Is Weightlifting A Team Sport?

Simple question, is Weightlifting a team sport?

To help answer let’s start with two definitions. A team sport is simply a sport played by teams. The key line in the Merriam-Webster definition of team reads “marked by devotion to teamwork rather than individual achievement.” I’ve seen definitions that qualify a team sport as one where there are more than two players on each side.

This means an individual sport is one where a player competes without a partner. When you think of competitive Weightlifting which definition fits best?

On a recent episode of the OLIFT Podcast, I posed the question USA Weightlifting’s Assistant Technical Director, Mike Gattone. Simple question, not so simple answer. Give it a listen. In the episode, we also talk about his new role and active recruiting of talent into the sport (a different but great topic for another post). The team discussion comes up about 12 minutes in.

One of the primary attractions of a sport like Weightlifting is its individual nature. It’s you versus the bar, yourself, or your competitors in an individual effort to lift the most weight possible. Obviously an individual sport…right?

Maybe not. Here’s why. The pinnacle of our sport is the Olympics and the IWF’s qualification system puts an emphasis on collective effort. The performance of nations i.e teams, in terms of points over a two-year span, drives qualification for the Olympics. Also, in many countries government funding for a sport is based on how “teams” perform internationally. Go to USA Weightlifting’s twitter page and notice the background banner doesn’t say “The Strongest Individuals In America.” That’s no accident.

Team Awards

In the US, team awards at national events are nice but ultimately a donation (I mean additional entry fee) and an afterthought. No one pays much attention to them and I hope coaches aren’t selecting weights to maximize points at such events.

International team qualification is an entirely different matter. What an individual does to qualify for a team is up to the lifter and their personal coach to plan out and make happen. But what about situations like 2016, where the US Men’s Team had to go the Continental Qualifier/Pan-Am Championships as a team to earn an individual spot at the Olympics?

There are no team awards at major international weightlifting events. Points are assigned to individual performances, tallied, ranked and used to determine qualification for the Olympics (and Youth Olympics). Nations select athletes, pick weight categories based on projections/predictions then determine attempts to maximize points for the team. This takes a front seat over the goals of the individual athletes on a given team.

In places where athletes earn money and live as professionals, there is no derision over this. It’s the deal. In the US, it’s not always so cut and dry.

Decentralized but not a democracy.

An international level coach I know well once said in conversation “weightlifting is not a democracy.” He said it jokingly but he meant it. He is one of many who believes the authority for team selection, weight selection, competition strategy etc. should go to a select few who know best.

There are also coaches, and athletes, who adamantly oppose this. To them, teams exist to serve for the identity of a group of individuals training together. The idea of a team in an individual sport is to have people around you that make your individual product or output better. It’s a support system, an association. Not a group working together on the field and not an autocracy.

It’s this problem, among others, USA Weightlifting’s new decentralized system attempts to address.  In the absence of a USOC funded central training center, top lifters are now free to train how they feel is best for them. Part of Gattone’s role is to interface with personal coaches and athletes who make major teams, compile data and use it to help make decisions for Team USA and the individuals. In that order.

Pyrros Dimas in his role as Technical Director for USA Weightlifting now has final say on weight selections at major international events.

The personal coaches of athletes who make teams have a place and play a role but as part of a group. Athletes and coaches must share information and play ball with this approach. This is where Weightlifting becomes a team sport.

Weightlifting is the greatest expression of individual skill and ability. On a local, hobby, or even national level it is fully an individual sport. Once an international level is achieved, the approach changes. It is not a team sport in the classic definition of one but it has team implications that cannot be ignored.