Team sports make great TV but I was born to run alone

Last week I was a panellist on the RTÉ sports show, Second Captains.

Team sports make great TV but I was born to run alone

It’s always a fun experience to work with the guys behind this show, as they’ve a great grasp of the topics that are interesting to fans and competitors alike.

The show had a major rugby theme following the Six Nations triumph, the big interview was with Joe Schmidt and Gordon D’Arcy was on hand with the trophy. Yet the panel was made up of myself, Shane Lowry and Ken Doherty, all individual sportspeople. The discussion made me think about the differences between individual and team sports, something I get asked about all the time.

A typical question is “Would I prefer athletics to be a team sport?”

First and foremost, I’m a competitor. I run for a living and as a competitive runner, the idea of being part of a team does not appeal to me. The elements of my job I love all hinge on the fact that it’s an individual pursuit. The performance is 100% on my shoulders. I’m responsible for producing results. This responsibility is a part that always sits well with me. When I stand on the line there are no team-mates left or right to turn too for reassurance. I’m in the field of play on my own.

This element of responsibility brings pressure to run fast, but such pressure has always motivated me. I respond to a high level of pressure. The idea of sharing that pressure with team-mates isn’t something I like the thought of. As a teenager, I played hockey, as bad as it is to admit this, I didn’t like to pass the ball. The reason was simple, I wanted to be the one to deal with the pressure of scoring the goals. I didn’t want to give away the element of control. I like being in control of my own results.

From the outside, it may seem I’m attracted to the individual glory of success, but that’s not the appeal. The appeal is to perform under pressure when the chips are down. The resulting success is something I’m delighted to share with my team, who are my coaches and the people who help me get to the starting line in the best possible shape. I’d hate others to depend on my performance in the way that’s necessary in a team sport. When I watch a No 10 kicking in rugby, it makes me wonder how his team-mates are feeling. Are they happy to let another player be in control of their fate? I wouldn’t be.

In track, the closest I get to being part of a team is on a relay and, in my experience, this is tougher than any individual race. Trying to get four individual athletes, naturally motivated by their own results, to be motivated by a team result is a tough ask. There are loads of ways to describe successful individual athletes — determined, focused, driven — but I think it’s important to recognise the element of selfishness. To succeed in track, you need a certain streak of selfishness and I believe all the best track athletes are wired a little this way. It can be a little ugly at times but it’s part of the job description.

Outside of running for a living, I’m a huge sports fan. This is where the dichotomy comes in. As a fan, I love team sports. Maybe it’s the parallels between watching a team sport and broader life off the pitch. In team sports, we witness players who put aside their needs for the purpose of a team result, there is personal sacrifice for the ultimate team goal. There is no micro-managing on a team, the players each have their role and must trust each other to fulfil that role. Watching as a fan, there often seems to be a greater humility around team sports people, they seem to really grasp that individual effort is worthless without their team-mates. Qualities that came shining through in the Irish rugby team this season.

As a fan, I think it’s easier to pick a team to obsess about, as they represent continents, countries or cities. They are an intrinsic part of an area. Golf is one of my favourite sports. Yet I’m far more likely to watch every part of the action from a Ryder Cup than I am from any of the Majors. I’m not alone in this as the Ryder Cup enjoys the biggest viewership of any golf event. Come this September I bet we are all glued to the battle between Europe and the USA in Gleneagles, the individual performances won’t be the priority it’ll all about the team.

The major running shoe companies such as Nike, Adidas, Brooks and Saucony have really made an effort in recent years to market the sport as a team entity. Rather than offering contracts on an individual basis they offer contracts as part of their ‘team’. It’s a way of making the sport more appealing to fans, rather than support an individual athlete a company such as Nike wants you to support the Oregon Track Project, which is a group of athletes. I’m not sure it’s making a huge difference to the fan base but it’s interesting to see the corporations trying to tap into this area. The penny seems to have dropped that it’s easier to market a group rather than individuals running around a track.

Whether I’m getting on the blocks for a race or sitting on the couch watching sport on television, I know both team and individual sports have their place in my sporting head.

That’s the thing with the Second Captains lads, they have a great knack of throwing out questions that get people thinking. I guess for the moment my answer to which I prefer is still firmly a bit of both.

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