Updated: Sep 7
As athletes, few things are more important to us than winning. We want to win in everything we do. Whether it's in our sport or any other activity, if there is competition on the other side and a way to win, we want to find it. So, with such intense intentions of victory, how could not focusing on winning possibly lead to more winning? In order to fully answer that question, I think we need to start by defining success in a way that allows us to compete at the highest level and, in doing so, we will better understand where winning comes from.
Section 1: Define Success
If I asked you what success looks like for you in your sport, what definition would you give me? Would you measure success by the number of championships you’re a part of? Would you measure success by the number of records you set? Perhaps, success is reaching a certain statistical milestone. Now, while none of these goals are bad measures of success in themselves, they cannot be the primary focus of each day.
If we are only successful when we out-score our opponents, then we will miss out on an enormous number of opportunities to win. Our focus needs to be process-based. In other words, focusing on daily improvements over extended periods.
Extremely biased statement incoming: one of the reasons baseball is the greatest game of all time (I warned you, extreme bias was coming) is that you can do everything right and still fail. If I had four at-bats in one game and I hit the ball hard each time, but hit it right at a fielder who caught the ball, statistically, that would be a very poor performance. If my goal for each at-bat was to get a hit, which is out of my control, that 0-4 game would be a complete failure. However, if my goal was to hit the ball hard, rather than get a hit, then my hitless game would be far more successful than the statistics show.
By shifting my focus to hitting the ball hard, not only do I bring the goal within my control, but I also put myself in a position for the statistics to fall in my favor more often. The harder I hit the ball, the more likely I will get a hit and the more hits I get, the more successful my statistical resume becomes.
This concept applies to whatever sport you play. When your definition of success is internally driven, and how you measure that success is within your control, you gain the ability to replicate your performance and put yourself and your team in a better position to win. When you perform well, the team performs well. Winning is a byproduct of you doing your job effectively.
So to win more, we need to shift our focus away from winning and toward the process of getting better at our jobs. When we execute the things that are within our control like swinging at the right pitches, taking the right shots, and preparing the right way, the results that are out of our control, like winning, will begin to fall more in our favor.
Section 2: Fuel Your Body Like a Fighter Jet
Fighter jets can fly at speeds eclipsing 1,000 miles an hour with the fastest jets in the world reaching a top speed of over 2,500 mph. For those of you who measure speed by sound, 2,500 mph is roughly three times the speed of sound. While this is incredibly impressive, we know that even the best jets in the world cannot sustain these rates of flight indefinitely. After some time, usually between 1,500-2,500 miles, these engineering marvels have to refuel. Whether refueling on the ground, or in air, the act of taking the time to refuel does not make these jets any less powerful. In fact, it's their ability to refuel efficiently and effectively that makes these jets so dominant. So why is it that we feel when our tanks are empty, we can’t stop for fuel?
During my baseball career, I subscribed to the “there is always someone willing to work harder than you” school of thought. That notion drove me to get up early in the morning, stay late after practice, and generally eat, drink, sleep and breathe baseball. That insatiable work ethic was a large reason I was able to get as far as I did in my baseball career, but toward the end of my playing days, I began to realize that there is a difference between working hard and working for the sake of working.
I always wanted to be able to give 100 percent to everything I did, but I began to see that for me to be as fast as I wanted and train as hard as I needed, I, like the fighter jets, had to refuel. This concept was extremely unnatural for me because I felt that if I took a break, if I rested, if I stopped to catch my breath, I was being lazy; I was letting someone else outwork me.
To be completely honest, it wasn't until recently, four-plus years after I stopped playing, that I began to embrace the value of resting and refueling.
In order to compete at the highest levels we need to have the energy to do so. We need our bodies operating as effectively as possible and we need our minds to do the same. Embracing rest does not mean training less; it does not mean cutting corners; it does not mean giving up when things become difficult; rather, embracing rest means working harder and pushing further, but stopping when you need to; it means taking the time to recover; it means flying at 1,000 mph, but refueling when your tank is empty.
Resting is not a break from your training, but an integral part of it. As Coach Bennett, the Nike Run Global Head Coach, says, “When you’re not running, you're recovering.” Take the time to rest and refuel so you can go faster and further.
Section 3: Shifting Your Focus to Value Where You Are
It is incredibly important to me that you take away the value of the position you’re in as an athlete. No matter the level at which you play, from little league up through the pros, being an athlete is a gift.
There are so many people at your school, in your community and even around the world who would do anything to be in your position. While I know being an athlete isn’t always sunshine and rainbows and there is a world of pressure that you have to deal with on and off the field, I want to challenge you to keep a certain level of perspective with the position you are in.
When you’re sore from training, it means that your body is strong enough to exert itself to the point of fatigue.
When you're practicing in 100-degree heat, it means the sun is shining bright and you get to enjoy some fresh air.
When you struggle and fail, it means you still have room to grow.
So, the next time that you have a tough day on the field or court, or you wake up and don't feel particularly well, instead of throwing in the towel, get excited. Get excited about the opportunity that is in front of you to respond to the challenges. Get excited about the chance to practice finding ways to perform at a high level in the face of adversity. No matter how long you play, you will always come across challenges in and out of the game, but because of these experiences, you will be better equipped to perform at a high level no matter what the game and life throws at you.
As athletes, we want to win in everything we do, but with no valleys, there can be no peaks. Winning only feels good because we have lost. If every time we stepped on the field we were guaranteed to win, we would lose the meaning behind why we play. Because it's hard to compete at a high level every day, doing so is significant. To accomplish what we set out to accomplish each season, to win games and ultimately win championships, winning can't be where we start. Instead, we have to buy into the fact that winning is a byproduct of doing our jobs well. And in order to do our jobs well, we have to put ourselves in the best position to succeed. We need to take care of our bodies and minds and see the opportunities for growth each day provides.
FAQs: How to Win by Not Focusing on Winning
1. What does it mean to "win by not focusing on winning"?
Winning by not focusing on winning is the idea that success can be achieved by shifting the focus away from the sole objective of winning and toward the process of continuous improvement. When we focus on executing the smaller day-to-day tasks like individual reps in practice, controllable moments in games, and taking care of our bodies, winning will begin to take care of itself.
2. Why should I consider not focusing on winning?
It is not that you are not focused on winning, but rather you view winning as a result of executing your role. When you make this shift in focus, you can develop a healthier and more sustainable approach to success. When you focus on executing the things that are within your control like great effort, championship attitude and competitive energy, you put yourself and your team in the best position to succeed, which in part, will lead to more wins.
3. How can I shift my focus from winning to other aspects of the process?
Start by setting goals that are intrinsically driven rather than goals that are focused only on the end result. Goals around personal growth and improvement will place value on the process that is required for you to perform at a consistently great level. Shifting focus away from winning allows your focus to be placed on the smaller daily goals that will lead to more victories.
4. Will not focusing on winning make me complacent or less competitive?
Not focusing on winning does not mean becoming complacent or less competitive. Winning can and should still be a goal, but your primary focus is on the smaller goals and more immediate actions. This shift in focus will make you more competitive and in turn, bring about greater levels of success.
5. How can I measure success if I'm not focused on winning?
Rather than only valuing the end result of winning, it is important that you take pride in your progress. Take pride in the smaller wins and daily improvements, all of which should be celebrated just as the larger victories and longer-term accomplishments are. By taking pride in your progress, you place value on the accomplishments that contribute to your overall journey.
6. Will this approach work in all areas of life?
Yes! Sports won't be the only place in life where you will face adversity. When you have a tough day on the field or court, or you wake up and don't feel particularly well, instead of throwing in the towel, get excited. Get excited about the opportunity that is in front of you to respond to challenges. Get excited about the chance to practice finding ways to perform at a high level in the face of adversity. No matter how long you play, you will always face challenges in and out of the game, but because of your experiences in the game, you will be better equipped to perform at your best no matter what life throws at you.
7. How can I overcome the fear of failure if I'm not solely focused on winning?
Every win and loss is simply feedback for how you did on the “test.” Each game is a chance for you to put into play what you’ve been practicing. Wins as well as losses hold valuable opportunities to learn. You can win a game and perform poorly and you can lose a game and execute everything you set out to do. In both cases, the greatest value comes from focusing on extracting the lessons from the competition rather than the results of the game alone.
8. Is it possible to still be successful without the obsession of winning?
By not focusing only on winning, you are able to achieve even greater levels of success as you are more open to innovative thinking and place greater emphasis on continuous growth. Winning needs to be treated as a byproduct of the daily execution of the things that are within your control.
9. How can I stay motivated without the sole focus on winning?
Goals, whether they be winning games, improving skills or breaking habits should be intrinsically driven, meaning the process of working toward these goals is what brings about satisfaction. Viewing the challenges you face each day as opportunities for growth on the road to accomplishing something that is important to you, will help you stay motivated and remove the need to rely solely on the outcome of winning to keep you going.