Finding Success on the Road to Victory


While every child wants to be on a championship team (a desire shared by their parents), the nature of sports doesn’t make that possible. Most sporting contests possess a zero-sum design that creates a winner and a loser. While the creation of winners and losers can seem like a flawed design to a parent trying to comfort a distraught child that missed the potentially winning shot, it also provides some of sports’ greatest lessons.


In my own childhood, I felt the confidence building and joy of being on teams that won every game and the disappointment of finishing the season without a single victory. Clearly championship teams are more fun and do a lot more for your self-esteem, but being on teams that show up and do their best game after game teaches some important lessons as well.


We sometimes forget that winning creates challenges. We can feel the unhealthy stress of extending a winning streak, become overly concerned about receiving our fair share of the credit, and fall prey to overconfidence leading to a lack of preparation and intensity. But experiencing high performance as a team helps us see the indelible connection between preparation, execution, and talent with success. When you are winning, concepts like accountability, morale, and even good fortune are more clearly visible.


When victories are elusive, we also learn much about accountability, morale, and good fortune (the impact of events out of our control.) One lesson is that maintaining a positive attitude and consistent effort are more difficult. As we move into more advanced competition, we discover that “moral victories” or “it is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game” are generally downplayed by coaches, sports writers, fans, and ourselves. It can be hard to find much joy in improvement and still experience defeat game after game. Sometimes that is just reality. We and our teams lack the talent and experience to prevail over the competition at this particular time. Coaches in these situations must find ways to maintain a vision of winning while creating other measurements for success.


At times, life as an adult is not all that different from our childhood experiences with sports and artistic pursuits. Work life can also feel like a zero-sum game. Unless you are operating a monopoly, you must outperform the competition to win contracts and sales orders. If you are responsible for delivering products or services, you are judged by meeting deadlines and quality requirements. Sometimes we lose more than we win and the pressure begins to mount. As a child, getting treated to pizza after the game can do wonders for relieving the pressure of a loss, but in the business world, a continued lack of success leads to increasingly negative and severe consequences.


An important step for a leader in these situations is to recognize the gaps between the individual’s and team’s abilities as well as what is needed for success. Communicating vision for a better future is critical. Leaders must provide hope and show that better days are not just possible but likely. One way they do this is by providing consistent opportunities to experience progress.


Track and field events offer a different design from most zero-sum sporting events in one important aspect. While winning the gold medal certainly garners most of the attention and fuels the athletes’ dreams, the concept of “personal best” is the more common goal. If you complete a race in a faster time than you have ever run before, you experience a feeling of success. The purely objective nature of competing in events that can be timed or measured makes this possible. In team sports you may score more points than ever before, not because you played your best, but because the other team played poorly. Leaders need to determine how they can help team members establish “personal best” markers that focus their efforts and provide opportunities to celebrate.


Another interesting difference with track and field competitions is that when you run a race, the competitors actually help you do better. In most team sports, we describe one team as playing offense and the other defense. Your competitors’ activities are specifically designed to prevent you from achieving your objective. But in a race, you are more likely to achieve your personal best if you are being challenged by other runners who are competing at a higher level. Leaders need to find ways to utilize the best practices of successful competitors to encourage higher levels of performance from their teams. Another organization’s superlative performance or breakthrough innovation needs to be framed as an opportunity to see greater opportunity for us, not less.


In sports, perhaps nothing raises morale like winning, but in most cases that will only be experienced by half the teams at any one time and sometimes we experience seasons where losing is much more common. Most coaches can’t rely only on the positive emotions of victories to create and maintain high performance. They must find other ways to keep everyone looking forward to practice times where players have the opportunity for improvement. Establishing micro goals that can be as narrow as specific personal goals for the next practice session, allow us to think about what it will take for us to achieve a “personal best” and contribute to the team. Similarly, organizational leaders need to establish individual and team “work in progress” goals, especially when the narrower definitions of success will take time to achieve. Leaders need to ask. “how can we provide the opportunity for meaningful victories on a daily or weekly basis?”, especially when the team is still discovering their potential.