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Selfish vs altruistic in sport: No ‘I’ in team, but there’s a ‘me’

BySandeep Patel

Aug 22, 2023


After he got to his 100th international century, Sachin Tendulkar said that it would be selfish of anyone to retire at the top. “When you are at the top,” he said, “you should serve the nation.”

Yet, selfishness is an important, even necessary element in the make-up of elite sportsmen. Even a team sport like cricket is a face-off between two individuals: the batter and the bowler. And while the elements of selfishness and self-absorption are seen as necessary in individual sports like golf and tennis, it does not take a great leap of the imagination to see these as universal traits.

You only have to look at the run outs in the game — the better batter is always protected, the lesser player making the sacrifice even if it wasn’t his fault. The senior batter knows he is being selfish, but that is in the team effort. You can, of course, take this to a ridiculous extent, as when a senior player withdraws from a match because he thinks the track looks pacy (this has happened often in Indian cricket).

Ben Stokes is probably the most exciting all-rounder of our times, although he doesn’t bowl as much now. His decision to rescind his retirement and return to the England team for the World Cup in India can be seen as either selfishness that puts the individual at the centre, or one that is in the team’s interest. Australia’s Tim Paine has labelled it: “Me, me, me…”, leaving us in no doubt about his opinion.

But it is possible to decide whether selfishness was in the team cause or the individual’s only after the event. Patterns are recognisable only in hindsight — individual greed or team need? A match-turning performance will render everything moot.

Stokes’s change of mind deprived one of England’s most exciting youngsters, Harry Brook, of a chance. We have no way of telling which of them would have had the greater impact. Brook is 24, and his chance will come again. Stokes is 32, and with his body parts already complaining, is unlikely to get another shot. But that’s a sentimental way of looking at it. India have been known to think this way, unlike Australia who don’t let emotion get in the way.

An old story (attributed to the leading sportsman of the day, and therefore probably apocryphal) goes like this: Basketball great Michael Jordan’s coach tells him he is being selfish and that there’s no ‘I’ in team. Jordan’s response is, “But there is a ‘me’”.

Elite sportsmen see selfishness as crucial to team effort. Don Bradman who didn’t like batting on wet tracks usually avoided it. C.L.R. James calculated that Bradman’s first class average on wet tracks was 16.66 (overall it was 95.14), so the logic was impeccable. The team is entitled to the best version of its best batsman.

When the South African sports scientist Tim Noakes coined the expression, ‘Selfish Athlete Syndrome’, it was used to describe the selfishness of the sportsman focussed on his sport to the exclusion of everything else including family. But it can be applied to the elite sportsman who understands realistically his role in the team. It is as if he is saying: I am selfish because that is how the team is best served. Used thus, it is something positive, and even desirable.

Perhaps the duality economists speak of, selfish and altruistic desires, doesn’t hold the exact same meaning in sport. Which one applies if you want your team to win?

Individual and team aspirations usually merge. What’s good for one is good for the other. But sometimes the two are in opposition, as when a defensive batter is told to attack the bowling in the quest for quick runs. Then he has to sublimate his natural instincts in the larger cause.

When individual selfishness leads to an altruistic result (for the team as a whole), it is difficult to criticise that attitude. In any case, a cricket team cannot contain individuals with identical temperaments. The selfless, the neutral, the selfish, the opportunist, the fortune hunter all come together based on skill and form. And that’s a sufficient range to keep one or the other type from dominating.


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