Our obsession with winning

James M. Jarvis

July 24, 1992|By James M. Jarvis

SPORTS Illustrated reported the results of a survey that asked Olympic hopefuls this question: Would you take a wonder drug that guaranteed an Olympic gold medal but killed you within the week?

Over 50 percent of the respondents said yes. Even as a sport psychologist who has worked with scores of athletes, I find it shocking that a healthy, young person would accept death in his or her prime just to win one glorious event -- one time.

Winning has become so overvalued in our society that some athletes and coaches will do anything to capture victory, and, sadly, it's not a recent phenomenon. At the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Tom Hanks went into a coma after winning the marathon. In the hopes of running better, he had swallowed a combination of strychnine and brandy before the race. Fast forward to the last Olympics, when Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids after winning the 100-meter --.

One winner at those games commented off the record: "My belief is that about 65 percent of the top 10 in the world in every event are doing something illegal."

It isn't just elite sports competition that inculcates this winning-at-all-costs attitude. Go to any golf course, and you will see adults having fits of rage over a poor drive or putt. Go to any tennis club, and you will see people cheating to win. Go to any little league baseball game, and you will hear a parent chastising a child for striking out or fumbling. This past spring, in Whiteville, rTC N.C., an upset little-league baseball coach actually slashed the throat of another coach in front of 100 players.

What is sad about these cases is that amateur sports are supposed to be a diversion from the stress of everyday living, a way to learn something about ourselves and to gain a sense of mastery. Too often, sports competition becomes a trauma for children and an artificial measure of success for adults.

Unfortunately, the winning-losing mentality is rooted deep in our culture. Gen. George Patton said that Americans love a winner and won't tolerate a loser. Thus 1988 Olympic bronze medal winner Debi Thomas is seen as failing, as is 1988 and 1992 speed skater Dan Jansen, rather than as having achieved greatness by reaching the Olympics in the first place. Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway has won two NFL conference championships and played in two Super Bowls. But because he hasn't won a Super Bowl, sports writers hint that his fine athlete may be a loser unable to win the big one. What about all the key games he won to get to the big one?

The interesting thing, psychologically, is that when people stop being obsessed about winning, they perform better. Tom Barrasso, goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins, took time off from the team when his daughter was diagnosed with cancer. "I found out what life is about," Barrasso said. After his daughter's operation and the resurgence of her health, Barrasso returned to the Penguins and played better than ever.

The other factor is that no one stays No. 1 one forever. Winning is an adrenalin rush; mastery is sustenance. Winning is fleeting; fun in sport is for the long haul. Winning is erratic and prone to chance; mastery is controllable and leads to a sense of well-being.

What can be done to change our society's win-lose mentality? First, every coach should read the autobiography of John Wooden. The famous UCLA basketball coach won 10 NCAA championships to make him the most successful college basketball coach ever. Yet, not once in all his years of coaching did Wooden mention winning to his teams. He felt that you could play well and still lose, or you could play poorly and still win. What he stressed was constant improvement. "The joy and frustration of sport," he said, "should come from performance itself, not the score."

Attitude changes also must take place in youth leagues. Before each season, parents and coaches should play a game of soccer baseball against each other. They need to be reminded of just how difficult it is to play sports well. Parents also need to come to grips with the fact that only about one-tenth of a percent of people have the genetic gifts to become Olympic athletes. Who wins the little league season just isn't important; giving a child a positive experience with sports, however, is.

We need more responsibility from those in the media. No editor should approve a caption of a second-place Olympic medalist with the word "loser" (as Time magazine did a few Olympics ago). No sports editor should write a headline that describes the runner-up of a five-set tennis match in the finals at Wimbledon as "failing."

Finally, we need to broaden our definition of winning. True winning has an internal dimension that goes far beyond medals and megabuck contracts. True winning is overcoming obstacles, conquering fears and reaching performance goals, so that the score is just a marker along the way.

James M. Jarvis is a sport psychologist in St. Louis.

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