You constantly hear coaches, parents and athletes talk about the 'winning mentality' or 'winning at all costs'. However you put it, it's setting the athlete up, if they are not always first, to become a loser. If you are not first or a winner then, by definition, you are a loser. Don't get me wrong, I want the athletes I coach to be picking up first place and gold medals as that can be their reward for the hard yards and performing optimally. But it is precisely not having the 'winning' mind-set that will enable them to achieve this. By setting out to win or to beat others, you're setting the benchmark by something uncontrollable.
Sure you can have outcome or dream goals - 'I want to become Olympic champion', etc. But in reality, in the cold light of day, you have no control over that outcome, so don't dwell on it, yes use it as motivation but put your time and energy into the process, the day-to-day consistency and hard yards.
I'm a big believer in the benefits of competition and developing a competitive spirit in athletes. But there is a big difference between developing an attitude, wanting to perform optimally and believing that winning is everything. When 'winning' becomes all encompassing, when the athlete, parent or coach believes that's what it is all about (keeping in mind there can only ever be one winner) anyone who doesn't come first must be seen as a loser.
Let's look at this from the perspective of the noble art; in boxing if you are second you quite possibly got hurt. Still the boxer cannot worry/be focused on 'winning' they must be 100% in the moment, focused on the next movement/ counter movement. If they think they have done it ('it's in the bag'), or even lost it ('this guy's too good for me'), part way through the fight, it will hinder progress and the fighter could get sloppy, possibly getting knocked out, or demoralised and therefore not seize his opportunities. 100% he needs to be driven, dig in and be mentally tough… but focus too much on 'winning' during the fight at his peril.
Now to the less noble art… The English football team; we see these players for Chelsea, Liverpool et al, playing well week in week out. They even play quite good stuff in friendlies or pre-big competition (the group stages / quarter final etc). Then like a tonne weight has come from nowhere, they seem to forget it's just a game. They become tense and tight, make wrong calls, the tension inhibits what they 'normally' do. Like a man being faced by a lion and told to run to a safe place! But it is simple; ball - look - pass – score… enjoy (I don't play football!).
They are focused on the outcome and possibly on what people will think or say. They may be worried about a re-signing or their win bonus (or being eaten!). This thinking takes them exactly where they don't need to or want to be. Instead, to perform at their best, they need to focus on the job at hand, on their individual performance and how they will help the team. And, importantly, they need to enjoy this highly competitive environment.
Winning at all costs
The 'winning' mind-set may also encompass 'winning at all costs' - we see this all the time on the football pitch, with dives to get penalties and players sent off. We also see this creeping more and more into rugby union, with more players looking for penalties and cards and the infamous 'blood-gate' scandal. Generally this type of behaviour is not being discouraged by team mates, coaches or most fans… until they are on the receiving end… It may even be considered 'not playing for the team' if you don't employ these tactics.
Is winning at all costs what we want our athletes, sports men and women aspiring to? Do we really want our national teams cheating in front of our eyes on the TV and in front of other nations? Are you happy that we win gold and later find out it was drug fuelled? Or a GB athlete impedes another foreign athlete so their GB team mate gains and advantage?
Do we not want to develop a national sporting standard that we as British subjects are not willing to go beyond, based on sound moral standards? Thus, not prepared to win at all costs?
Beware young prima donnas
It is unusual for young athletes who are heralded as 'winners' or child prodigies to go on to compete for top honours in endurance sports (which are classically late development sports). It is more likely that when we see examples of senior athletes performing at high levels they were not seen as exceptionally talented children, but had to fight hard, got their arses kicked from time to time, but didn't give up, as they saw a light at the end of the tunnel (loved it) and were prepared to work for it.
These same young athletes are commonly the ones who go on to be successful in business or other aspects of life, not only in sport. As adults, they know that things won't be handed to them on a plate and if something is worth having it's worth working hard for.
The road to doping…
The obsessive 'winning mentality' can also start us down the doping road, where the athlete is so pressurised and brainwashed about 'winning', possibly from a young age, that they can develop what is called a fixed mind-set. This is where they begin to set themselves up 'not to fail' by only competing at events they know they will win or pulling up/out of events they are being beaten in (feigning injury or some other excuse). This can also be seen in training and will be exacerbated if they are coached in an environment where it is not picked up.
They are not thinking about the here and now of their individual performance or how they could learn from the competition/situation for the future… just 'winning' (in this situation, not losing) and why would they, with coaches and/or parents focusing so much on the next race and winning that? In coaching terms we call this 'coaching for next Friday' and it's part of the 'winning mentality'.
There is another phase that can follow on with this mentality; if the athlete stops being so dominant and 'winning' when he or she asks "How can I guarantee I will become a 'winner' again?" the answer some reach is to cheat and possibly take performance enhancing drugs.
So this is the 'winning mentality' - is this what we want our young and aspiring athletes to become… winners?
Is there an alternative mentality?
Yes; a mentality where the athlete is taught about hard graft, skill acquisition & development, mastery of oneself and coached through negative experiences leading instead to the development of a 'growth mind-set'.
Just four years ago we saw a young triathlete competing in the Beijing Olympics, the then relatively unknown Alistair Brownlee (unknown outside triathlon at least) had a good little swim, good bike for the young fella and then he went off and took on the world's best triathletes at their own game. Leading the 10k for most of the run, digging in and hurting, then when the world's best came past him with 3k to go, he battled on to a 12th place finish.
After the race he was already viewing the experience as an invaluable lesson that would stand him in good stead after another four year Olympic-cycle, saying "hopefully another four years maturity will help me gain extra 12 places".
We know you get nothing worth having without working bloody hard for it. Learning, taking a few knocks, getting up, digging in and fighting on, developing the mental toughness that is essential in high level competitive sport.
The secret to success
What has driven highly successful senior athletes? Environment, fellow athletes, friends, family, a sound coach, and encouraging (not pushy) parents or possibly an intangible drive from childhood? Probably a mix of all of these and at some point they will have experienced a taste of what good performance feels like, enjoy it / got a buzz from it and want to feel this again. It may not have been a 'win'; it may have been a feeling of mastery or just of progression (as in Alistair's case)… getting better at something worthwhile or that they believed in.
If an Olympic podium or World Championship was easy to win and you didn't have to work damn hard to get it… then everyone would be an Olympic or World Champion... it takes a heck of a lot of hard, focused, consistent yards to make it.
In this era of high speed internet, mobile phones, internet shopping, quick loans, we can have just about anything we want… now. It is imperative as coaches, parents, teachers and athletes we understand that a masterpiece cannot be painted overnight; it takes many re-worked and screwed-up efforts before we even begin on the road to mastery.
So let's take our eye off 'winning' and focus on the reality of sport and competition - start putting the pieces of the jigsaw together in building true performance athletes through hard work, enjoyment, technical mastery, discipline, positive / performance environments, sound coaching, developing mental toughness and fun.
Winning is for losers