Running with the Team
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Running with the Team: An Examination of the Positive Effects of In-Group Conformity
More often than not, conformity is seen as negative. It is taught that everyone should strive to be an individual and stray from doing the same things as everyone else, but not all forms of conformity are bad. Many athletic teams have been shown to have a positive effect on their in-group members: the athletes. According to Gordon Allport, "members of an in-group all use the term 'we' with the same essential significance" (62). This idea of an in-group is seen in sayings such as "there's no 'I' in team." A team is a group of individuals who are talented in a sport and work together to defeat a commone enemy: their competition. One prominent example of conformity having a positive effect on its in-group members is a team. I myself was a part of a cross-country team throughout high school, and the habits and lessons that I learned on that team have stuck with me to this day. One may ask why someone would voluntarily be a a part of a cross-county team that requires two-to-three-hour practices, five days a week (with the occasional Saturdays), five months a year, to sweat, hurt, and sometimes bleed. The simple answer is that conforming to a team, such as cross-country, brings forward a sense of hard work, dedication, and belonging. Involvement in athletics instills lifelong values that help guide teens throughout their entire lives. Gordon Allport's concepts of in-groups vs. reference groups, of "rewards," of the group theory of prejudice, and of achieved and ascribed status help to explain just how the basic prinicples of an athletic team can positively affect the athletes that are a part of it.
The concept of reference groups and in-groups distinguishes the differences in attitudes towards one's groups. One represents "the sheer fact of membership" (65) and the other "tells us whether the individual prizes that membership" (65). In my experience, my team represented a reference group that also served as an in-group. I was a member of my high school cross-country team, but it was my choice to be a member of that team and I "[prized] that membership" (65). I was not the most outgoing person in high school, often too shy to approach anyone or to strike up a conversation, so I relied on cross-country to jump-start my social life. It was important to create team unity by becoming familiar with everyone on the team, no matter his or her age, sex, or race, and as Allport says, "What is familiar tends to become a value" (61). Through athletics, people can form friendships and bonds. For me, these bonds formed the feeling of responsibility to my team, and being on that team meant that I was a part of something bigger than myself.
Rewards came quite frequently when I ran cross-country. Being a student-athlete at my high school was highly regarded. Gordon Allport explains that children "[are] 'rewarded' by virtue of [their] memberships, and that this reward creates the loyalty" (61) that they have towards their in-group. The same applies to cross-country. The boys on the team were shocked when I, a female runner, could compete, the younger students looked up to me, the older students began to see me as more than just an underclassman, and the teaching staff applauded me for my ability to maintain outstanding grades while participating in athletics at the same time. My coaches and teammates constantly encouraged me to work to my full potential, but most important, my parents were always there to cheer me on. All of this recognition created "loyalties" and a sense of pride in what I was doing.
The concept of the group-norm theory of prejudice holds that "all groups (whether in-groups or reference groups) develop a way of living with characteristic codes and beliefs, standards and 'enemies' to suit their own adaptive needs" (66). In the case of my cross-country team, we created a set of beliefs that called for respect of one another, dedication to the team, and determination to always try our best. These beliefs mirror many of the unspoken social rules I witness everyday at my job and in the classroom. It is these beliefs that have helped me become a better and more respected person every day. At work it is necessary to show up on time every day that I am scheduled to work. This proves to my boss or manager that I am a dependable employee, and it creates a good work history should I decide to look for a new or better job in the future. In school it is important to always try my best because the choices I make may dictate what my life will be like tomorrow. In college it is the student's responsibility to put in the work needed to take full advantage of what is being taught. All of the core beliefs that I have learned during cross-country have made me a better person and have stayed with me to this day.
Finally, Gordon Allport's concept of achieved as opposed to ascribed status helps to illustrate the positive effects of in-group conformity. This concept basically states that achieved status is one that must be earned or "fought for" (63), while ascribed status is "conferred automatically by birth" (63). Take for instance the difference between being handed a trophy for no reason versus being handed a trophy after running a three-mile race in under twenty minutes and getting eighth place, sweat dripping down your face, arms and legs, muscles aching, lungs burning, and your mouth dry from heavy breathing. Which seems more rewarding? The feeling of helping my teammates earn first, second, or third place meant more to me than any material object. It was a way to prove that all of our hard work, time, and effort were well worth it. We did not earn the title of section champions by sitting on our rear ends all day; we achieved that title through long hours at practice, through dozens of miles put on our running shoes, through many days of sore muscles, and through the creation of a tightly-knit unit of individuals working towards the same goal. What we had achieved as a team was the greatest "reward" I received every season.
An athletic team may require a lot of time and effort, but the sacrifice is well worth the positive impact that team can play on one's life. In-groups, like sports teams, have changed their members' lives because of the challenges they create, the friendships they form, the pride they feel from the glorification from others, and the self-satisfaction they manifest from achieving goals and accomplishing amazing physical and mental feats. The core principles of athletic in-groups (teamwork, dedication, etc.) create stepping-stones for their members to use and follow in creating their own set of beliefs and principles to live by for the rest of their lives.