Being part of a team. It means different things to everyone, but it’s no small thing, and it’s more than just wearing your national flag on your back. It’s awesome, it’s a challenge, it’s a major part of your life. It makes you laugh, cry, and go through some of the craziest moments of your life with people you never thought you’d get to meet. This is one of those blog posts that’s partly an ode to my teammates, part applause to our coaches for holding us all together, and part reminder to myself of how lucky I am.
In the past few years, our US National Cross Country team has gotten a lot of attention for our team chemistry. For the specific talent of being able to travel the world with the same group of people and actually like each other at the end of it all. France sent out scouts to figure out what made us stick together. Newspapers talked about it. NBC loved it during the Olympics. Most of that credit goes to our coaches and the support team behind the team. And some of it’s luck, that we found ourselves on a team with such amazing people.
But what we don’t often mention is that it’s hard work. Like anything else in life. It’s not natural to randomly scoop a group of 6 or 8 or 10 people off the street, throw them together in a team and have them all be best friends. That’s just not real life. There are moments when we want space from each other and when we can’t get it, it feels like the world just might be coming to an end.
And here’s the thing…I’m proud to say that. If it wasn’t hard work to be a good teammate, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But it IS hard work, and it only works when everyone buys into the team. When everyone decides to make it a priority to be a good teammate and to put the team above their own needs.That’s when things really start happening.
And you know what? What usually happens is that you end up making some of the deepest and most amazing friendships of your life, even if they didn’t start out that way. Because when you take the time to get to really know your teammates inside and out, and see how hard they work every day, it’s impossible not to have huge respect for them. When you share in some crazy on-the-road experiences, share the struggles of hard training and the emotions of racing, it creates friendships. Even though I won’t always like all my teammates every second of every day, I WILL always love them, respect them and care about them, and in the end that’s what enables me to ride out the little bumps in the road.
I think what makes our Men and Women’s team so unique is that the challenges, triumphs and struggles of being a good teammate are amplified when you hit the road together for months at a time. You are forced to confront your weaknesses and realize that you need to make compromises sometimes to fit the needs of the team. You need to learn how to be good at communicating with others and not letting problems blow up into massive end-of-the-world scenarios. But we’re human, too. Everyone makes mistakes, and we have learned through trial and error when it’s a good time to speak up about a perceived problem, and when it’s a good idea to suck it up and get over your own ego.
We’ve recognized that racing fast is more than just the sum of all your training – it’s being in a good mental space, and having a positive team environment can have a huge impact on that. Plus, let’s be honest, it would suck to travel all year hating the people you spend 90% of your time with.
How does it work?
Our Women’s team coach, Matt Whitcomb, pulled us into a meeting this spring to talk over some of the major points we think contribute to a positive team. I don’t know what the men came up with, because, you know, I’m not a boy. But I’d guess they were pretty similar.
We are LOYAL. It’s like the relationship I have with my little sister – I can tease her and pick on her, but if someone else ever tries to pick on her? They are going down. We are allowed to get tired of each other at times on the road, but at the end of the day we’d go to huge lengths to protect each other.
We have each other’s backs. It’s a big thing. I can say with absolute certainty that if I was ever in trouble, any one of my teammates would come get me. Or, as the boys like to say, if I ever got in a bar fight any one of our dudes would come crashing through a window to help. I know they’ve got me, and that gives me the confidence to go out and try big things, things where I will sometimes fail. Because it’s not about whether or not we will fail – at some point, you will fail at anything you do. It’s part of learning. But to have people at your back who will believe in your and lift you up when you crash so that you can try again? That makes all the difference.
It takes a lot of COURAGE. The courage to speak up when you need to, and to shut up when you need to. To get out of your comfort zone because it will mean a lot to someone else. And to remember to thank others when you know that even though it might not be a big deal to you, it is their Mount Everest, and we all have different things that challenge us.
We need to be able to take feedback. We work so hard on perfecting our ski racing…why not also work on being a really awesome teammate? I never have perfect technique – there’s always something to work on. Likewise there is always something I can do to become a better teammate. Before a race, I lie in bed thinking of all the things I can do to be my best, to race my fastest, to achieve my goals. And when one of my teammates is down I’ll lie awake plotting how to cheer them up. It’s the same concept.
It’s a choice, a commitment to each other. To work on our weaknesses and celebrate each other’s strengths. To share our best moments so that they belong to the team, and to know that in our worst moments there are people there to take some of the pressure off. To take pride in other people’s best races because when you have pushed them in training, they are your moments, too.
It’s hard work, and I’m not saying it’s easy. But when you get to experience that feeling of belonging to something more powerful than yourself, it’s most definitely worth it.
So, basically, we’re all married to each other. I feel like I just wrote down wedding vows! Sorry that was so sappy, guys. But every single part of it is true.