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Sportsmanship Matters (Even in an Individual Sport)

I’m fairly confident that if my middle school class took a vote, I would have won “Least likely to medal at the Olympics”, hands down. When I ran track in middle school, I chose to be in the sprinter group simply because I didn’t need to run as far…efficient, right? My parents witnessed the one time my junior league coach ever put me in the final soccer game, where they spotted me on the field picking bugs off of dandelions (still sounds about right). The only time I was taken off the bench the entire season in middle school basketball was in the last three seconds of the final game to pass the ball from out-of-bounds to the star player. I was smart in school, but a little slow to realize that those sports were never up my alley.

For awhile, there was a rather awkward love triangle between me, team sports, and shooting. I knew shooting treated me well, but I just wanted to be good at the glamorous sports. All the cool kids were doing it, and I was still in the denial stage of being that shy, awkward girl whose most common response to any question was a nervous giggle. But fortunately for everyone, it eventually hit me that awkwardness will always be a part of my personality, and I gave up on the idea of team sports.

Enter shooting. It was the individuality of shooting that first attracted me to it. I’ve found some definite perks: Most problems I encounter within shooting I solve on my own. There’s no negative pressure of a team counting on me. My training is self-paced, so I can allot more or less time to certain skills.

I used to hate running in middle school and high school and chalked it up to simply being terrible at it. But when I picked it up again a few years ago on my own, I suddenly enjoyed it so much more. Before, seeing other people either ahead of me or behind me distracted me from enjoying it as well as pushing myself. I’ve learned that my motivation is intrinsic, so I accomplish way more when my focus is on beating my past times instead of beating another person. And to be honest, I think that’s because it’s more of a challenge.

While I was fortunate enough to experience being on a team through NCAA’s, shooting still ultimately boils down to an individual sport. Whether at a match or in practice, it’s just you and the target. Nobody else is aligning your sights or pulling the trigger for you, and you are responsible for each bad shot and each good shot.

I used to be surprised by the poor sportsmanship exhibited by some of my own teammates–not just in how I’ve been treated, but also in witnessing the damaging drama that unfolds among players representing the same flag. Some people simply become so lost in themselves that they let go of one of the biggest joys ever experienced in this life–fellowship and community.

Few things are more loathsome than a teammate that only smiles at you after they perform well or after you perform poorly (I myself have been guilty of this). But I can also say that ultimately, you determine your attitude. I’ve decided that if a teammate is nice to me, even if it’s not for genuine motives, at least they’re being nice. After all, a teammate can say and do much more hurtful things. Trust me. But that being said, I admire and appreciate pretty much all of my teammates for being encouraging and supportive. I wouldn’t trade the world for them. In fact, many of them are better examples than I am of how to be a great team player.

There’s also the question of just how much to help a teammate that is struggling with a problem that perhaps I myself have already struggled through myself and found a solution. Before the London Olympics, two of the greatest 3-position shooters in the world (Matt Emmons and Nicco Campriani) worked together on position problems one was facing. Nicco’s prone was holding him back from his full potential, and Matt gave him a few pointers he thought would help. Nicco won the gold, and Matt won the bronze. Ask either one of them, and I’m sure they wouldn’t change a thing. It’s just what you do.

Of course, only one person earns the spot on top of the Olympic podium. I fully realize that in order to get there, I must shoot better than my teammates. But if my teammates are also some of the best in the world, then it’s a much more enjoyable challenge to pursue my goal. Besides that, if I’m injured or for whatever reason cannot compete for a medal, you can bet your sweet biscuits I’ll be cheering to hear my anthem played at the end.

I may have not been great at team sports, but as a player of this sport, I am forced to adopt some sort of attitude toward my teammates. I have chosen to try to encourage my teammates at matches, and if I don’t win, it’s because I didn’t shoot a high enough score. To me, winning has much less to do with my competitors than it does with my performance. The more I embrace a positive attitude toward my teammates, the more optimistic I become about my shooting. It’s catching.

After his famous flight around the world, Charles Lindbergh wrote in his memoir about reaching the end:

Within the hour I’ll land, and strangely enough I’m in no hurry to have it pass. I haven’t the slightest desire to sleep. There’s not an ache in my body. The night is cool and safe. I want to sit quietly in this cockpit and let the realization of my completed flight sink in….It’s like struggling up a mountain after a rare flower, and then, when you have it within arm’s reach, realizing that the satisfaction and happiness lie more in the finding than in the having. Plucking the flower and having it wither are inseparable…

When I began shooting, winning a medal was the last thought to enter my mind. I shot simply because I loved the process. Now, I value medals, but that doesn’t mean that loving the journey becomes any less important. The last thing I want is to look back after achieving my goals and suddenly realize all the small joys that I missed out on–the conversations, the laughter, and the shared memories–just because I didn’t take advantage of this time with my teammates. Sportsmanship is a skill that must be developed. And while I’m not the best at it and have made my share of mistakes, it’s another goal I’ve challenged myself to pursue while on this journey.