fight, they fight. Pulling it together for the team's sake shows leadership by example, strength in adversity, a will and willingness to put it all out there for the team. That day, she rallied mentally in that clutch match to clinch it for the team.

There is a pattern: Implode. Explode. Regroup. Execute. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Sometimes you can't even see it coming. There are many factors that athletes deal with at any time; So many little quirks that become part of their persona. My daughter will often hiccup at a 5-2 lead. Instead of just closing out the match, play changes to be careful, reckless, or some combination thereof. Digging the hole begins. It is easy to stand on the sidelines watching, thinking all she must do is serve well, make her shots, stay consistent, do what she has been doing to get to the end of the match. But it is never that easy, especially in more challenging matches. And, ironically, when the pressure to win for the team starts to become top of mind, a whole new dynamic begins to surface. It becomes a game of we before me, the sense that you might let the team down drives a desire to fight for that W.

Even in team sports, there's a burden athletes carry: If only I’d done better. If they lose, especially a clutch match, there’s that feeling of letting their team down. At that moment, the me part of the sport that had been such a big part of their make-up is drowned out by the overwhelming desire to contribute to their team’s success. If they lose, even a match or event they weren’t expected to win, they carry a weight because the eventual team outcome is somewhat predicated on their performance. Those clutch moments can be especially grueling to the athletes.

Anyone who has watched the feel-good TV show Ted Lasso can likely relate to the team's frustration with Jamie Tartt. Jamie Tartt is the antithesis of a team player in those early episodes. He wants the glory only to earn the ire of his fellow teammates. I have witnessed this often in team-based college sports. Sadly, sometimes we sports become sullied by those who want the glory, who don't trust their teammates to make the wide-open shot, who selfishly keep the ball for themselves. I cringe at those moments because they are not as infrequent as I would wish. But it reminds me that even those athletes lose sight of the end game, too: being a team player. I guess it can go both ways in the me before we and we before me road of sports.

Transitioning from me to we is something I have seen chiefly reserved for kids who grow up doing sports outside of high school. As a high school swim coach, I am in awe every year at how much the seasonal athletes just appreciate being there. They like being part of a team. I never genuinely respected that until I began coaching ten years ago. I still give positive affirmations for their performances just because every ego needs that regardless. But there is also this naivety to those who just do their high school sport: they haven’t learned to be individualistic. I love that. They still care if the team wins. They ask if they did well. They just don't know. And I love to tell them how awesome they are, how much just finishing without a disqualification is huge or improving their time or being the sacrificial lamb who swims the 100 butterfly or 500 free means something. My words inspire them to do it for the good of the team. It's beautiful, and it's so worth the smiles on their faces when they succeed at something they had no idea they could do.

College sports are a different level regardless of the division. The team comes first. No one wants to have to be the hero. It is so much easier to get the win, earn the points, and know you contributed positively that day. It is so much harder to keep it together when the pressure is on, to have to dig deep inside yourself, check your ego at the door, and find a way to win for the team. The sheer thrill that erupts from the teammates at the win is magical; the smiles are enormous for everyone. There is a true joy in celebrating that victory as a team. I have heard my daughter say how good it feels to clinch when it’s clutch, but she would so much rather cheer on her teammate battling in the clutch. In the end, though, they are competing as a team, supporting, cheering, winning, and losing together. It is one of the great lessons of team sports in college, especially for those athletes who play individual sports.



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