Image description: Overlapping silhouettes and shadows of people participating in various sports activities. End ID.
Image description: Overlapping silhouettes and shadows of people participating in various sports activities. End ID.

Illustration by Shahd Nigim

Game On, But at What Cost?

A reflection on team sports culture and a desperate need to reevaluate it.

Oct 8, 2023

I have been on sports teams ever since I can remember. I know what it feels like to go to practice early in the morning, right after school, or late at night. It is one of those things that comes with the territory. I have experienced being friends with everyone on the team and also not knowing anyone and feeling alone. Sometimes it feels like there are two opposing forces impacting my experience of the game, the team spirit, and the sport itself. Do I like the sport? Do I like the team? Is my love for the sport enough to keep me going on this team that I hate? Is my love for the team enough to make me love the sport?
These questions have always been present, looming over me while I decide yet again whether I want to dedicate time and effort to one of the new sports offered in high school. “Team X only does free play every time they practice,” someone told me. Free play can be fun, but I want to practice drills and hone in on specific strategies. “Team Y does that, and they’re competitive. This team was a lot more serious. They had an air of toxic competitiveness.” This became the norm in most teams that I joined thereafter, with a deep sense of pride and an expectation to win permeating the field. It feels inescapable, and the praising of the “good” players while condemning the “bad” players became apparent. Comments were said out loud or passed around the team about certain players, or strategies that conveniently left some out. It took a toll. I had coaches that added to that culture, and ones that didn’t even notice. Both were equally harmful. I now associate certain sports with bad memories of past teams getting too aggressive during practice. All I can think of now is, it was never that serious.
It was a highschool match. Now it is university matches. While I can get super involved in a game and have a deep desire to win, I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the criticism. I have also learned that fostering a team culture that is that serious adds debilitating stress onto some people, and their skills remain stagnant. The negative associations are ones that run incredibly deep and turn subconscious in an attempt to mask the unhappiness of the players. When people speak of the team, their reputation precedes them, and usually it tends to be a negative one. This is why some people decide to quit; why others never join.
It is through these experiences that I have formed my opinions on team sports throughout my childhood. I have fallen in and out of love with so many teams, coaches, and sports due to the culture and spirit that I am enveloped by every time I go to practice. Sometimes, sports should be simply about having fun and building trust within the team. Other times, we should be serious and competitive. These are not mutually exclusive approaches, there should be a presence of both simultaneously. I want to win too, but at what cost?
Dana Mash'Al is a Deputy Columns Editor. Email them at
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