Team sport is a form of play that involves opposing teams of players, each of which competes with each other while simultaneously cooperating to achieve an objective. These objectives may include teammates facilitating the movement of a ball or other object in accordance with a set of rules to score points. Because of this, the similarity between team contact sports and combat has been a consistent theme in the literature on human play (Deaner and Smith 2013; Sipes 1973). However, while dyadic play fighting is common among many species, team contact sports are unique in that they appear to be the only form of competitive play in which people cooperate with each other directly to perform an action.
It has been suggested that this peculiar feature of team sports – the simultaneous demands to compete and to cooperate – explains why they have a greater psychological appeal than other forms of play. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that participants in team sports exhibit heightened motivation to perform well on the field or court, as evidenced by their strong preference for playing on home turf rather than away; a propensity for evaluating and criticizing the comparative skill levels of their teammates; and pronounced emotional responses to perceived officiating bias.
In addition to providing a great deal of fun, team sport can also teach children valuable life lessons such as perseverance and dedication. By putting in the hard work required to participate, kids learn that there are few shortcuts to success and that success requires long-term commitment, delayed gratification, and perseverance. Team sports also teach that while it is important to win, losing can be a beneficial experience as well because it provides an opportunity for athletes to examine their own performances and learn from their mistakes.
It is often challenging to measure the physical output of team sport athletes because most sport-specific data collection protocols rely on aggregate parameters such as total distance covered or percentage of time spent performing high-intensity running. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to identify the periods of intense exertion that characterize most competitive team sports because they tend to last only a fraction of a second and are accompanied by dramatic fluctuations in physiological parameters. However, advances in technology are beginning to unlock new windows for the study of team sports by allowing scientists to detect such events on a minute-by-minute basis. The resulting data can reveal more about the cognitive reconciliation of competition and cooperation during performance in team sports than has previously been possible. Ultimately, this is an exciting development that merits further consideration by evolutionary social scientists and biologists. It could potentially serve as a model for future research in other arenas of human interaction, such as conflict resolution and peacemaking. In the meantime, there are a host of practical applications for this emerging technology that could benefit athletes and researchers alike. A growing interest in studying team sports through the lens of evolutionary thinking has the potential to open many new doors for future exploration.