Playing ‘For Us’ vs Playing ‘Against Them’

What is the best way to achieve immediate AND lifelong success? What’s the surest way to pick up a 1st down at the end of a game when everyone is tired?? Try playing FOR your team instead of AGAINST the opponent. #BeyondStrength

I am lucky to have been part of some amazing teams.

In high school we won a Conference Championship and consistently knocked off top-ranked teams in the state; in college we were one of the winningest classes in school history; after college, my career was highlighted by National Championships in both Ireland and Spain.

All of those teams shared one essential quality…

Some would say that each of those teams had talent. Fair. But we beat teams with more quantifiable talent in regards to size, strength, and speed.

All of those teams had great coaching as well. Fair. But so did our opponents – many of the mentioned victories came against Hall-of-Fame caliber coaches from opposing schools.

The common factor for every team that raised a trophy in my career: we cared about each other. Don’t dismiss this idea just yet… genuine care is more unique than it sounds, and it has surprisingly powerful associations to on-field success.

Take Care of Each Other

The concept sounds like it is, or should be, common practice. It isn’t. There are multiple ways a team can fail at caring about its members. This truth commonly appears in headlines about selfish professionals. Antonio Brown is the most recent example of an athlete who has very little interest in, and takes very little care of, his teammates.

When Tedy Bruschi discussed the New England Patriots’ signing of Brown, he identified that if he were to be successful and have a chance at team success, “he will have to change.”

He did not. He had no interest in teammates and team policy. That, combined with a flurry of off-field concerns, left Brown once again without a team.

At the professional level, lack of team-care is more common. It’s a job.

But at the high school level, lack of team-care can be insidious. Although it is meant to be an educational platform, high school teams too often villainize opponents, making competition more about taking down the opposing team than playing for your own.

It is okay to get excited about playing the cross-town rival, of course – rivalries are one of the best parts about sports. And it is okay to get jacked up for a challenge. Playing a tough opponent means that you will have to be at your best, at your toughest, to succeed. These are all important elements of competitive athletics.

As coaches, it is our duty to frame the competitive environments in a healthy way.

If every competition is an epic battle of Us vs Them, with the adolescent boys from one zip-code over, positioned by grown coaches as “villains” and “the f***ing enemy,” the competition has not been framed in a healthy way. And to the coaches who rely on this technique, you may not be accomplishing what you think…

Those who employ this villainizing strategy tell us that they are trying to “motivate” their athletes. The problem is, if you play a sport like football, it doesn’t really work – biologically speaking.

Based on our conversations with young athletes, a coach’s portrayal of the villainous opponent triggers a response of anger. Anger is known to trigger increased heartrate, blood pressure, and testosterone production – this is the sensation of getting “jacked up,” which is commonly misinterpreted by coaches as “motivation” (motivation requires a more clear and sustained motive for behavior).

That physiological response does not last long. After the athletes have made sense of the situation, their bodies will lean into homeostasis, as we simply cannot live with consistently elevated blood pressure and testosterone.

What does that mean? That means that whatever response the athlete feels from their angry state is short-lived. When it is 4th and inches in the 4th quarter – in other words, when it matters most – they will not be able to draw upon the energy they had in the pre-game speech.

What else does that mean? To tell the full truth, there are moments where anger can be very helpful – like in short burst, single output efforts like field events (shotput, for example) and powerlifting. So there might be moments when anger can be used as tool, but a coach would be wise to examine their purpose before using it.

As discussed in a 2018 article, The Coaches We Mean to Be, it is noted that special care should be taken when it comes to unintentionally cultivating harmful mindsets, as “how they transfer and present themselves in realms other than the field or court can be devastating. ‘Being a man’ in artificial or violent ways, for example, often has a way of terrorizing relationships and unceremoniously ending any chance at social success.”

And if we are not coaching for future success, what are we doing?

Life Lessons

If an athlete gets through their athletic career on motivation fueled by anger and hate, then we have either done a poor job as coaches, or we have unintentionally instilled the wrong lessons.

After a career is over, the complicated issue of unhealthy competition rears its head in many areas of life – this, to the disadvantage of those young people we once hoped to support.

The negative impact of unhealthy relationships to competition is everywhere, even in education. Too many teachers see concerned parents as opponents, rather than allies and collaborators, and vice versa. People cut each other off in traffic. We elbow in an out of lines at concerts and movie theaters. Coworkers are constantly suspicious of each other.

At a business merger, for example, the focus must be on alignment, not contentious differences. In a contract negotiation, it is not a great strategy to “rip the throat out” of the company.

In a romantic relationship, the drive to ‘dominate’ an argument is never a healthy one. Your significant other should be a partner, not an opponent.

Is this all inspired by sports? Of course not. But in our aim to use sports to teach life lessons, these are outcomes we need to be aware of.

What Actually Works

All of the athletic success I have ever experienced was a product of mutual care and respect. The previously mentioned teams, the ones who won so many games, thrived on that idea… we genuinely cared about each other.

We cared about each other, and we played for each other.

In the 4th quarter of one of our playoff games in high school, we needed to pick up a 1st down to wear out the clock and secure the victory. We did. We ran “Power” – an old-school, downhill play any football player or coach will be familiar with – and we ran it until we picked up the 1st down and sealed the game. It was the end of a long battle and we were all exhausted… we kept going because we cared about each other – we wanted to win for the guy beside us, not because of anger and hatred for our opponents.

On an overcast day in Belfast, the Limerick Vikings intercepted a pass and kicked a field goal in overtime – we won our second consecutive Shamrock Bowl Championship not because we hated our opponents, but because we cared about each other, and we would have done anything to ensure our team would win. In fact, after the game, we drank Guinness with the opposing team, the Dublin Rebels, who were a bunch of solid guys.

In high school, when we won a Conference Championship in one of the best games I have ever been a part of, we celebrated together. We didn’t flick off the opponent, we high-fived and hugged our teammates.

In all cases, we were able to access the far reaches of our potential, because we cared about each other. It’s that easy. And it’s one of the most amazing things about sports…

When challenges arise, and they undoubtedly will, our young people need to have a variety of abilities – genuine care for the people around them, in service of a common goal, might be the most powerful life lesson we can teach.