There are tremendous differences in the benefits of playing on a soccer or basketball team versus doing an individual sport such as running or swimming. If you've been a team player all your life, you could learn a lot about yourself by going solo. If you're a solo flier, joining a team could open up a whole new world of community. "Just taking a risk to try a new sport will be a rewarding experience," says Jim Bauman, Ph.D., sports psychologist at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. "Even if you don't love it, you can learn something from just trying,"
Joining a team obviously involves spending time with others, and for those whose sole day-job companion is a computer, Bauman highly recommends team sports. "Team sports can enhance cooperation and friendship in all areas of life, well beyond the game," says Bauman. A control freak, however, may be uncomfortable as a team player, because it definitely means relinquishing some control. "You alone cannot determine the outcome of a basketball or football game," says Bauman. "It takes the whole team, for better or worse. This may be frustrating because no matter how hard you try, you can't make up for others who aren't trying or aren't playing well. In that situation, the challenge may be to motivate teammates rather than trying to do it all yourself." As you learn to motivate others and, hopefully, are motivated in turn, you develop relationships that rarely flourish in other environments, he adds. Bauman likens the experience to being in the military's special forces. "Even if your league meets only once a week, the friendships you build on a team will be unique. When you face challenges together, you grow together in a special way."
Conversely, if your day job demands teamwork or lots of interaction, solo training can provide a refreshing change. If you thrive on personal challenge, Bauman suggests trying an individual sport. In addition, like most activities that don't involve others, solo sports permit maximum flexibility. You can go running at 4 A.M. or swim for an hour one day, 20 minutes the next—it's your choice. "With sports like running, cycling, or swimming, you get all the credit for any success—but you are also responsible for the defeats," he says. "The highs and lows are yours alone. On a team, you and your teammates will share the ups and the downs."
However, Bauman emphasizes, it's not all black and white. You can achieve both personal and team goals from team sports, while many solo sports involve competition, as in tennis, or have another kind of strong social context. "For example, snow skiing is an individual sport, but it's hard to find a place where you ski alone," he points out. "The same is true for surfing."
But, whether you choose to compete against your personal best on the track or team up with the gals or guys on the basketball court, the experience of participating in sports will surely be rewarding, says Bauman. "Sports are always a great way of dealing with stress and finding balance in your life."