Saturday, June 15, 2013

Good "Teammates"

What does it mean to be a good teammate when you are on a "team" where the members directly compete against each other?  This is a question I've thought about quite a bit (probably more than I should have), but with my background in the team sport of softball I can't help but think about what it means to be a good teammate.  In softball it was easy to understand what it meant to be a good teammate, you helped your teammate in any way possible because you knew it would help the entire team accomplish their goals.  Whether it was batting and fielding tips, nutrition advice, or in the college ranks homework help, you did whatever you could to help your teammates perform better.  But how should this work in bobsled?

Team USA after claiming the 2013 World Championship for the Team Competition

In bobsled, I am on the same "team" as 8 other women's bobsledders.  However, only one of them will compete directly with me in the sled at any given time and two other members of the "team" are drivers who I am competing directly against for spots on the team and medals.  So essentially, I'm on Team USA but at the same time I'm not on the same team as many of my teammates because we're in direct competition.  So how are you supposed to be a good teammate when your "team" wants to defeat you? Unfortunately, this is a question I don't have an answer for...

In our sport, there's a saying "I'm not against you, I'm just for me."  It's not a saying the softballer in me appreciates, as it implies that in order for someone to be successful, they must do things that would hurt another person's chances for success.  The optimist in me wants to believe there's a way to create an atmosphere where all of us, despite the competition, work to create a healthy atmosphere where no one is cutting each other down and everyone is working to build up the entire team, not just the members in their sled.  But how would this be done?  Should you help your teammates out even if it means they might beat you?  What determines the proper level of help?  For example, in the past I have let my teammates borrow my runners for a race.  In the sport of bobsled, we have personal sets we own and then sets the federation owns and can use either for a race.  I have previously allowed my teammates to borrow my set of runners for a race, and even once was beat by someone using my runners!  To be honest- I didn't lose the race because of my runners, but runners do factor in to the outcome of a race.   In this case is lending my "teammate" runners good sportsmanship or is it me foolishly giving someone else an advantage?  I used to think I knew the answer to this question...

It's not only the lending of physical goods that makes me question what it means to be a good teammate.  In order to achieve any level of success in elite sport, the space between your ears is more important than any physical asset.  Most elite level athletes are highly aware of this and often when an athlete is unsuccessful it's because of some mental malfunction.  It also sets up the mind as a perceived spot of vulnerability.  We all know examples of athletes taking the competition out physically (Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan), but the more intense warfare that you rarely hear about is the mental warfare that occurs to take out the competition.  When you're competing on a team (your individual sled) within a "team" (Team USA), the mental warfare can be intense.  Whether its bad mouthing a someone to coaches or other teammates, or sabotaging their mental routine, cutting down their performances and accomplishments, or creating drama within their circle of competition, unfortunately in my 6 years on the women's bobsled team, I've seen it all.  Not only have I seen it all, I've seen it within the entire "Team USA," not just women's bobsled.  So this again raises the question, what does it mean to be a good "teammate?"

I think the problem is perspective.  I think most people think that in our sport multiple people can't be successful.   I think the problem is that success is only measured by winning a gold medal.   We need to change this perspective.  Yes, every athlete wants to win a gold medal but in reality most won't, but this doesn't mean that every athlete can't be successful.  For example, my determinant for success if I'm blessed enough to make the 2014 Olympics is putting together four great runs in Sochi.  Now this has absolutely nothing- NOTHING- to do with what any of my "teammates" do other than the brakeman in my sled.   I can accomplish this level of success even if my "teammates" have great runs at the Olympics- the two are mutually exclusive.  So for me, I don't need to conduct any mental warfare against my "teammates" because they have nothing to do with me achieving success.  I can be encouraging and supportive without harming my goal, because my goal isn't wrapped up in a gold medal.  My goal is about performance and ensuring that I perform at my best, and if I'm blessed to win a medal for it- great.

I've never felt the need to play mental games with my competition, I want to win races because I put together the best performance on that day.  I want to win because I've trained hard and dedicated myself to learning the sport and determining what's fast.  At the end of the day, I want to perform at my best and win races and be a good person.  I want to be successful and a good teammate at the same time and I believe it's possible.

But what do you do then if your teammates don't feel the same?  What do you do if your teammates still believe "it's either you or me"?  Do you still try to be encouraging?  What lengths should you go to to help your "teammate" out?  Should you let them borrow your runners?  Should you give them training advice?  Should you help their brakeman push faster?  After playing softball for most of my life, the team sport athlete in me votes yes, but maybe I'm naive...

Cause I haven't even asked the final what happens when you try to be a good "teammate" and get burned?  How should you respond then?  How do you respond when despite your best efforts to be a good "teammate," other athletes try to sabotage your efforts of success?  Do you keep encouraging and supporting them?  Do you disband the idea of a "team" and make it every man (or woman) for themselves?

I wish I could end this blog with a profound conclusion, but the truth of the matter is, I don't know.  What I do know is that I'm going to work to be a good "teammate" and let other athletes decide the answers to these question themselves...


  1. Hi Elana,

    I am writing an article about bobsledding, specifically at Mt. Van Hoevenberg. Would you be willing to speak with me? I would love to hear about your experiences on and off the track.

    Thanks much,


  2. I just saw this post- I'm so sorry! If you still need any info, I would love to speak with you!

    1. Hi Elana,

      Not a worry! I'm sure the days are hectic!

      Thanks for getting back to me. We have already gone to print for that story but thank you for the offer.

      I will keep you posted if there is anything else that comes up.

      Good luck with the training!