Maintaining a "Winning" Focus Is Not the Way to Win

There's a paradox at the heart of winning

Posted Jul 11, 2014

In sport, we are all taught from an early age to chase winning and to avoid losing at all costs. Over time an association is established between winning and pleasure, and losing and pain. This association develops slowly and so, as a result of experiences (both perceived and real), it becomes deeply entrenched. But the effect that this particular gauge of success has on our attention in competitive situations, and its consequent impact on the likelihood of achieving success, is worth examining.

Winning generates a great feeling; it provides satisfaction and feedback that we have accomplished something, and it deserves to be celebrated. It can validate the hard work and long hours that athletes and coaches dedicate to practice and preparation. The desire to win is accentuated through ever-changing internal and external influences (e.g., rewards, praise, and satisfaction).

What commonly exists in parallel, however, is an ingrained fear of losing due to equally significant influences (e.g., punishment, negative attention, and humiliation). Whether one is motivated to win or, alternatively, driven by the fear of losing, the point is that either outcome is essentially out of our control.

Athletes, coaches, and support staff can do everything in their power to prepare for competition; however, the nature of sport provides too many uncontrollable elements (referees, weather, opposition, equipment, etc.) that can influence the outcome, for the dominant focus to be on that end state. If athletes develop the ability to maintain focus on controllable aspects of performance, they will most likely perform physically as desired, as their focus is directed on the task that most requires it. Focusing on performance will also result in athletes experiencing an enhanced ability to withstand inevitable distractions when they do occur.

Performance, in any discipline, requires engagement. When we shift attention from the task at hand to something that may, or may not, happen in the future (winning/losing and the potential repercussions), we undermine our ability to perform in the moment. This is when we typically experience momentary lapses in performance due to poor decision making, hindered motor control, or lack of concentration.

When our attention shifts to outcome, we also are likely to experience heightened hindering anxiety or, potentially, complacency, both typically having adverse effects on our ability to perform. The ability of an athlete to put the outcome aside and be fully engaged in performance will be a key determinant of success. This is not discrediting winning, or a striving to win; however, it is important to recognize that maintaining focus on performance in the moment or thoughts drifting to winning/losing, are two different things, and involve different motivations.

Coaches strive to facilitate athletes’ mindsets that are conducive to optimal performance, which is commonly referred to as "the zone." The most common approach to this is through "psyching" the athletes up, rationalized by the coach’s desire for the athletes to understand the importance of the competition and, therefore, be highly motivated to perform (i.e., win). Csikszentmihalyi and Jackson, two leading experts on flow, define the concept as a state of energized focus and absorption, where the individual becomes so immersed in the activity that nothing else matters.

These authors outline nine elements that are essential to achieving a flow state. Not one of the elements resembles a focus on outcomes. Their work highlights the importance of becoming fully engaged in the performance and developing the ability to put aside elements of competing that are outside of immediate control.

It is important that key figures in an athlete’s inner circle help to facilitate a mindset that will enable them to perform towards success. Here are some suggestions on how to influence and contribute to a mindset for performing under pressure.

1. Define Success

It is important to develop a constructive definition of success. Sport allows for only one winner, which makes important the ability to self-reference success and identify quality performances, as well as areas requiring improvement. There are many instances where we are confronted by opponents who are more skilled than we are. If we perform as well as we can and come up short, is this actually failure? Further, is success accomplished by performing poorly yet still beating a team that we were expected to?

The late, great coach, John Wooden, who won 10 NCAA national basketball championships in 12 years at UCLA, defined success as “the peace of mind that is the direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming." Subscribing to such a stance provides us with personal control over success and, therefore, a greater sense of autonomy.

When athletes feel in control, they are more likely to exhibit greater focus and motivation, and diminished hindering anxiety. As a result of a more relaxed, but ready, state of mind, performance will likely be enhanced and, therefore, outcome success is made that much more likely.

2. Focus On Controllables Under Stress

Maintaining attention on controllable elements will likely lead to greater performance. This is due to our focus being directed at what needs to be accomplished in order to be successful. This is the paradox of shifting attention away from winning, in order to increase the likelihood of achieving outcome success. The acronym FOCUS—Focus on Controllables Under Stress—can remind us to focus on controllables when stressful situations do (not might) arise.

It is important that support personnel do not contribute to distractions that inevitably confront the athlete during performance. Identifying process goals to focus on for performance that will contribute to outcome is a commonly used strategy to assist with maintaining focus on the performance. It likely contributes to enhanced performance as focus is directed at the task at hand, but also minimizes the risk of becoming overly anxious or distracted by external elements.

3. Reinforce Performance, not Outcome

It is important to think about the language and behaviors coaches and support staff use and reinforce around athletes, as it has a significant influence on how athletes define success and failure, as well as the degree of pressure they experience. A first question following competition focusing on whether the athlete/team won, rather than how they performed, is conducive to athletes developing self-doubt or complacency. Feedback regarding the performance highlights the process as the important element, independent of winning or losing. What coaches typically reinforce (winning/losing vs. performance) will influence the mindset of the athletes.

Heeding the paradox is not to deprecate the importance of winning but to permit athletes to take control over delivery and experience heightened levels of autonomy, confidence, and relaxation, whilst at the same time heightening any prospects of outcome success. Such a mindset subsequently allows athletes to perform free of constricting thoughts, thus making success (however defined) that much more likely.


Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports. The keys to optimal experiences and performances. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Wooden, J., & Jamison, S. (1997). Wooden: A lifetime of observations and reflections on and off the court. New York, NY: Mcgraw-Hill.