Are You Winning or Succeeding?

Winning is not everything. It’s the only thing.

This is one of the better known quotes in sports, often attributed to coaching legend Vince Lombardi of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. It’s possible, if not likely, that he was misquoted, but it remains a common philosophy that permeates our culture.

Contrast that with this favorite poem of coaching legend John Wooden of the UCLA men’s basketball program.

Beyond the winning and the goal,
Beyond the glory and the flame,
He feels the flame within his soul,
Born of the spirit of the game.

And where the barriers may wait,
Built up by the opposing Gods,
He finds a thrill in bucking fate
And riding down the endless odds.

Where others wither in the fire,
Or fall below some raw mishap,
Where others lag behind and tire,
Or break beneath the handicap,
He finds a new and deeper thrill
To take him on the uphill spin,
Because the test is greater still
And something he can revel in.
~Grantland Rice, “The Great Competitor”

Let the words sink in a bit. Deep down, which one resonates more strongly?

During his tenure at UCLA, John Wooden established a track record as one of history’s most successful coaches. At one point, his teams won 88 consecutive games, not to mention 7 NCAA national championships in a row (and 10 NCAA championships in 12 years).

Despite the enviable success he and his teams enjoyed, winning was something he rarely spoke of. Many players have remarked upon how he de-emphasized winning, and steered their attention more to doing their best and performing in such a way that they could walk off the court with their heads held high.

As former player Walt Hazzard said, “Before a game, the thing that always impressed me, that could take a lot of pressure off me as a player, was that he never challenged us to win the game. He always challenged us to do the best we could do. To walk into the locker room when the game was over, look in the mirror, and say to myself, Walt Hazzard, I did the best that I could do tonight.”

Winning as a side effect

Unbelievably, Wooden never once scouted an opposing team, but instead devoted his time and meticulous attention to making sure his players were prepared to do their best, rather than worrying about or trying to be better than another team. For instance, at the beginning of every year, he would show the freshmen in exacting detail how he wanted them to put on their socks (so as to prevent blisters).

Did he care about winning? Most certainly he did, but not at the expense of the broader life lessons and philosophies he wanted his players to learn. For Wooden, winning, awards, respect, fame, and all the rest were regarded more as side effects of successful personal growth and development than the primary aim and objective.

Controlling the controllables

Sport psychologists often talk about focusing on process variables, or those ingredients of performance and success that we have control over. This seems to be what Wooden was doing in the way he approached competition and prepared his players.

It’s just that this is a difficult adjustment to make when we’ve been conditioned to focus more on what others think and objective external measures of success like awards, advancing in auditions, glowing reviews in the NY Times, and so on. But all of that comes and goes, and isn’t something we can control even if we wanted to.

As Walt Hazzard suggests above, letting go of our attachment to wins and losses, great feedback and poor reviews, great performances and disappointing ones, and focusing only on that which we control instead is extremely liberating. It frees you up to enjoy the entire experience of performing and auditioning so much more. And while it may not happen overnight, it is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve taken from sport psychology, and is most definitely worth working towards.

Reread that poem above, and see if it starts to resonate more with each reading…

Take action

Time for a bit of self-reflection and evaluation. Consider the habitual thoughts and objectives that drive your actions on a day to day basis. Are they directed more towards winning? Towards gaining the esteem of others? Meeting another’s expectations of us? Beating or outperforming someone else?

Or developing your own personal criteria of success and excellence? Getting a step closer to whom you would love to be in the future? Finding a way to make steady progress towards your personal objectives and goals? In a word, succeeding?

Consider Wooden’s own definition of success (emphasis mine): “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

Watch this video of John Wooden, where he shares more of his perspective on the difference between winning and succeeding.

photo credit: kevin dooley via photopin cc

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13 Responses

  1. I sometimes think it all boils down to fear. Thinking about winning puts one in a fearful frame of mind: “If I don’t win … ” is all that goes through your mind. You simply can’t be deeply enough in the moment to do your best if you’re in a fearful frame of mind. A lot of people try to motivate themselves and others with fear, but it just murders creativity and freedom, and the unselfconsciousness needed to really just put your head down into the yoke and pull as hard as you can.

    It’s the kernel of stage fright as well, I think. Being too aware of oneself from the outside. It just kills art stone dead, not only real-time art like music but all art in general. You just can’t worry about external measures and the eyes of others on you and listen closely to that quiet voice inside yourself that tell you who you really are at the same time.

    1. Hi Janis,

      Fear is indeed a common motivator. Unfortunately, it works – just not very well in the long term when it comes to creativity and maximum performance. Wooden was all about the carrot, rather than the stick.

      Sort of tangential, but I find the study of fear (and why we worry too much about things we shouldn’t and not enough about the things we should) to be pretty interesting:,8816,1562978,00.html

      1. Fear works in the short term, and often only if the other people you’re competing against are also motivated by fear. Once you’re up against someone who is motivated by deep love and ambition, fear falls short … but gets close enough to convince a lot of people that it will work if only they do it harder. 😛

        I think Wooden wasn’t either carrot OR stick — they’re both external. He seemed to be more about finding one’s own internal carrot. 🙂 Fear, like so many other things, is an external motivator. But so is the carrot …

        1. Internal carrot – that’s great. Indeed, Wooden was all about internal motivation.

          And as I understand it, he left Indiana State to go to UCLA so that he could not just coach basketball but have more latitude to teach his philosophies and lessons about being successful in life.

  2. It was this very concept that I applied during college, that allowed me to complete my degree with the greatest success I had ever achieved in my playing career. I was terribly unhappy for a number of reasons, but prime among them was a stylistic difference between me and my flute teacher. After much deliberation, I decided to play for me, not for anyone else, and that choice informed every element of my playing. Consequently, I succeeded unlike ever before, winning a state woodwind competition, getting into orchestra, and playing after graduation with a piano faculty member. My inner mantra was something similar to Wooden’s definition of success. My flute teacher became irrelevant, which was sad, but I wouldn’t have survived otherwise. I found my own inspiration and used whatever means I had to find my own assistance to meet my needs. My success didn’t lead me into a music career, either playing or in education, but what it took to turn myself around in a less than optimal situation gave me confidence to believe in myself that has lasted a lifetime. Thanks, Noa, for this great post.

    1. Hi Teresa,

      Thanks for sharing your story. It can be really encouraging and empowering to hear about others’ experiences, and how they navigated difficult times. I think it helps us act more courageously in spite of the doubts, fear, and natural hesitation to go out on a limb (even though, as someone once said, that’s where all the fruit is).


  3. John Wooden is a wonderful speaker. He speaks poetically and rythmically without stumbling over any words.Not one single “um”. The video was quite amazing. Thank you for that., Dr. Noa

  4. Any single test or competition has limited criteria. To form a self-judgement based on one or a string of such limited tests is to accept a one-dimensional view of performance and ability. It wouldn’t make sense to have a competition without a high scorer or an arbitrarily defined winner; but so much more is involved in any one performance than the limiting criteria that formally makes up the test. The performer or competitor (concsiously or not) has to manage all variables of the experience, not only the ones being tested. The full range of variables is always present; only a few of them concern the judges or examiners or audience.

    So there are many, many ways to define a win — besides the arbitrary definition of high score or first place. The arbitrary definition of victory may mean little to a performer competing for reasons )or objectives) of his own. Intrinsic motivation: Wooden seems to understand this intuitively.

    Great article, Dr. Noa. Thank you!

    1. This is a great way of thinking about it. Indeed, what I might be looking for in a performance is different than what another person might be looking for, neither of which is necessarily more important or “better” than the other.

  5. Loved the article and the video! My faves from Coach Wooten: you can win but be outscored, and you can lose while outscoring the other team. Also, you should act in such a way that someone who didn’t know the outcome wouldn’t be able to tell afterwards by your behavior if you’d won or lost. That is deep, basically zen… A rule I’ve broken many times, now that I think of it… Thank you for more inspiration!

  6. You missed a verse in the poem. Its my favorite poem so … Recheck the verse before the handicap verse. “Wither in rhe fire I believe you missed … all over this was outstanding work. Love it. Thanks for putting this together. Brian

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