Anyone watching U.S. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas in her last two events (the individual finals for the uneven bars and balance beam) may wonder if the 16-year-old who helped the U.S. women win the gold in the team competition and captured the individual gold in the all-around is tuckered out — she fell off the beam, and faltered on the bars.
Whether Douglas' struggles were due to physical fatigue, mental weariness or another factor entirely isn't clear. However, research suggests that Olympic athletes face a tougher challenge in performing in individual competitions than in team events.
One reason for this is that the pressure to perform may be alleviated by team members, even while these teammates help push individuals to their limits, experts said.
When an athlete performs as part of a team, the pressure shifts from the weighing on the individual's shoulders to being a collective burden felt by the team, which tends to lighten the overall load, said Deb Feltz, professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University (MSU).
Pressure is an inherent part of the Olympics, Feltz said, but moving an athlete's focus away from his or her individual performances can help them "stay in the zone."
"At this stage of elite performance, these are pretty much automatic motor skills that can run off without a lot of conscious attention," Feltz said. But "this kind of world stage can bring that conscious attention back," she said.
The magic of teammates
Another aspect of team competition that benefits the individuals is the language team members use. Researcher Veronica Son, a sports psychology doctoral student at MSU who is originally from South Korea, said she became interested in the language differences she noticed between Korean and American cultures. Korean words emphasized the team, while English conversation accentuates the individual, she said.
In lab simulations, she randomly assigned teams of students to either repeat positive phrases focused on the individual ("I can do this") or on the team ("we can do this"). Those who focused on the team performed significantly better in the subsequent athletic task, the researchers found.
"The 'we' word has more power to build team unity and cohesion," Son said, because it helps team members believe in each other.
Son pointed to the victory of the South Korean men's soccer team over Great Britain as an example of this phenomenon. The British ranked higher than their Korean competitors individually, but the Koreans' cohesion made them the stronger team, Son said.
In the lab, the "we statement" exercise improved the team members' confidence as well, in comparison to individuals who focused on themselves, Son found.
Furthermore, at the Olympics, athletes compete in honor of their country, said Kaitlynn Osborn, a doctoral student in sports psychology at MSU, noting that several Olympians cite competing on their nation's team as a main source of motivation.
The needs of the team
High-stakes events, such as team relays, tend to encourage the least successful athlete to make the biggest improvements in performance. Osborn looked at the individual times of swimming and track relay team members, and found that the weakest link of each team made the strongest improvement in the final race.
"The weakest ones end up performing better than they would do in an individual event," Osborn said. "They're not performing the best [of all team members], but their improvement is much greater" than that of their teammates.
The motivation behind such improvements comes from two sources, Osborn said. First, there is the sense of indispensability, which is the realization that one's performance matters most to the team's overall success. Second, there is social comparison, where individuals are inspired to perform more strongly to keep up with their teammates.
Where an athlete finds their greatest motivation may depend on gender, Osborn said. Women are more likely to improve due to feelings of indispensability, while men are more likely to respond to social pressure.
Pass it on: Individual athletes often benefit from competing as part of a team.