The Ryder Cup is beloved by golf professionals and fans alike. It’s the sense of belonging that all humans are hardwired for that makes it so special, says Jonny Reid. We should thank God for the gift of team sport
Thomas Bjorn won his first professional golf tournament at the age of 25. After he finished his interviews, took photos with his trophy, went back to the locker room and then stepped outside to leave, he was left with an emptiness: “I just stood there thinking, ‘Is that it?’…I felt empty. It was my first victory on the tour…it was the biggest dream of my life. But then you are alone. I felt flat. I realised that what you really want is not just a win for yourself, but for something bigger, you want to share it.”
Team Europe retained the Solheim Cup last week and the Ryder Cup is now under way in Rome. We’re in the middle of two very odd weeks in the world of golf. Unusually, all eyes are not focussed on individual players (or the money) but on the teams they are playing for. It’s team golf season and everyone loves it.
But why is it that these professional sports people - who are individually driven for all but two weeks of the year - enjoy being part of a team so much?
Bjorn, reflecting on the loneliness of his first victory and the delight at securing the Ryder Cup in 2018 put it well: “There is a difference between team and individual sport. In a team sport, you can share your successes and failures. You are surrounded by team-mates. I think that changes the experience and feeling…It binds you together.”
The psycology of motivation
Journalist Matthew Syed, reflecting on Bjorn’s comments, notes how modern psychological research affirms these findings. Traditionally, motivation was viewed as an individualistic thing; humans were entirely driven by their own self-interest. So, for example, if you wanted someone to try harder, it was accepted thought that the best way to achieve this was to increase the size of their pay packet.
Sometimes being alone is good and necessary, but to be lonely is terribly distressing
As in many sports, golf has been significantly impacted by this way of thinking, most recently seen in the furore surrounding the creation of LIV Golf. And yet Syed notes: “We are belatedly discovering…that humans are not economic automatons. We are not interested merely in self-enrichment. We are also social animals.”
Research by Greg Walton of Stanford University (as well as other academics) reveals that, most commonly, it is actually the connections we have with our peers and co-workers that motivate people to work hard, not individual or financial incentives. These are what give meaning to our work and our play.
Created for connectedness
This makes total sense for a Christian. The Bible wholeheartedly supports the idea that community and connection are at the core of our DNA. In the creation story, God says in Genesis 1:16: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness”.
It is notable that “let us” represents God as plural rather than singular. As the Bible unfolds, it becomes clear that this is because God has never been on his own, he has always been three in one. “You loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24) is how Jesus describes his eternal relationship with God.
The Trinity’s love for each other was too good to keep to themselves so, from the overflow of their love, the Father created the world, through his Son and by his Spirit. We were created not because God needs us, but out of love, so we can share in his creation and share his love with others.
It is deeply human to have relationships, to give and receive love. Sometimes being alone is good and necessary, but to be lonely is terribly distressing.
Sport England’s recent report on participation backs this up: “Active children and young people are more likely to be happy and less likely to feel lonely often or always than those who are less active.” However, since the pandemic, there has been a drop in team sports participation. It seems that individual gym memberships and the increase in digital wellness apps and programmes have led people to see exercise and fitness as less of a communal activity than ever before.
It is the connections with our peers that give meaning to our work and play
Sport can be one of the most collaborative, community and team-building activities on the planet - and it should not be a surprise that God designed some of us to make the world a friendlier, happier and more loving place by enjoying our athletic abilities together. Sport, when played in this way, allows us to experience something that humanity has been hard-wired to both need and enjoy – true relationship and deep community. For those who follow Jesus, this will also lead to great opportunities to share our faith with those we play and train with.
So, as you watch the Ryder Cup or take part in your sport, thank God for the gift of community - and the gift of sport, which can be so excellent at forming it. And if you’re tempted to only use your sporting talents individually, perhaps because it’s harder to schedule team sports or arrange to train with someone else, consider how you can continue to build community through sport by training and competing with others.
Rory McIlroy describes the Ryder Cup as “the most special and unique golf tournament we have, period,” saying “there’s nothing better than celebrating a win with your teammates.”
We are made in the image of a God who has always been part of a team. Let’s go and delight in the gift of sport and the gift of playing it together this week.