Win At All Cost

In this recently updated sport psychology article we look at the pros and cons of having a Win At All Cost approach to your performance. After reading, join the conversation by adding a comment or a question below.

The ‘Win At All Cost’ Mindset

I know for a fact there are many athletes and coaches out there who still believe that having a “Win At All Cost” mindset is something to be admired and developed. For those who understand the downside of an obsession with winning (outcomes), it is far less appealing. The irony is that very few of the world’s best try to literally win at all costs. Most of the time, it’s more of a ‘win at some cost’ type of mentality.

It is more their obsession with effort and their training processes that got them to the top. We are much less likely to hear about the athletes, coaches and performers who had/have a Win At All Cost way of thinking. Why not? Most of them crumble under the weight of frustration, pressure and disappointment well before they become newsworthy.

For many years, when I thought about a well-known athlete who personified the ugly side of Win At All Cost, it was Lance Armstrong. He was so obsessed with winning that he was willing to use systematic doping to improve his results. I must admit, before he got caught, I was one of the many who loved Lance. Without knowing the full story, I thought he was the personification of mental toughness.

It’s Fine To Want To Win But …

There is nothing wrong at all about wanting to win. In fact, there is little wrong with always wanting to win. But there is when it comes at the cost (detriment) to others and yourself. So it’s really the ‘At ALL Cost’ aspect of trying to Win At All Cost that is the central issue. All cost, think about it. Is the amount you have to spend more significant than what you can get back? What is the cost to your mental health and your relationships? How many failed marriages are worth an Olympic medal?

At Condor Performance, we encourage those we work with to push this obsession with winning towards their preparation and their processes. Why?

For a start, we have a much greater influence over our processes compared with outcomes. This is a really key concept. Let me generalise. In individual sports, like motor racing and badminton, for example, an athlete has some influence on whether they win or not. It cannot be more than that because there are a whole bunch of other people who are also trying to win. When we consider a result such as who wins a tournament, there can only be one winner, so your result is highly dependent on what the other people do. For team sport athletes, the amount of influence an individual has on winning is even less. Why? More people are involved in the outcome.

A recent example is the goalkeeper of the England Women’s Football (soccer) team. Mary Earps basically did not put a foot wrong in the final of the women’s FIFA World Cup versus Spain – which included saving a penalty – but she still ended up on the losing side.

Spectrum of Influence

With this in mind, one very beneficial exercise is to do the following. Grab a blank piece of paper and draw a line in the middle. On the far left-hand side of this line, write the words ‘zero influence’. On the opposite side, jot down the words ‘maximum influence’. If you want to, you can write ‘some influence’ in the middle. Now brainstorm all the different types of results and training sessions you can come up with for your sport/performance area. Try and write them roughly in the correct position on this Spectrum of Influence. Less influence to the left, more influence to the right.

Notice anything? If you did, add your observations to the comment section below.

Improvanism As A Solution

One way to find the correct balance between winning and everything else is to become an improvanist. What on earth is an improvanist, I hear you ask? An improvanist is basically more interested in constant, slow improvements than bigger-picture outcomes. These improvements are ideally measurable subcomponents of their sport or performance area. For example, maybe a gymnast is trying to become more physically flexible. So he puts more emphasis on the quality and quantity of his weekly stretching sessions compared to how many points he accrues on the weekend. In other words, his main goal (where his energy goes) is to improve a bunch of stuff that he had a lot of influence on. But in the end, he is hyper-aware that his chances of a medal depend hugely on the happenings of his competitors.

The Japanese even have a word for this. Kaizen, roughly translated, means constant improvement. Improvanism will be the topic of a future Mental Toughness Digest article, so if you have yet to sign up for our email notifications, you can do so here. This way, as soon as this and future articles are ready to be read you’ll get an email direct to your inbox.

As always, if you feel like you’d benefit from a professional helping hand, then get in touch. You can either complete the Contact Us form here or just send an email to [email protected]. We will try to respond in less than 48 hours.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

3 thoughts on “Win At All Cost”

  1. I agree that there is nothing wrong with an athlete/coach wanting to win or thinking about winning. In fact, the desire to wins creates a level of competitiveness and willingness in the athlete to push themselves to their physical and mental limits, but I like the point you’ve made about having a main goal (what your energy goes towards). I put this into practice in my own sport of kickboxing – obviously every time I step into the ring I want to win (and there are a lot of winning/outcome-related thoughts in the lead up to a match). I don’t try to suppress or get rid of these thoughts, but instead remind myself of my main goal, which is to have world-class processes in order to increase my chances of winning. These are usually 1) being the more active fighter, 2) maintaining output from start to end and 3) having confident-looking body language. I know for a fact I don’t need to have a win-at-all-costs mindset (or any type of mindset) to give myself the best chance of winning, I just need to identify and put my energy towards the actions that are going to lead to this outcome.

  2. The spectrum of influence exercise is a great suggestion. One thing I notice when I do this exercise is that I can tend to put items more towards the “maximum influence” side when in reality I don’t have that much influence over them. This can be a bit of a trap because if I invest energy into something I have little influence over then it’s usually to my detriment. I’d encourage anyone doing this exercise to do so with the most amount of openness and curiosity as possible. I found asking some questions can be helpful such as, “Is this really true?”, “how frequently could I make this happen?”, “In a given moment how would I go about doing this?”. I love the final paragraph, improvement is a wonderful alternative that seems to have a lot more influence and longevity to it.

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