Olympic gymnastics has apparently had a rule change in recent years, about who qualifies for the individual all-around competition. You've probably heard all about it, because it caused no small amount of angst at this week's qualification rounds. The rule states that the top 24 scoring athletes qualify for finals BUT only two can qualify from each country.
This quota system caused heart-break when American women scored 2nd, 3rd, and 4th overall - but the 4th-place finisher, world champion Jordyn Wieber, did not qualify for the finals, because two of her teammates scored higher. And, while the US team was the highest scoring, and closest scoring group of teammates this happened to, it was by no means the only team who would had three of the top 24 scores: Russia's Anastasia Grishina, Great Britain's Jennifer Pinches, and China's Jinnan Yao were similarly disqualified.
Plenty of pundit are talking about the injustice of this rule, arguing that the top 24 scores should advance, regardless of country. I don't need to say what's already being said. What interests me more (as a therapist), is the position the social dynamics the rule creates for the women on a given team. Think about it: You're going through the qualifying round, and as a member of a 5-person team, you obviously want your teammates to do well - after all, qualification is based on total team score. However, as an individual with aspirations for the individual all-around competition, you can't want your teammates to do that well. You need them to do pretty well, but not better than you do (or, at least, have no more than one of them perform better than you!).
This is what psychological theorists might call a double bind: technically speaking, a situation in which someone faces two conflicting demands, such that, by meeting one demand, the person automatically fails at meeting the other.
Here's how I see it at work in women's gymnastics. Each country can choose only 5 women for its squad, to compete in the team all-around, the individual all-around, and the individual competitions for each apparatus (there are 4 for women). Since 4 of the 5 women have to compete for the team on each apparatus, the vast majority have to be all-around athletes, rather than "specialists" (e.g., the US has one specialist, a vaulter). As all of these all-around athletes are competing on each apparatus in the qualifying round, they are each trying to do their best (1) to get their team into the team finals, (2) to get into the individual all-around finals, and (3) to get into the event finals for each apparatus they're strong on. For the most part, these goals are consistent with one another: if every teammate does her best on each routine, both team and individual qualifying goals are met. The bind comes in when you pit teammates against each other for two slots in the individual all-around. Now gymnasts on strong teams are caught between wanting their teammates to do their best (to reach the team goal, and, well, because they're teammates and should want the best for each other), and needing their teammates to make mistakes, as a criterion for individual advancement. Doing your best may not matter unless your teammate messes up.
That's an icky situation to be in (and even worse when the "women" in question are really just teenage girls, thrown out onto a world stage and weighed down by the pressure and expectations of an entire country - not to mention their own drive and ambition, and the umpteen years they and their families have devoted to the dream of olympic victory). It has to create strain, intrapsychically, and interpersonally on the team. It takes great strength of character to weather that kind of strain and manage not to hate each other by the end. My heart goes out to all of them.
Let's do our best to do away with this kind of double-bind, wherever it appears. Life is hard enough. Let's try not to make it impossible.