How Team Sports Hurt My Professional Career

Every employer wants to have the “team player”. You hear it in interview questions. They are interview buzzwords. Depending on your personality type, your take on being a team player may be different from other people. The general consensus is that playing team sports is a great thing for your career. It builds your teamwork skills and helps you think beyond being an individual. Many good things can come from being a member of a team, but there is one area where it could be bad for you.

In this article I’m going to admit a huge character flaw that I HAD in the past but no longer have. Some would argue whether it’s a character flaw or not, but I’m using that term because of what it led to in my career and the effects that it caused. I’m admitting it and talking about it for people who may think the same way, but maybe don’t realize they do at this time.

I Am a Team Player

That is something I have always taken pride in. I would bring it up in every interview and talk about how I had been involved in team sports from age five through my early thirties. I would talk about how that has prepared me to work as a team with other members of the staff to work toward a common goal. You know the general routine.

I love being a member of a team, whether it is an organized sport or a team of coworkers. I understand how working as a team is beneficial to success especially in the corporate world. A group of above average people that work together as a team will usually outshine a group of rock stars that all act individually and cannot work well together.

The Goal

I understand the value of having team players. The goal is to have a group of people that understand that if everyone knows their role and works together as a team, much success and happiness will naturally come. This is true and I witnessed it many times throughout my career. I have been lucky to have been on some great teams and we had some great successes. I have also worked for companies that had people working as individuals, and they always had problems growing and getting to the next level.

The idea of teamwork is great, but let’s take a deeper look at what a team really is. Let’s take baseball for example, because that is what I mostly played. Baseball is a great example because you have to work together as a team on defense. A lot of non-fans watch the game and think that when the ball is hit some player goes and gets the ball and throws it to a base to try to get the runner out, or throws it back to the pitcher to prepare for the next batter.

In reality, every scenario is different. Every player at every position, on every pitch, has to go over every scenario in their head and determine what to do depending on the outcome of the at-bat. Let’s say that you are in the field and the other team has one out and runners on first and third. Every player in every position in the field is thinking about at least six different scenarios in their head between each pitch. The shortstop knows that if the ball is hit into left field he will go receive the throw into the infield and that the 2nd basement is there to back him up. It is the other way around if the ball goes into right field. If both players run out to get the cutoff throw then there will be an error.

I could go on and on with scenarios because I think baseball is a great game and I could talk about it for hours, but then you would never read another one of my posts so I’ll leave it at that. The bottom line is that each player knows their role. They backup and support the other players on the team so that the team acts as a cohesive unit.

Where It May Go Wrong

Using the baseball example again, you have a team of 9 players that play the game at any one time. Your entire team may consist of 25 or more players, but only 9 play at a time. These are generally considered your “starters”. I played first base mostly. We had other people on the team that could play first base, but I was considered our starter at first base. I had other skills that would allow me to fill in and play other positions and help out the team, but my main skill was at first base.

When I finished college and landed my first IT role, I found myself on a team of desktop support folks. We were a great team (shout out to Carle Clinic Desktop Support 1996-1998). Everyone worked great as a team, but we all had skills that began to stand out and qualify each of us as a specialist in one thing or another. Mine was Citrix. I loved it, loved working with it, love the concept, I couldn’t get enough of it.

Fast forward a few years and I am working in a much larger consulting firm, but I’m not the “starter” when it comes to Citrix. I was good, but there were a lot of really smart folks at this company and while I was a very valuable member of the team, I wasn’t the go-to person in that area. I hate to admit it now, but this bothered me. It doesn’t bother me now, but it sure did then.

I still remember the day that I walked into my boss’ office and told him that I noticed a need for someone in the messaging space and that I wanted to plant my flag there and head that up. I didn’t particularly like that space, but it would allow me to be the go-to in that area.

I gave up what I loved doing because I wanted to be a “starter” somewhere else. I lost years of experience and knowledge with virtualization, automation, EUC, etc. which is where I really wanted to be. The problem I had was that while I had always appreciated the team concept and I did follow it, I wanted to be the starter or go-to for my role.

Moral of the Story

If you don’t like your situation, change the situation instead of changing your career goals. Keep doing what you love and keep searching for a place to fit in. If you love first base and don’t want to play anything else, find a new team. Stick with what you love and you will find a place to play. Life in the technology field moves quickly and any lost time can have a huge effect. Don’t give up what you love doing, you may just end up losing valuable years that are very difficult to make up. If you put in the effort in the area you love, your time as a “starter” will come naturally.