Team unity at the Ryder Cup: Fist bumps won’t cut it

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Every time the Ryder Cup matches are played people talk about the relative impact of team unity versus individualism.

Most casual observers say the Americans are a less unified team than the Europeans, despite the latter being comprised of players from different nations. What is it about Europeans that allows them to unite over a common goal, even with teammates from countries with which theirs has historically battled? And what is it about Americans that makes it difficult for them to unite, despite their country being founded on the idea of uniting a disparate people toward common ends?

Some say this difference is a myth, created or fueled by a media machine hoping to spur dramatic story lines. This myth would turn the historical stereotype of Americans’ rugged individualism into selfish pursuit of personal gain over shared aims. Certainly that was said about Tiger. (And we really do need to take into account the media’s role as provocateur, conjuring up rivalries where in fact there are friendships, etc.)

But – given that most of the participants in recent Ryder Cups play on the PGA tour, live in the US, played college golf in the NCAA, played junior golf in the US, share the same swing and mental game coaches, and are friends – can we really say there is a significant difference between this seemingly homogenous group split into two groups (i.e., it’s practically like a PGA Tour scrimmage, much like Canada – USA Olympic hockey contests are for the NHL)?

Sociologists would tell us that even if these guys left their home country to take up residence in the US junior golf machine, and even if at a young age they began identifying with America’s customs and its celebration of individual pursuit, the Europeans were already shaped by the cultural norms of their homelands, what with millennia-old disputes over territory and sovereignty, tribalism, and the EU, not to mention the Premier League.

Dodging geopolitics, I’ll stay in the sports arena: my best guess is that people who grow up watching futbol arm in arm have a deep-seated comfort being on one side and not the other, and this dynamic plays out when it comes to joining the European squad.

Whether or not one side is more likely to be united, the real question is does team unity make a difference?

Coaches at all levels must decide if they can get the most from their team by fostering either competition among teammates or team unity.

The former strategy is based on the idea that competitive athletes perform best if they are pitted against teammates: Recruit all-stars, throw them in the pit together, and let them fight it out.

The unity strategy is based on the idea that competitive athletes will do best when they trust that their teammates want them to succeed; that team support facilitates optimal mental conditions, and thus, improves performance.

No surprise I am a favor of fostering a unified team and have seen supportive teams boost individual players to new levels of performance.

So how do you do this on your own team? Be part of the team, don’t individuate. Wear the team uniform proudly. Go with the team and the routines established by the captain/coach. It is crucial to express that you are all in, not just going along with it. Body language and non-verbal cues are amplified in the team context. Never be a drag on the team’s enthusiasm. Even when you are playing poorly, carry yourself as though you are killing it – this will motivate and reassure your teammates. Be liberal with your expressions and gestures of support to your teammates: the message is positive and encouraging: “we can do this”, ” we will succeed”. This holds true even after a disappointing result. Remember what Ali famously said: “I, We.” And don’t be afraid to hug and high five! Cautious fist bumps may spare you some germs but that’s about it.

It will be interesting to watch this year’s matches and see if there appears to be a more unified team. And to listen to what the media make of this issue.

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