A Winning Mentality

In elite sport the winning margin can be tiny. What is it that separates the winners? Why is it that some are always a few milliseconds quicker, or can score just one more point than their opponents? When it comes to those narrow margins, what allows some athletes and teams to consistently be the winners?

Most elite coaches agree that what happens between the athletes’ ears often differentiates the winner. Many years ago, as I started out in my sport psychology coaching career, I was asked what separated the gold medallist from the silver medallist. At the time I had to admit, I didn’t know. So, I spent the next few years finding out. I talked to the athletes and found a very simple, but profound difference between the gold and silver medallists. The winner said, “I knew I was going to perform well”. I often listen to the words athletes use because it tells me how confident they’re feeling. Some will say, “I hope”. Others might say, “I think”. The more confident athlete’s might say, “I’m confident” or “I believe”. The most confident athletes tend to say, “I know”. Whilst that may not sound particularly surprising, it raises another question. What allowed them to say, “I know”? What are the ingredients of a winning mentality?


Three critical ingredients.


  1. I’ve turned over every stone.

When athletes say, “I know I’m going to perform well”, it is because they know they’ve done everything they possibly can. Attention to detail, and a relentless inquisitiveness, are a powerful combination. When we have these two element, we look for ways to gain that next tiny margin. Our ‘never satisfied’ mind-set keeps us searching for ways to get better. In doing so, we see how to become a fraction of a percent better and we work hard to make that gain. We find ourselves taking responsibility for our performance, asking the tough questions and pushing to find the answers, however uncomfortable that may be.


  1. Because it’s important!

Some people hope that what they’re doing is enough to succeed. Others do what it takes, knowing that it will be tough. Why do they push themselves so hard? The answer is remarkably simple; because it is important! To understand what this really means, we need to know why it’s important. It sounds obvious to say that Olympic athletes push themselves because the want to win the gold. However, we also need to know what the gold medal means to them, and why a metal disc on a ribbon is worth all the effort.


  1. Failure IS an option.

What? Is that a misprint? Does that really say ‘Failure IS an option”? Yes it does. Your eyes are not deceiving you. Although it sounds like a contradiction in an article entitled “A Winning Mentality”, I have continually found that world class performers are acutely aware that they could lose. They fully accept that fact. World class performers also often understand that their job is not to win. Winning is outside of our control. I currently work with a number of elite professional sports teams. Our job is not to win. In the case of the rugby team, it is to score as many points as we possibly can and concede as few as we possibly can. Very simply, if we score more than the opposition we will win. If the opposition score more than we do, they will win… and that’s it! We cannot control how well they play, although we can influence it by making life difficult for them. We cannot control refereeing decisions, the wind, or any number of other factors. So, we focus on our processes.


“A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it”. Irv Blitzer (played by John Candy) from the film Cool Runnings.


Although we understand why winning is important, it’s not life or death. World class performers often appreciate that there is a profound difference between ‘wanting to win’ and ‘needing to win’. If we feel that we ‘need’ to win, we also tend to feel ‘pressure’. If we need to win, we’re likely to focus on the outcome, not on the processes. It’s also likely that, in those crucial moment, we’ll lose our composure. To me, composure is the ability to make great decisions and execute with real quality, whatever is going on. Those who need to win often force things, try too hard, think too much, make daft decisions and make mistakes. At the very highest level, the athletes that lose composure don’t tend to win.  


This all looks pretty straight forward, right. I would agree that it’s simple. However, simple is not always easy. It’s easy to say, “Simply focus on the right thing at the right time”. Doing it, however, is often tougher.

To find out how to develop a winning mentality, read Peak Performance Every Time, How To Shine and Two Lengths of the Pool