As someone who has spent the last 25 years playing and coaching in an individual sport, it has been a really refreshing and rewarding experience working with other sports and being back in a team environment.
Writing about this subject has brought back memories of the moment, aged 14 or 15, I told the football team I was playing for that I wouldn’t be joining the club the following season, that I was going to focus on my golf.
At the time it felt like a moment of liberation. My teenage self had something to prove.
That he could stand on his own two feet. That he was willing to succeed or fail by his own hand, rather than being a small cog in a bigger machine.
Looking back, the memories evoke some sadness, both for the opportunities and experiences my younger self no doubt forfeited in the years that followed, and at the realisation that that was probably the moment where I started to come off the rails from a mental point of view, and why the following 20 years felt like such a struggle.
Being Part of Something
This is one of the reasons I believe that specialisation in an individual sport at a young age is a disadvantage for young athletes. Being part of a team is a counterbalance to the understandable urge to become independent, to be free, to find your own path.
It’s a natural part of growing up to want to establish your independence from your parents, to be your own person and to find your own way. Unfortunately it’s at this point that many of us fall head over heels for the illusion that we are separate, individual fragments, detached from the greater whole.
We wrongly believe that the membership of a particular group or establishment is holding us back.
The feeling of separation, of detachment, of freedom and of holding one’s own fate in your hands is alluring at the time, but after a while those feelings can morph into loneliness, insecurity and fear.
Being part of a team can remind us of the benefits of being part of something greater than ourselves. It can give us a glimpse of the road back home.
As a mentally healthy teenager moves into adulthood, they will gradually come to realise that the illusion of freedom, of control that isolation might bring is just that. An tempting illusion.
They realise that feelings of isolation and insecurity seem to subside when they feel that they are still part of something greater than themselves, whether that is a family, a team, an organisation or simply a wider humanity.
This is the path well trodden. From dependent infant, to curious child, to rebellious teenager to independent adult and back to some level of dependence as we near the end of our lives.
We Are Always Connected
Our perception of our needs change throughout this journey, but one thing remains constant.
We are never truly separate or detached from the Source which connects us all, which we came from, and to which we will all go back to.
We only think we are.
The more real this detachment, this isolation seems and feels, the harder our path will be to navigate. The more we feel connected to and part of something greater than ourselves, the easier life will seem.
The illusion remains if we think that the feelings of connection and belonging we feel are coming from the environment we find ourselves in, or from the group or tribe we have become part of.
If this happens, we find ourselves back at square one.
The feelings of insecurity return at the thought that we might at some point lose the membership or acceptance of the group or tribe. Being dropped or excluded from the team can be a traumatic experience if we believe our value, our self worth or well being comes from our belonging.
Outsiders and those not in the group might be seen as enemies, as beings of lesser value, who are expendable in the pursuit of the ambitions of the tribe.
Any athlete who talks of’ their opponents in disrespectful terms is still caught in the illusion, and has misunderstood where their feelings of belonging and security are coming from.
Only when we see through the illusion, to the fact that being part of a greater whole which includes our competitors or opponents is what truly sets us free, are we likely to fully realise our potential.
A Shared Consciousness
The feelings we get from being part of a team are just the first steps on the ultimate journey.
Being part of a team is such a satisfying experience for the vast majority of human beings because it’s the first step back towards our connection with the Source of our experience, to our collective consciousness.
So where does this feeling of connection between team members, between all members of a group actually come from?
From my own experiences, and from talking to a number of athletes who have been part of successful teams, the best performances happen from a sense that all the participants are connected at a spiritual level.
When each individual loses their sense of self and is totally present, their individual ego drops away. They connect with this ‘team spirit’, this collective consciousness and thus feel ‘at one’ with each other.
The US Navy Seals have a description for when this happens. They call it ‘flicking the switch’.
It’s the moment when they cease to be a group of separate beings, and they meld into one unified entity.
Many athletes and performers will have experienced this at one time or another. When it happens it’s one of the most powerful experiences in all of sport.
Somehow you know exactly what your team-mate is going to do next. You find yourself in the perfect position to receive a pass or to make a tackle.
It isn’t a case of thinking correctly.
In the present moment there is no thought. It happens purely on instinct. The spirit of the team, the collective consciousness is a meeting of minds, or more accurately, a connection to one universal mind.
It’s the moment when the players stop thinking as individual intellects and tap into a single collective intelligence.
The Absence of Separation
So what does this feel like? How do we know when this happens?
Most human beings are aware that when their thinking subsides, when the gap between each individual thought expands and we become aware of the still, quiet space that each thought comes from, they feel a sense of peace and calmness.
The word often used to describe the feeling is Love, Peace, or Happiness. It is the absence of separation. A feeling of connection, of oneness.
If you aren’t aware of where this feeling is really coming from, you might well look outside and attribute the feeling to another person, or a group of people, to an activity or to a place.
In a team environment the usual place we look is to the people we are sharing that particular experience with, our team mates.
This feeling of bonding, of connection is one of the main reasons why people enjoy team sports so much, and is one of the things which people involved in those teams point to as a key to high performance.
Understanding how it really works and crucially, where those feelings are coming from is the key to maintaining the feeling over a sustained period, and to helping individual members of the team who might lose the connection and start to feel separate or excluded in some way.
Understanding that we all live in our own separate thought created realities within this shared consciousness allows us to overcome the inevitable wrinkles and fractures in relationships which inevitably occur within groups over a period of time.
All Men Are Created as Equals
So what are the keys to understanding and developing team spirit?
The first thing is that it’s critical to understand that at a spiritual level, we are all the same. When our personal thinking about who we are drops away, the ego dies. We tap into a deeper source of wisdom and intelligence. We feel connected.
Everyone is equal in this. No one has better access than anyone else. Everyone is doing the best they can from the level of connection to that consciousness they find themselves with at that moment.
This understanding on it’s own is enough to bring people closer. To help them understand why someone else might be struggling, and to reduce the temptation to blame when things aren’t going as well as expected. From this understanding the natural thing is to empathise and support, rather than criticise or find fault.
Secondly, to understand that any feelings of insecurity or separation we might be feeling in the moment are simply the result of insecure thinking, rather than the result of something someone else has said or done.
This thinking interferes with the connection to collective consciousness, and we start to feel disconnected and isolated. Team spirit suffers. When we see the nature of the thought – feeling connection clearly, individual members of the team become more resilient, they stop taking things personally.
Honest opinions can be shared freely. The resilience of the team is strengthened exponentially.
Relationships within the team become something to be enjoyed, rather than something which need to be managed.
Thirdly, team spirit grows when we understand that the consciousness we are connected to extends beyond the immediate team or group. It includes everyone and everything. Our competitors or opponents are not the enemy to be feared, hated or conquered. They are an essential part of the game we are playing.
Perhaps the most enjoyable experiences in sport is two teams at the height of their powers matching each other blow for blow until a victor emerges. A game is much less enjoyable if one team isn’t playing well or even worse, isn’t really trying.
When the other team or our opponent is at our best, it forces us to raise our game, to find out how good we can be, to get closer to our potential. Feeling hatred or animosity towards someone who is helping us find out how good we can be just doesn’t make any sense. We are all players of the game, regardless of what team we play for.
The aspiration is the same, to enjoy what we are doing and to reach our potential. By playing our best and giving our all we move closer to that goal.
By doing so we help each other do the same.
The True Meaning of Team Spirit
To sum up, being part of a team isn’t the thing that makes us feel happy or fulfilled, but it is pointing us in the right direction.
It points us towards the fact that happiness comes from the understanding of who we really are, a connected element of a greater whole, rather than an isolated fragment.
Team spirit isn’t something you build. There is an innate connection between all human beings. Team spirit is something you connect to which is already there.
Most of us get into sport because we enjoy it. We love the feelings which come from playing, from learning and from achieving.
The inevitable ups and downs encourage us to look deeper. When we see past the Outside In illusion, to where those feelings are really coming from, we see the truth.
Sport itself can’t make us happy, but it is possible through sport to understand what happiness really is.