Lessons from Olympic Gymnastics: What Makes a “Team” a Team?

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U.S. Olympic gymnast Kyla Ross. Photo by Scott and Emer Hults Photography. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Last night, the U.S. women won their second ever gymnastics team gold medal at the summer Olympics in London. After the win, the team’s coach, Marta Karolyi, and her former coach husband, Bela, said something interesting about this team:

Whether these 2012 gold medalists are the best group of American Olympic gymnasts can be debated — though U.S. coach Marta Karolyi says they are — but they are almost certainly the best team.

“That [1996 gold-medal squad] was a beautiful team made up from great individual athletes,” Bela Karolyi said when asked to compare the two gold-medal teams. “Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller, Amy Chow — all these great kids; but they trained in different ways. When we got them together, it was a beautiful bouquet of individual athletes rather than a team. And that made a big difference tonight.”

I love drawing lessons from sports when thinking about collaboration, but this claim made me curious. In a sport that is ultimately the aggregation of a set of individual scores, what made this 2012 squad more of a team than the 1996 squad?

I know nothing about gymnastics, but I know about teams, so I could speculate. Judging from what Karolyi said, my best guess is that they were referring to how this group prepared and practiced together. This is where high-performance skills are honed, and that’s where these women had the best opportunities to support each other.

What do you think? What makes a group of athletes who are judged by the sum of their individual performances a team? Were there indicators that showed that this 2012 squad was more of a team than the 1996 squad? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Update (August 3, 2012)

Bill Simmon’s recent post comparing the experience of watching gymnastics versus swimming live offers more clues as to how team gymnastics might feel more like a team sport than swimming relays. I particularly liked what he said about flow plus meaning. Scroll down to the final two sections of his post for the relevant sections.