“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad with power.” - ancient proverb
There’s no denying it, winning feels good. From the Olympics all the way down to the daily spike ball games at TTT HQ, there’s something very primitive, very rewarding about winning. We are hardwired to experience a sense of reward when we ‘win’, which could probably be explained by evolutionary behavior and the competition that existed between certain traits or individuals, where winning literally meant survival. As Kyle beautifully explained in his blog ‘Winning or Losing, Success or Failure’, this sense of reward that we experience after a win leaves us craving more of the same, essentially pushing us into a continual pleasure-seeking mode. But the important distinction that I want to make is that this ‘feeling’ that accompanies a win is more than likely NOT happiness/fulfillment, and mistaking it as such can be extremely detrimental, particularly for the young and developing athletes amongst us.
With this blog I want to change the conversation around youth sports and the winning mentality. I want ‘winning’ to be seen for what it is, not as some end goal or source of happiness in itself, but as another step in the process that can either serve as a learning opportunity, or as an excuse to slack off and stop pursuing progress. Sports are a perfect arena for allowing our kids to gain an appreciation for a process oriented approach, to show them with their own experiences how work put in now pays off later. But when we place so much value into an outcome that may or may not be within their control, we compromise that process and remove much of the innate value that sports can offer. Winning, if framed inappropriately, can be incredibly harmful to the long term development and happiness of our young athletes. I want to lay out here what I see as some of the potential costs of winning, in hopes of building awareness around them and encouraging a collective re-framing of the youth sporting experience.
In my opinion, one of the most dangerous experiences that a young athlete can have in our current sporting culture is to be too gifted too soon. Early success by a young athlete can too easily be misinterpreted by those around them as talent. But when viewed on a larger time scale what we see is that this difference in ability can more accurately be attributed to earlier maturation in that individual. One version of this would be the relative age effect (RAE), which Malcolm Gladwell covered in his book Outliers. Now what’s interesting about RAE that isn’t discussed in the book is that while it affords an advantage early on in life in terms of preferential treatment, that advantage will recede with time. The factors that lead a kid to be a standout performer when they are 8 or 10 are VERY different than those that lead to elite performance when they are 20 or 25. So while kids who are relatively older than their competitors might be more likely to reach higher levels in their sport, there is actually a larger chance of those who are relatively younger to experience success at those levels.
Why? Basically, it’s not normal to do whats required to experience long term success. It’s hard work, really hard work. There is a lot of pain and suffering that must be tolerated for a long time. It would stand to reason that those who have struggled before have the experience needed to continue on that path, and the confidence to do so knowing that their hard work has paid off before. On the other hand, going through your formative years as a ‘winner’, where everything comes easy and the obstacles are few and far between, might be a disadvantage when it comes time to endure this struggle. In order to be sustained, talent needs trauma.
The other concern for a young prodigy? They can become a slave to their talent, and their sport. They receive lots of praise, but also have to deal with rising expectations, both externally and internally. Chasing perfection becomes more important than chasing progress, so more time/energy/money is poured into making them the ‘perfect’ athlete. And even if things do happen to keep going right, the wins keep coming and objective success is undeniable, we often do so by sacrificing the balance and mental health of the athlete.
Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time, has openly talked about his struggles with depression in spite of his success, saying
“I think the biggest thing was, I thought of myself as just a swimmer, and nobody else.”
Andre Agassi, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, shared some incredibly haunting thoughts in his autobiography Open, saying things like
“Please let this be over. I’m not ready for this to be over….if tennis is life, then what follows tennis must be the unknowable void. The thought makes me cold.”
Their lives were scripted out for them, without their permission, the second that those around them saw their potential. And by the time they were old enough to make decisions for themselves, they knew nothing else, either about themselves or the world around them. It didn’t matter how painful the experience had become, they couldn’t bring themselves to stop. Being a winner is not a guarantee for happiness, and forcing that mindset rather than a focus on the process is a huge mistake.
Lose but learn, Win AND learn
Another potential cost of winning is the false sense of security that it can provide. When we suffer a loss the natural reaction of a dedicated competitor is to go back, review what happened, and figure out how to learn and improve from the experience. This isn’t always the case when we win. We can allow the binary nature of the result to convince us that our current state is adequate, and fail to capitalize on any potential lessons that could have been taken from the experience. This is particularly true for younger athletes, who as a byproduct of their developing mindstate often get too caught up in the short term reward of winning and fail to plan for the future.
What we have to realize and pass on to our athletes is that a win can come in any number of situations or scenarios, and it could be completely deserved or wholly undeserved. You cannot afford to treat a win as an excuse to avoid putting in the work of learning and developing and refining your skillset. We want our athletes to accept that any performance they put in can and should be open to analysis, regardless of the result.
As I continue along in my own development as a coach, I’ve tried to ensure that I lead these post-event conversations with my athletes towards this objective. “What did you learn?” It might be preceded with either a ‘Great job!’ or ‘Solid effort’, but asking them what they learned forces them to view the experience as much more than just the result. It also allows us to normalize the emotional swings that go along with competition, which can help make the long term process more sustainable. Not allowing for too much self-pity when things go wrong, and not getting carried away when things go in our favor. Some frustration or pride are definitely encouraged, as they let us know that there is still some passion for the experience, but it should all be taken in context and treated as an opportunity to learn.
I think that a lot of the obsession our culture has with winning comes down to our desire to be able to label things, to be able to differentiate between good and bad. We want to assert our dominance, and we want to feel validated in ourselves or in our social group by competing and winning against others. We want to be ‘right’. We also have the tendency to use the outcomes of competitions to make gross generalizations around the competitors. Success or failure in one domain is then applied to all aspects of that person’s life, despite no meaningful reason for doing so. But again, this is the price that we pay by worshipping a winning mentality. We encourage ourselves and our young athletes to narrow their goals and their life focus down so much, it becomes almost impossible to define them using any other metrics.
What we need to continue to strive for is balance. We want our young athletes to build an identity for themselves that exists independently from the sport they participate in. We want them to diversify not only their sporting experience, but also their lives. Encourage them to find something meaningful and fulfilling outside of their sport. Because the sad truth is that, no matter how much they love it or how well we can moderate the experience, it will end at some point. It could be tomorrow if they are unlucky enough to suffer a serious injury. It could be 6 years from now when they graduate college. The point is, when that time comes, they need to be ready for it. They need to be prepared to take all of the skills and lessons that were learned from sports and put them to good use in another domain. In other words,
Play sports, and play to win, but plan for beyond sports.
I’m not anti-competition. You won’t ever see me handing out participation trophies. The goal of this blog is to ensure that ‘winning’ is seen for exactly what it is, all the good along with all of the potential bad. There are hidden costs that come with it, specifically for young athletes, and I believe that by building awareness around them we can mitigate any future damage as much as possible. As I’ve stated before, this responsibility starts with the parents/coaches/trainers to set the expectations and help guide the experience. Have their long-term best interest in mind rather than pushing them for short term success in the form of ‘wins’.
Instead of striving for the fleeting feeling of reward that goes along with winning, we should encourage our young athletes to use the experience to develop a skill set and a resilient mindset that will benefit them for what comes after sports. With this longer term perspective, we place the power back into the hands of the athletes, ensuring that they ultimately are in control of their happiness rather than allowing it to be impacted by an arbitrary short term result. Now, they can participate in sports (and strive to win), but they do so knowing that the result doesn’t have to dictate the value of the experience, and that it isn’t a reflection of themselves as people, win or lose.
I mentioned above that my goal was to change the conversation around the youth sporting experience, and I wanted to back that up. I know that clear communication, even with the best intentions, can often be hard to initiate. So below I’ve included two examples of how different interactions can be framed in order to achieve the goals that we’ve set out. The first will be around setting expectations for the athlete, and could be delivered by either a coach or parent. The second will be specifically for parents, and will be useful for intimate post-game talks after the excitement of the game has faded (please note the simplicity of this one).
Before a game/competition/season -
You are not your performance. You are not defined by your wins and losses, by your weaknesses and strengths, by your successes and failures. Instead, you are defined by your attitude, by how you carry yourself and how you interact with others, by the effort you put into training and into competition, and by how you respond to adversity and to glory. These are all within your control, they are choices that you make and that you can and should be held accountable for. Take ownership of what you can control, choose to put the effort in where it matters, and be prepared to accept the results.
After a game/competition/season -
I really enjoyed watching you play. It looked like a pretty tough match out there. What did you learn from it?
An important note - aside from the actual words, the best thing that you can do in any interaction with kids is to be authentic. Be genuine, and they will respect you and be more likely to listen to you as a result.