How to Redefine Success for Better Performance

In sports we often ride the tides of emotion from wins and loses. We see this in athletes, coaches, and even fans. For athletes this can be a dangerous way to define success. Seeing success as black and white (wins and loses) creates a fragile sense of confidence and fear-based performance. 

The Problem with Wins & Loses

Let me give you an example. Suppose you and I were going to race in the 100 meter dash. There will be one winner and one loser.

I can train hard. I can eat my Wheaties and hydrate well. I can stretch out and get loose. Ultimately, I can run the fastest 100 meters I’ve ever run in my life. The problem is, you could still beat me. I can’t control how fast you run.

This is a hard truth for some athletes. You can do everything right, play your best, and still come up short.

Redefine Success

Here are two characteristics to help athletes and coaches redefine success:

1. Controllable Success

When success is defined by outcomes beyond one’s control, anxiety and stress go up. It’s better to define success by more controllable factors.

Set Performance Goals. Going back to the 100m race example, I can’t control whether or not I win. But I have more control over finishing by a certain time.

Performance goals are measurable check points, or statistics, that an athlete or team has some control or influence over.

Set Process Goals. In the 100m race I can set goals to maintain a certain form and breathe a specific way. These goals are well within my control.

Help your athletes set goals and focus on the aspects of performance they can control or influence.

2. Growth Oriented Success

Success is about getting better everyday. Compete against yourself to be better than you were yesterday. As Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis said, “It’s all about the journey not the outcome.”

In the 100m I could focus on improving my start time (first 15 meters). If I tracked improvement from week to week or from my last race, that is a more productive way to measure success. I could ask, “How much better did I get?”

Tennis great Steffi Graf said her father taught her, “that if you really do want to reach your goals, you can’t spend any time worrying about whether you’re going to win or lose. Focus only on getting better.”

Help your athletes to monitor improvement in their performance. Encourage them to define success in terms of getting better everyday.

Free Download

To help you and your team redefine success, I created a downloadable PDF poster for you.

Emphasize Improvement Over Outcomes

Coaches set the tone for how athletes define success. Your team members will take their cues from what you emphasize and highlight. Do you talk more about wins and loses? Or do you focus more on the journey of getting better? Help your athletes define success as controllable and growth-oriented, and watch their performance soar.


Question: What are other ways to help athletes redefine success? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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