Winning: you’re thinking about it all wrong

What sports psychology tells us to do instead

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Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

~ Bobby Knight

I love sports.

I have been playing sports for almost as long as I’ve been alive. I love the camaraderie of team sports and I love the sense of being in control in individual sports. I love how it feels to make a good play and I love the battle.

And, once upon a time, winning was everything to me.

Unfortunately, it took me nearly three decades of playing sports to realize that my focus on winning was holding me back, not just from realizing my potential but also from winning itself.

The paradox

Does it seem paradoxical to you that focusing on winning actually leads to less winning?

The problem with focusing on winning is that it’s something you don’t have control over. You cannot control your opponent. You cannot control the conditions in which you play. You cannot control the referees and how they implement the rules of the game. Yet, all these factors play into whether you win.

In the end, all you have control over are your actions. And what do your actions depend upon?

Your brain.

If you’ve ever seen an athlete performing as if they can do no wrong, you might have said he or she was in “the zone.” The scientific term for this state of mind is called “flow.” Essentially, a person is said to be in a state of when virtually the entire capacity of their brain is engaged in the activity at hand (see here).

Think of your brain like a computer. Just as your computer probably starts to slow down when you are watching a 4K movie, while shopping online, while playing a computer game (you’re an amazing multitasker!), your brain also has a limit to the amount of information it can process in any one moment.

You can test this for yourself. Try to follow two different conversations at once. You will find that you can’t, especially if you actually want to engage in those conversations. You’re better off sticking to one at a time.

This is how it is when playing a sport. If you’re mind is distracted by thoughts of winning or losing, the weather, the referees, or your opponent(s), then that brain power is not available for you to actually . The result? You are performing optimally.

Similarly, focusing on an aspect of the future, like winning an important match, can cause anxiety and fear, which also dampens performance.

Being overly concerned about winning and losing, whether in practice or in a competitive environment, is a distraction from the task at hand; and there is literally nothing more important than the task at hand if you want to perform at your best and thereby increase your odds of winning (see here).

Then, what matters in sports?

To be clear, I don’t think winning doesn’t matter. A competitive mindset is what drives many of us to excel. But there are beneficial and detrimental ways of the idea of competition.

I used to think that competition was driven by emotions like anger, jealousy, pride, and even hatred. When directed at our opponents, these emotions can have powerful effects and can sometimes make us stop at nothing to win. The problem is, these emotions often get in our way when it really matters.

Some really interesting research that studied high performing athletes found that these athletes reported feelings of effortlessness and automaticity during their peak performances (see here). In fact, they reported little or no conscious thought at all during these performances!

Isn’t that incredible? They just allowed their bodies to do what they already knew to do. During their peak performances, these athletes aren’t anxious or worried, nor are they fixated on how much they hate their opponents. They are totally absorbed in what they are doing.

Today, I think the beauty of competition lies in athletes challenging each other to do better. When we see an athlete do something we can’t, why can’t we let this inspire us or teach us?

The problem is, we’re taught to have no respect for our fellow athletes and because of that we not only lose a critical learning opportunity, but we also become too emotionally invested.

Our love of winning and hatred of losing fills our minds with doubt and uncertainty. We’re focused too much on future outcomes that may or may not come to pass, which only distracts us from the task at hand (see here).

A friend that I wall climb with once told me something that changed how I approach all sports. He said something like, .

No single piece of advice has ever rung truer for me when it comes to sports.

What do you think?

Shooting for the stars

But, we should still shoot for the stars, right? I mean, great things have been accomplished by setting outlandish goals, like landing people on the Moon.

This is true, but our desire to shoot for the stars must be balanced by a plan to get there. It took years of planning, failures, and successes to finally land a human on the Moon. And this is how it is with every great endeavor.

By caring less about winning, we re-focus our attention on what actually gets us to the stars — our actions in the moment (see here). It’s these actions multiplied day-in and day-out that get us there, not being fixated on the outcome. It is this kind of perseverance that we need to improve and succeed as athletes (or at anything).

When we take our focus off winning, we allow ourselves to actually enjoy what we’re doing. And when we enjoy what we’re doing we’re less afraid to make mistakes, which ultimately leads to us improving (see here). And improving, of course, leads to us increasing our odds of winning.

So, the next time you step into an arena of sport, remember that it’s not all about winning. Remember that by allowing yourself to simply play, you will see yourself improve, reap more enjoyment out of your sport, and then win more often.

Written by

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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