A Better Measure of Success

Author: Jim Schmutz, ASEP Executive Director


Everyone wants to be considered a winner. Athletes, teams, coaches, and schools that achieve a sparkling win–loss record season after season are typically perceived as such. Conversely, no one desires the dreaded experience of losing competition after competition or the ramifications of it.

The prevailing position of most sport psychologists and thoughtful observers is that winning too much or losing too much shortchanges athletes (and coaches) of the full spectrum of experiences and emotions that make sports special. Those who believe sport can provide lessons for life almost certainly share that view.

And yet, sometimes the assignation of greater meaning based on performance and outcomes in sport should be held in check. Certainly the branding of individuals and teams as “winners” and “losers” based on win–loss records beyond their useful, momentary postevent descriptive labels serves no benefit to either. But grasping this conceptually and actually handling the actual agony of repeated defeats and the ecstasy of a string of victories are two very different things. And they, unfortunately, tend to shape the views of both the athletes and coaches as well as those who observe and ascribe significance to them.

The fickleness of this is never more evident than when winners suddenly find victories hard to come by and when losers climb to the top rank. Was Tiger Woods a winner when he was claiming every four or five tournament titles and now a loser because he is not? Were the University of Connecticut women’s basketball teams of 1981 to 1986 that were unable to achieve a winning season record composed of losers and the players and coaches that contributed to UConn’s amazing 89-game winning streak stocked with winners? Surely we can and should be more discerning than that.

To his credit, one of the winningest coaches ever, John Wooden, never made his UCLA basketball dynasty out to be anything more than it was—a collection of wonderfully talented athletes who played superbly as a unit due to their willingness to sacrifice individual acclaim for the ultimate success of the team. In his book Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court (1997), the coach shared these thoughts on the topic: “Long before any championships were won at UCLA, I came to understand that losing is only temporary and not all-encompassing . . . I’ve also learned that winning games, titles, and championships isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that getting there, the journey is a lot more than it’s cracked up to be.” Success to Wooden was found in achieving peace of mind, which is a direct result of knowing that you did your best to be the best you could possibly be.

The extent to which one pursues excellence, or makes the effort to optimize one’s potential, is a much more meaningful way to categorize winners and losers in sport than simply glancing at the scoreboard. In their book Sport Psychology for Coaches, Damon Burton and Tom Raedke distinguish between an excellence-centered and win-centered perspective. Athletes and coaches who place most emphasis on performing their very best, individually and as a team and in every competition are better able to withstand a losing record. An excellence-centered approach also helps keep players and coaches on a more even keel, less downcast when losses mount, and more level-headed and consistent when on a winning streak.

ASEP has consistently cautioned against buying into the belief that sport competition is a zero-sum game in which all the pluses go to the winning team or individual and all the minuses are assigned in equal measure to the squad or player who lost. And we cringe when, as is typically the case of postseason tournaments, only one team—the ultimate champion—is considered a success.

We hope you, as coaches and administrators, agree that the determination of winners and losers is about much more than a title and trophy. Rather, the degree to which the athletes in your program strive to develop their potential and benefit from the many valuable lessons that the properly managed sport environment can offer is a much better measure of your success.