The Winning Need

While simplistic, the above perspectives are generally representative of the philosophical extremes present within contemporary, mainstream sport. Our experiences coaching athletes over the past 10 years ranging from school aged beginners through to the Olympic elite tell us there are problems with what is happening in between.

Problem 1) Perspective ONE (Active Participation) is an ideal and we believe it to be a worthy one. However, because of inconsistency in its presentation and incongruency of the support it receives (from schools, clubs and in the home), our current media driven sporting culture makes it extremely difficult for a Participation perspective to even exist in the minds of today’s youngsters.

We acknowledge there are real challenges for coaches / parents / teachers in applying the practical values of Active Participation in the face of a far more fashionable alternative. This is particularly so when the associated understanding of why such ideals are important tends to be relatively superficial and therefore the motivation to promote them, fragile. Further, the most powerful influences upon today’s junior athletes (and their coaches) are usually delivered via the media and exclusively feature the professional, win-at-all costs competitors exemplified in our second category. Unsurprisingly, the Success = Winning principle of Perspective TWO has become psychologically invasive across virtually every sporting discipline and self-perpetuates even at introductory level competitions. It IS the dominant culture.

Problem 2) There is no conscious means for attitudinal transition in the minds of young athletes from the success criteria of Active Participation to Winning. The philosophical differences are real and profound, yet at the moment, we just assume they’ll magically understand how it all works.

How does a child know when and why ‘play’ becomes ‘competition’? How do they make the practical transition from ‘enjoying’ to ‘winning’? Who tells them to change their primary motivators and explains to them why? What is a suitable age to make such a transition? Who decides?

With a philosophical message of winning forming the foundation of every sporting telecast, the very real distinctions between victory and any alternate measures of success rapidly become irrelevant. Just as our malleable youth are beginning to form their own ideas about what brings recognition and success in an adult world, TV indelibly and overwhelmingly stamps the “real world” truth onto their subconscious. And where the media leaves off, their coaches, schools, parents, peers and society in general take over; serving ultimately to convince, condition and reinforce to developing players that winning IS all that matters. In the end, it appears to them as self-evident and incontrovertible: only winners get to be famous, rich and on TV.

Only winners are good. Only winners are popular. Only winners are worthwhile people.

This is what we, through society, through our culture, really teach our kids about sport. We have created an epidemic of the “winning need” across all levels of sport that has superseded the idealistic nursery of learning and fun our early years of participation were supposed to provide. The attitudinal transition from Perspective ONE to Perspective TWO occurs by default in the absence of any purposeful alternative and is delivered predominantly by television. In other words, we have entrusted television broadcasters to educate our children in this fundamental issue because we have no wider plan or motivation of our own.

As the need to win has overwhelmed the desire to merely “play”, so the Professional ethos has ousted that of the hallowed Amateur. And through the rewards and benefits they can acquire, the modern athlete has transformed winning from a Holy Grail into a gravy train. Winning need not only affects young, impressionable juniors, but similarly influences senior athletes, coaches and administrators alike. Whether it is kudos, employment, funding, recognition, acceptance or plain old money, we are driven to win because that’s seen as the only thing with a genuine, tangible capacity to deliver. In twenty first century sport, only winners survive.

Problem 3) Using winning as a motivator and priority is fundamentally flawed. Even if your definition of success is based exclusively on how much you win, employing it as your central reason for competing will ultimately deliver less of the available potential, not more.

We’ve started out attacking winning. As coaches operating within and thus dependant upon the dominant culture, we live and die by the stipulations of Perspective TWO like everyone else. i.e. our teams don’t win – we don’t have a job. So, it is not that we don’t want our athletes to win. What we are suggesting however, is that maintaining winning as your overriding objective and central motivating principle, can and does limit performance. And in a majority of cases, you will win less…not more.

As this book is primarily about optimising performance, which, by definition, directly affects the amount one wins, anything that limits performance is central to our discussion. We believe, beyond the philosophical issues raised in the preceding paragraphs, the large emphasis on winning in contemporary sport is paradoxically decreasing performance potential and thereby making winning itself, harder.

Even if our cultural obsession with winning doesn’t bother you, perhaps the fact that your team’s motivation to win could be a key determinant in them losing may have you reconsider the way you go about things.

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