The Pressure Of Winning


Never mention winning. My idea is that you can lose when you outscore somebody in a game. And you can win when you’re outscored. I used to say that when a game is over, and you see somebody that didn’t know the outcome, I hope they couldn’t tell by your actions whether you outscored an opponent or the opponent outscored you.—John Wooden

I understand this philosophy and I even hold it to a certain extent.  But I’m going to deviate (!) from my man Wooden here and say that I disagree.

Where I agree with his philosophy:

  • You can beat a team that you’re just better than and still play poorly.
  • You can play to the absolute best of your ability and still get beat by a team who is more talented than yours.

Where I disagree:

I used to not talk about winning very much, but rather the process of getting there (hard work, commitment, consistency, good mental mindset) and would always say the rest will take care of itself.  And that works for some teams, especially those that are internally driven to succeed.  But you will have teams, with good skill sets, who are not internally motivated and you will then need to provide the motivation or the pressure.  Whether it’s through punishments for not correctly completing drills or, and this is where I disagree with Wooden, through talking about winning.

There is inherent pressure in talking about winning.  It’s like talking about a diet that you’re on.  Once you start telling people you’re on a diet, then you don’t want them seeing you munching on cookies and sipping pop.  The whole point of talking about it is so that others can hold you accountable…right?  It’s the same with talking about winning.  There’s a pressure associated with talk of winning, with getting picked to win conference, or whatever accolade your team is “supposed” to accomplish.

My question is: what’s wrong with having that level of expectation?  What’s wrong with seeing the pressure, recognizing the pressure, and acknowledging the pressure?  The pressure doesn’t go away if you don’t talk about it!

And what if your team has low expectations?  What if, like in the example I used before, your team is an externally driven team?  What if they need you to raise their expectation level?  It will be uncomfortable, sure, but I believe it’s necessary.  For teams that don’t know how to win or haven’t had a history of success, the coach has to provide that incentive to take the next step.

To me, talking about winning is about holding your team accountable for their goals.  Writing down that you want to win on a poster, but never talking about it doesn’t seem like a good way to accomplish much.  For externally motivated teams, they may not even know what steps to take in order to go down a winning path.

It’s our job to tell them.


John Wooden’s TEDtalk:  The difference between winning and succeeding

The John Wooden series:

John Wooden TEDtalk
Leading With Integrity
Wooden’s Three Team Rules
When Will You Feel Successful As A Coach?