There is more to the story of modern sports than what is revealed at face value.

Modern sports derive their origins from the Greeks and Romans, for whom it was not only a show of masculinity and sporting skill, but also of attributes vital for young men entering society, such as teamwork, valour, integrity, and determination.

Often, the athletic ability of young men determined their lifelong status. Team sports armed them with skills that would bring them great success in other groups when working towards a common goal, and shaped how their community regarded them.

In modern times, initiating people into team sports in their youth can be useful for their successful development, regardless of other circumstances such as wealth, ethnic background, or cultural beliefs. Australian sporting culture is a carrier of the attributes that were so cherished in ancient times; Australian athletes embody the notion of wearing one’s heart on their sleeve and leaving it all on the field, while working side by side with a group of mates to overcome adversary.

Many of our sports may technically be derived from other lands, but our cultural values surrounding these sports are uniquely sourced from Australians’ value of mateship. Mental, emotional, and spiritual enrichment are developed from playing team sports, encouraged by our culture of maximising support for others.

Life is essentially made up of a string of team-based scenarios. Our colleagues are all on a team with us; everyone in our group assignment is on a team with us; even our fellow Australians are all on a team with us. In these teams, we do not usually have the same function as one another. We assign ourselves different tasks, whether randomly or on reflection of our strengths and weaknesses.

Individuals who can thrive under pressure are known as ‘X-factors’; the team succeeds when these players perform properly, and usually fails when they do not. When Dusty Martin is in the zone, Richmond is nearly impossible to stop. When Michael Jordan was in the zone, the Chicago Bulls were tearing up the NBA. These dominant X-factors are the life-force of their team because they radiate competitive energy onto their teammates, lifting their morale like any leader should. They are also warriors because they can switch themselves on in the thick of it and go blow for blow until the job is done.

These X-factors are not necessarily the most athletically gifted. They are the ones with the greatest drive to win and improve themselves, therefore turning themselves into better performers than the more naturally proficient players. Watching these people teaches us that making it to the top is not about who starts with the most natural ability. It is about being a battler: spending more time on your craft than anyone else and driving yourself forward when everyone else wants to quit. It is a warning against complacency, and an invite for unlimited possibilities.

Not everyone can be an X-factor.

There have been times when a team of superstars have surprisingly created problems because the fight for hierarchical dominance weakened the team’s overall progress towards their goals. There is a need for support players and role players in any organisation.

Playing my first season of American football in 2020, I learnt that I lacked the technique to be an X-factor. I still wanted to make a strong contribution to the team and despite lacking the traditional size for the sport, I learned through the season about making a greater impact as a support player at the defensive end and full back.

The support players in team sports serve as a web, and the X-factor is the cunning redback spider who uses the support players’ web to trap its prey, before killing it. It is a difficult decision sometimes: swallowing our pride after we realise that we are best suited for some sidekick position, as opposed to being the the protagonist and being centre stage.

Whether we accept this is dependent on how much we value our own glory over the success of the overall team machine. Sacrifices like this are made by those whose can accept and appreciate their place in the grand scheme of things. Great support players all hold the firm belief that the outcome of a well-oiled machine is greater than the sum of its parts.

Success in the modern world can be achieved without being a great X-factor, or even a great support player. Almost nobody is perfectly fit for either of those positions, even after years of team sports. I finally realised that, despite these truths, I could still excel in the modern world. I accepted that there would always be someone better than me, no matter where I oriented myself, be it as an X-factor or a support player. Hope for my future emerged the moment I declared that, although that may be the case, I was never going to let any of these more skilled players beat me for effort, and if I stuck to this, I would be guaranteed to reach the goals in my life. I believe that this, more than the other elements I have discussed, is the essence of the great athletes in team sports: to always keep fighting.

The growth of a young Australian’s X-factor and support player traits, no matter how slow, is never wasted growth. Even small improvement in these areas allow us to better gel within teams, handle high-pressure situations, achieve more, and overcome conflict and adversity. This ruthless will of individual athletes is something we must nurture into all young people in the 21st-century. Greatness comes from the way we raise our current generation, and coming generations too, to be athlete-like in spirit, regardless of our backgrounds and abilities.


Harry’s obsession is to one day win gold for Australia.

Words by Harrison Greene

Image sourced from Unsplash

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