Like the athletes who play them, sports come in all shapes and sizes.
Competition allows athletes to stand alone at some point, to take responsibility for their actions, to be accountable.
It's the combination of solitude and team that make athletes who they are. They see a need, choke back their fear of failure, and fly at it with all they've got.
Embracing that dynamic makes games more interesting, not so much at a birthday party, but you get that with some athletes.
You are one of twenty-two football players on the field at once, but miss a tackle in the open field and you're all alone.
As one of nine on the baseball diamond, you'd think there's enough people to hide behind. Not true. Ask anyone who's misplayed a fly to center. All that room with only you standing there.
You've seen what happens when a pitcher gets into the late innings with a no-hitter. He sits by himself. No one talks to him. The team avoids him because no one wants to be the guy who breaks his concentration.
When ten players take the court in basketball a few stand above the rest. Watch them in the flow of the game and you'll see what makes them special. But even the weakest player finds the spotlight when they stand at the foul line.
There they are, chest heaving from gulping air, trying to calm down enough to put up a decent shot. The fans scream and pound thunder sticks. Rainbow wig guy holds up his Bible verse.
No wonder it's so hard to be consistent from the line.
From team sports to individual sports, the goals remain the same. But is there really such a thing as an individual sport? Tennis, boxing, and wrestling all need an opponent. Golf is played in a foursome. The individual skills they bring to the game decide the winners and losers, but no one plays in a vacuum.
During a crucial time in my life, sports came to the rescue. After playing football and wrestling in high school, I found myself in the center of a U.S. Army pugil stick ring. Also known as bayonet practice, a pugil stick is a rod of wood with pads on each end. You strap on a football helmet, pick up the stick, and wait for the whistle surrounded by your entire platoon.
My drill sergeant said he wanted me to pound a couple of guys who were discipline problems. If I didn't do it, he said he'd leave me in the ring for everyone else to beat on. The sports code says give it everything you've got. Drill sergeant code says if you don't have enough, you'll pay for it.
Even mock-hand to hand combat training pales in comparison to a sport where you compete against others as well as the clock. Runners pushing for a personal record face the race field, the clock, and their own internal voice that says, "You've never been more tired, why not slow down or stop?"
Good runners get that way by ignoring their inner voice.
Mile after mile they hear their breath, their heart, and their feet on the ground. Each time station passes with a number they like, so they push a little harder. Over twenty-six miles they tell themselves, "This isn't so bad."
Then they hit the finish line and embrace the euphoria of being done. That's how the Boston Marathon is supposed to end for athletes.