The Positives of Individual Sports
Teamwork, discipline, perseverance – most coaches and many parents can rattle off a list of lessons learned from participating in organized youth sports. While there is much to be gained from playing a sport, for any number of reasons, not everyone wants to be, or can be, part of a team. For many kids, individual sports offer a great alternative.
At 13, boxer Dempsey Wooten already has 50 fights under his belt. Wooten, who’s been boxing for six years, never even considered team sports.
“My dad is a boxer, so I’ve had gloves on since I was like two-weeks old,” he explained.
An eighth grader who lives in Mannford, Wooten and his dad drive to Tulsa five or six days a week to box at the Engine Room near Sixth Street and Peoria. According to Wooten, the sport has taught him discipline and responsibility. He likes competing as an individual because he thinks it motivates him more than a team sport would.
“More people are watching you when you fight, so you want to do better. All eyes are on you,” he said. “It makes me want to work harder. You get more credit when it’s all you than when it’s a team sometimes.”
Accountability or Learning How to Lose
Of course, taking credit for the victories also means accepting responsibility for the defeats. According to coaches and athletes, personal accountability is a big part of individual sports. Learning to lose can be a big life lesson.
“When you walk into a boxing ring, you have a 50/50 chance of winning or losing, and only one person is going to win,” said Engine Room owner and boxing coach Aaron Sloan. “If you come into boxing and all you ever think about is winning and you can’t handle a loss, you’re just not going to hold up for that sport anyway. In team sports, it’s easier to blame your team or your coach and not hold yourself individually accountable.”
Tulsan Emma Robson started gymnastics when she was five years old. Although she also played team sports in middle school, gymnastics was her passion. She competed for 11 seasons until she left home last fall for college.
“Gymnastics built my confidence by allowing me to take full credit for my accomplishments,” she said. “After winning a gold medal, I could look back and say, ‘I did that,’ and ‘I deserve this,’ while after winning a basketball game, I would be more inclined to give credit to my teammates, even if I was the one who deserved it. That being said, my confidence took some heavy hits when I was forced to accept my own failures. I had nobody to blame but myself. This was difficult, but it taught me that failure does not define my career in the sport. When I look back now, I appreciate those times because they forced me to learn how to get back up.”
Emma’s mom, Debbie Robson, agrees.
“Emma probably learned more life lessons from her years in gymnastics than from anything else in her life thus far,” she commented. “She learned to win and lose gracefully, and to literally pick herself up off the floor and try again and again. Just as in life, there were as many disappointments along the way as there were victories. Being able to ‘weather the storm’ is an important attribute for anyone.”
David Finning, a former University of Oklahoma gymnast who now owns and operates Tulsa’s Pride Gymnastics Academy, believes this type of accountability leads to mental strength.
“You have no one to ‘blame’ for your setbacks or no one to depend on for your successes,” he explained. “Individual sports make you mentally very strong.”
Setting Your Own Pace
Another advantage of individual sports is that the athlete is allowed to start and to progress at his or her own pace.
“Usually team sports are organized through schools,” Sloan said. “A lot of kids may not realize they want to play a sport, or aren’t mature enough to play a sport, until a few years in. By the time they get to a chance to play, the team may already be organized and practicing. The other players may already be advanced in their skills, and it can be very hard for a kid to start late in those sports. With an individual sport like boxing, you can start off at your own pace. You’re not behind anymore. You have a chance to compete at your own level with other kids that just started, too.”
Group sports can leave children who have never participated in the sport feeling lost and unskilled around their peers. These feelings of inadequacy can often cause children to give up on sports altogether. Individual sports, however, allow children to set goals and accomplish them at their own pace. Each step forward is a success, no matter where they start. Finning points out that individual development is an important, positive aspect of individual sports, especially gymnastics.
“In gymnastics…athletes are grouped by skill level and not by age,” Finning said, “which allows each kid to enjoy progress, regardless of the age he or she starts, without feeling the pressure of letting teammates down or the pressure to ‘catch up.’”
Setting your own pace requires a lot of internal motivation.
“The most important benefit about participating in individual sports that I see is that athletes learn to be self-reliant,” Finning observed. “Since success depends completely on the kid, a successful individual sport athlete must develop self-discipline, self-motivation, work ethics and time management at a young age.”
Jason Burks, owner of Climb Tulsa, formerly New Heights Climbing Gym, thinks these traits are important outside the gym as well.
“Individual sports teach kids to trust themselves. They certainly build self-motivation and confidence that they can accomplish things on their own. Achieving the objectives in climbing gives a great sense of accomplishment in that you’re really pushing yourself to your absolute limit,” Burks said. “In life, ultimately we have to motivate ourselves to do the things we put in our path.”
Emma Robson values similar lessons she learned at the gym.
“At first, I stuck with gymnastics because it was fun,” she recalled. “I enjoyed jumping around and flipping. However, as I got older, I realized that it was so much more than somersaults and back flips. I realized that I was learning about discipline, responsibility, self-worth and grace. The sport took time away from my social life and cost me countless hours of sleep in high school, but because of the way it shaped me, it was worth it.”
Emma’s mom believes these are skills that will benefit Emma throughout her life.
“She learned the importance of hard work and perseverance,” Debbie said. “The time requirements of gymnastics definitely led her to establishing good study habits and time management skills,” she explained. “All of these life skills will serve her well through college, career and the rest of her life.”
A Social Alternative
Individual sports can provide a refuge for kids who prefer a bit more solitude to navigating the dynamics of a large group.
“A lot of the time, you get kids who are more of a ‘loner’ in individual sports,” Sloan said. “Maybe they don’t like to be around big groups of people and those social interactions. They want to be a little more by themselves, or maybe they have a little more of an introverted personality.”
For those introverted kids who thrive on independent challenges, solo sports offer an opportunity to shine, while at the same time allowing them to feel that their individual effort is supported by others participating in the same sport. The camaraderie may be different from group sports, but it still exists.
“Kids that struggle in social settings typically thrive in rock climbing,” Burks noted. “We see all sorts of personalities in rock climbing, which is great, but the one unique thing we see is that a lot of kids who absolutely hate team sports love climbing.”
Participating in an individual sport doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not part of a bigger team in the grander sense of the word. Simply stop by the Engine Room on any given evening to see this concept in action. A boxing gym is a surprisingly social place. Fighters shout words of encouragement to the boxers sparring in the ring; seasoned athletes offer tips to aspiring pugilists; and boxers take turns holding mitts for their fellow brawlers. The overall feel is one of support rather than competition. You might compete as an individual, but you train as a team.
Emma Robson summed it up well, “Gymnastics always felt like a team sport to me. My teammates and I didn’t compete for the same prize, but we were still very much a team. We sweat together, cried together and celebrated together. We didn’t work together the same way a basketball or a volleyball team does, but we pushed each other and supported each other just the same. I felt an obligation to do well for my teammates. We each had our own medals to win, but we all had the same team to defend.”
Julie Wenger Watson is a freelance writer who’s worked in all aspects of music promotion. She’s also Co-Director of “Live From Cain’s,” a public radio show pilot.