If the way you finish matters to you, the only thing that deserves your attention is how you get there. In the moment, everything else is a distraction, including the finish line.
Our society tends to promote the belief that winning is all that matters, especially in sports and business. There are a few problems with this perspective for a developing athlete. This post shares some interesting lessons from oriental philosophies and martial arts and introduces a different view. Get ready to change your perspective and optimize your learning – in wins and losses.
No such thing as the end
Even though most mental coaches and top athletes stress the importance of focusing on the process rather than on the result, it’s hard to put this into practice. After all, the rewards in sports, monetary or otherwise, are driven by results. For example, when professional athletes are told the process is what matters, they tend to still value the results more because that is what gets them paid. Conversely, each loss is negatively reinforced. In both cases, the point of impact, so to speak, is the moment the match, game, or fight ends – or so it seems – and this is the first big problem.
When we get excited, whether it is positive or negative excitement, we tend to stop seeing reality clearly. Our brain was designed to do that. In extreme excitement, it may seem like the world ends or time stops. However, if we can take a step back and leave the excitement for what it is – only one of the many states of mind we could be in – we would realize that there is no such thing as ‘in the end’.
In life, every end is the start of something else. When your current process ends, remember that this is not the end but just the start of something new. In other words, the story always continues. That might appear a Buddhist thing to say, but it’s true for most things in life and perhaps even more so in sports. Here is an example: when you win a match early in a tournament, it is literally the start of the preparation for the next match. Sure, you can celebrate or sulk once the match has finished, but your journey continues, whether you win or lose. This brings us to the next problem.
Don’t mistake a loss for failure
Let’s get one thing straight: winning or excelling is great. In fact, all competitive sports and games were made with rules that assume the purpose is to win and not to lose. However, playing the game optimally and winning the game are two different things. You might lose something in the short run but win in the long run. The point is that we cannot anticipate what generates more success in the long run: the win or the loss. Take the following parable for example:
When an old farmer in a remote village in China wakes up the morning after a storm, he finds that the storm has broken his fence and that the only horse he had is gone. The horse was priceless to him. When the villagers hear this news they say to him “Wow! That’s such bad luck!” He look at them, paused briefly, and just said “Maybe…” That day he works the land without the horse and just with his son. They both sleep early, tired from the work. When they wake up the next morning, not only do they find that the horse has returned to the broken corral, but they also find that it has brought 10 wild horses along with it! When the villages hear this they all come out to see the horses and they say: “Man, you’re so lucky!” The farmer smiled, and said calmly, “Maybe…” The following morning, the farmer’s son tries to train one of the new horses. He falls off the horse in the process and breaks a leg and an arm, and is in severe pain. That night, the villagers come to the farmer's house to console him: “Dear farmer, you have such bad luck!” He said “Maybe…” That night both the son and the farmer barely sleep. The son is in pain and the farmer worries about whether his son will be able to walk again. The following morning they are woken up by a loud banging on the door. It is the military and they are enlisting all young men in the region to the army. They look at his son and say “He’s useless to us.” That afternoon, many of the villagers who had their sons drafted by the army come to the farmer and say “Man, you’re so lucky, you don’t have to send your son to battle!” The farmer just said “Maybe…”
With a bit of creativity, this story could go on and on, but I think you get the picture: the story continues and you cannot predict the long-term value of a short-term win or loss.
The winning perspective is the lesson perspective
One of the five key perspectives we work on in 2Mynds is called the lesson perspective. It is the idea that every experience in life can contain a lesson. Each and every one. In comfort and discomfort. In joy and sadness. And of course, in winning and losing. With this perspective, wins and losses can be seen in a different light: as opportunities to learn.
The problem is that most people’s learning depends on the result. They miss learning when they lose because their negative emotions get in the way. And they don’t learn enough when they win because the win is mainly just celebrated instead of studied in terms of how it was achieved. This means that most athletes never properly cultivate the lesson perspective: when they win they are too busy celebrating and when they lose they are too busy sulking.
Take, for example, a junior tennis player who is playing the semi-final of an important tournament. A famous coach is watching. The boy fights every point, but plays poorly and loses. The parents as well as the boy are emotional and disappointed. The coach approaches the parents and the boy and says “Great effort and great fight. Keep at it. If you want to talk about improving, let me know!” That afternoon the coach and the boy talk and in the following weeks, they’re working on the next steps in his game. Hence, though he lost, the match was an opportunity for him to be seen by his new coach who would proceed to take his game to new heights.
The moral of this story is that true value lies in what you learn, not in what you achieve. Achievements naturally follow learning, not the other way around. Don’t mistake a win for success – it is not a success if you don’t learn from it. And don’t mistake a loss for failure – you only fail if you don’t use it as a motivation to study yourself and develop ways to progress.
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