The good, the bad, and the ugly (June 1, 2014): a week is a long time edition

This time last week, I was looking forward to a second afternoon watching top-level runners stretch their legs and pass batons smoothly in search of good, even great, performances. I wasn’t disappointed. This week, I am hoping for similar from teammates in a golf tournament. Similarly, my daughter is heading for the third day of a swim meet.

Swimming, athletics and golf are essentially individual sports, which occasionally combine the search for personal glory with the harder objective of working as a unit to get a result. True team sports, such as football or rugby, demand a different view of what good performance means. You have your position and role, and sticking to them is important. In the individual sports, the need to have role and position is not clear. In relays, it’s easy to understand what role and position mean: the baton is passed in a certain order on the track; swimmers have specified legs to swim.

Yesterday, that point was made clear to a young swimmer. She was chatting with her mother and me. The relays were announced. She started to eat an orange. Her coach came running to get her on the deck. “You’re on the first leg; it’s backstroke,” he yelled. She scrambled to undress and find her goggles. She ran and got to the deck in a state of confusion. “Lane six!” yelled her mother. She was in time to jump in the pool and start the race. Her teammates had been passive. They couldn’t jump in for her: a medley relay tries to get the best swimmer for each stroke. While any could swim backstroke, the team would have to redo its order and maybe lose because of some second-best swimming.

Golf is different in that the order of action is only set for the first shot–who hits first. After that, the order of play is essentially that furthest from the hole hits next. Also, the ‘team’ is either a collection of individual scores or a pair playing in some form. Working together to get one ball in the hole is not the usual format. More often, each player hits his or her ball and makes a score, then the better score is used. Sometimes, play is by alternate shot: one player hits, then the teammate hits the next shot with the same ball. So, instead of each player working on his or her own game, it’s about combined play. That tests skills, tolerance, and tactics. Length and accuracy are always important, but now that has to be a joint outcome. A good drive spoilt by a wayward second shot can soon lead to frustration and anger. It can tear at the cohesion of the pair as blame starts to be shared. Can each player remain supportive when the pair is playing poorly due to one of the pair?

Alternate shot is today’s format. By chance, we are due to play in Ocho Rios, at a course where one player has a cousin whose home overlooks the course.

We were invited there last night for a get-together. The food, drink, music, and ambience were great. It was good bonding, even to the extent that some friends playing on other teams were invited. We headed to the event from the golf course, where some had been practising almost all day, others had only played in the afternoon, like me, or not at all, like the team captain, who had done gentle practice on the putting green after a late afternoon arrival. That social was good for team-bonding. A high level of tolerance already exists in the team, but it will be tested today. It may not unravel verbally or noisily, but let’s watch body language.

Team-building got another unexpected boost after the social.

Instead of three of us staying at one teammate’s home, also close to the course, we were joined by two more. Fortunately, it’s a big house.

I’m tempted to draw parallels with the life of a country, but I wont, except on one point. National roles for citizens are hard to define and keep. Countries can rarely get real togetherness except in extreme situations.

International sport is one such situation: ‘we’ being at one is seen as needed to push against ‘them’. War is another. That inability to find common purpose for long periods is often why nations fail. You don’t need to look far to see examples. Last week, it was easy for many Jamaicans to be as one. World Cup starts this month: watch national unity rise in many countries. This week, unity in Jamaica became a ‘dutty’ word. Last week, unity in Jamaica became the ‘Bain’ of our lives. Each week, something pulls at the threads of our fragile national cloth. We can’t hold national liming sessions to buck that, but we need to build that togetherness.