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Back You are here: Home Sports Other Sports Psychology: Success vs Winning
Thursday, 13 October 2016 08:52

Sports Psychology: Success vs Winning

Written by  Dr.Kirsten van Heerden

How do you define success?  SUCCESS = __? _

Many would write SUCCESS = WINNING.  However there are some problems with this definition:

1. The dangerous flip side to defining success as winning is that it then means NOT WINNING = FAILURE. But as any athlete knows winning or losing (or the final score) is never the best indicator of performance. For example a 6-2, 6-2 score line in tennis could actually have been a very closely fought match, and a 7-5, 7-5 score an easy win. We have all won races and games that we shouldn’t have or lost when playing brilliantly.

2. Winning is relatively uncontrollable (more on this in another post) and defining success based on an uncontrollable is not very smart.

So how should we define success?

There is a brilliant piece of research done by the Stanford University psychologist Prof Carol Dweck which will help find an answer. In her study she got young children together and gave them a puzzle to complete. She divided the group into two and when the children had completed the puzzle she praised each group slightly differently. To one group she said, ”Wow, you must be smart, well done” and to the other group she said “Wow, you must have worked really hard, well done”. She then offered the children another puzzle; they could now choose between one that was a little more difficult than the one just completed, or a slightly easier one. Each group chose differently. Which one do you think chose the more difficult puzzle and which the easier?

The group that were praised for being smart for completing the puzzle chose the easier one.


When praised for being smart the children made the mental jump from smart = completed puzzle to uncompleted puzzle = not smart.

So they hedged their bets and took the easier puzzle because they were then almost guaranteed of completing it and being smart. They felt they had to demonstrate their abilities (intelligence in this case) by getting the puzzle right and were afraid of getting it wrong. Success for them meant getting the outcome right. These children tended to shy away from other challenges and battled to cope with making mistakes. This Prof Dweck called a fixed-mind-set.


Why did the other group choose the harder puzzle then? They were praised for their effort and they developed a growth-mind-set. These children’s sense of success was tied up in trying and learning, not in achieving a specific outcome. They didn’t feel that they had to demonstrate their intelligence, but rather felt they have to develop (grow) it. These children enjoyed challenges, and actually sought them out, because they saw it as an opportunity to grow, develop and learn. This is a growth-mind-set


When athletes get too wrapped up in the end result, thinking they have failed if they don’t get the result they want, confidence is slowly chipped away and challenges avoided (or feared). On the other hand a focus on improving and learning helps athletes to maintain confidence and find success regardless of the outcome. This is true at all levels of sport, but is especially important at school level because young athletes are still learning and developing their sports technical and tactical skills. These are the years where foundations are being set for future performance – if the foundation is shaky or incorrect, no building can be done on top of it. You don’t want a foundation of fear of failure.

So how should you define success?


 Kirsten van heerden copy

Look at this wonderful TED talk by one of the most famous and successful basketball coaches – John Wooden – on the difference between success and winning.


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