Success versus winning in sport

I have been meaning to write about the sporting concept of ‘winning’ for a while. However, as I tried to establish some concrete approach to this, ‘a unified theory of winning things’ if you will, it became clear that instead of winning I was actually thinking about ‘success’. Winning is often beyond us, whereas ‘success’ is always a possibility.

My father is a good example of this. A fierce competitor, in his youth (and beyond his youth) he played football and developed a reputation as a determined and tricky winger, relentlessly pressuring the opposing full-backs. He played until his early forties when his body told him that getting slide tackled a few dozen times every Sunday was no longer sensible. So he took up tennis and for the next 40 years he cultivated a reputation at club level as a dogged baseliner, repeatedly chasing down balls that many younger men would leave. Now in his 80s, tennis is beyond him. However, even now, at his local senior pitch-and-putt club events, he is there to win, if he can. He’s even been known to instigate the odd steward’s enquiry if he loses. Success for my father involves competing as hard as he can for as long as he can.

As a parent though, he often had to deal with a different kind of success or failure: that of his children. Whenever I lost at anything in my youth I would be devastated, be it a game of battleships or a cross-country run.

My father – wisely – never attempted to console any of his children over a loss. His philosophy, oft repeated, could be summed up as, “never lose the same way twice”. It’s a brilliantly simple approach. Learn from your mistakes and be prepared to try Plan B if Plan A is not working. As a youth, I considered this attitude worse than useless. I wanted know how to win right there an then and he wasn’t telling me how. His underlying idea was that a defeat is the perfect opportunity to learn something about both yourself and your opponent. This wisdom unfortunately fell on deaf ears.

Now that I am older I find that the tables have been turned whereby I spend a lot of time trying to help young people develop their skills and approach at table tennis. One of the things I try to guide them to is the idea of “not winning”.

This may sound ridiculous but there are significant opportunities for those who adopt a “not winning” mentality. The idea is that you should instead be working on your weaknesses. There is an observed statistical trend in top-level soccer whereby a team’s results are most closely tied to the performance of its statistically worst player. This would suggest that if a team wishes to get quick improvements it should be spending money upgrading the less stellar members of it’s squad rather than splashing out on a new superstar. I believe that this applies to individual sports as well.

In racquet sports, most players tend to follow similar tactics during a game. They will try to emphasise their strengths and attack their opponent’s weaknesses. This approach is basic common sense, but when it works it has the drawback of making your best shots better whilst leaving your weaknesses unchanged. It can also have the added disadvantage of making your opponent work on and perhaps improve the weaker parts of their game.

This imbalance stems from a desire to win every game we play. But winning is often not the same as success, it’s actually just a ‘reward’. Experiments have shown that the thrill of winning is partially due to a surge in both testosterone and dopamine that the victor experiences. This hormone surge even occurs in very young children. Like most hormones, a sudden increase feels wonderful. There is also evidence that these surges have a gradual and positive effect on the developing brain, enabling more success in the future. Therefore winning becomes a reward, a little treat that the brain rightly learns to crave. In little boys this often leads to gamesmanship and occasionally outright cheating. Not winning can be devastating.

This takes us back to the ‘not-winning’ mentality. This should not be confused with a ‘losing’ mentality. It’s rather the technique of rendering the result immaterial beforehand, allowing you to concentrate on developing your game.

For a table tennis player it would go something like this. You want to practice your backhand topspin drive because it’s weak and you are losing opportunities to attack off that wing. So you ask your playing partner to drill that shot. However, he or she doesn’t want to practice because it’s boring. They would rather play a few games.

Here is the perfect opportunity for improvement via ‘not winning’. You can now forget about the result and work on your weak shots in a game scenario. This is a valuable approach. However, it’s almost impossible to get younger players to adopt it. It means potentially forsaking a ‘reward’. Even worse it means that you have to watch as your opponent reaps the reward of victory, while you are left with the pale consolation of having marginally improved your game.

But the word marginal is the important one here. Like business and economics, all profit and loss in sport is found in the margins. Especially in zero-sum sports such as tennis, golf or even snooker, where there is no opportunity for a draw. Here every point is worth double. You either win it or your opponent does. In table tennis, like most sports, the margins are a lot closer than many players realise. Lets say you regularly play an opponent who beats you 11-6 on average. Most players might think that this means he’s twice as good as you and therefore beating him regularly will always be beyond you. It also indicates that it would need a 100% improvement on your part to start winning matches.

However, when you break the numbers down it’s actually a lot closer. 11-6 means that you won 6 points out of 17. This is a 35.3% return of points won versus points played. A 3.5% increase on that return will result in 10-7 after 17 points and a probable final result of 11-7 in your opponents favour. From here it gets progressively harder to improve. It takes a further 6.1% improvement to go 8 out of 17 points. However, this means the average score will now be 9-8. At this point you will go on to win about 30% of your games. So instead of needing to improve by 100% you only need to improve by 9.6% to become regularly competitive. The problem is, that for most players, marginal improvements prove very difficult. There is no escaping the fact that the best competitors hone their fitness and techniques for thousands upon thousands of hours just to gain these small margins. However, if you do want to improve you will be far better off concentrating on your weaknesses than on your strengths, because that is where the improvements can be made most quickly.

Another opportunity lies in the inverse nature of practice versus real competition. The accepted figure is that practice is 80% physical and 20% mental. You don’t have to think to hard when you are practising. You just need to repeat the exercise until it becomes muscle memory.

This ratio gets turned on its head once you get into a meaningful match. A contest is 80% mental. As a young man I was something of a choker. I was regularly dropped from my school team despite being the second ranked player in the squad for 4 years running. Other players in the squad had less ability but were absolute street fighters, who refused to give an inch during match play. This iron willed approach is vital in a game like table tennis. With the exception of sports involving martial arts there are few contests as intense. You are only a few feet away from your opponent and points come and go at a lightning pace. I have seen games lost within the first couple of points, when players allow their concentration to be disturbed. The younger me would have profited little from improved technique. But I would have gained massive benefits if I had learned to cope better with my nerves.

It’s quite disturbing to watch a player or team break down. The Germany-Brazil semi-final at the 2014 World Cup finals was a pointed example of this. After 23 minutes the Europeans were 1-0 ahead in a tight match. 6 minutes later the score was 5-0. In that period the Brazilian team suffered an almost irreversible collective meltdown. Players stood, shell-shocked as the German team passed their way through their defence time and again. Eventually, the South Americans regained enough composure to limit their tormentors to a further 2 goals in the final hour of the match. They even managed to score one themselves. But for a brief period it looked as though the likes of David Luiz, Maicon and Fred might be scarred for life.

Over the years I have found it easier to overcome nerves in matches. But that is just the beginning. One of the best books on match psychology I have ever read is ‘Winning Ugly’ by Brad Gilbert. Gilbert was a tennis player without any real weapons who nevertheless rose to world’s No.4 in the late 80s and had wins over virtually every great player of his era, Including Sampras, Edberg, Becker and McEnroe. As a coach he has guided the Likes of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick during the most successful periods of their careers. The book focuses on a purely mental approach to games. It has no advice on improving your technique apart from holding up the golfer Jack Nicklaus as the paragon of someone who always had a perfectly structured training regimen. What Gilbert is concerned with is out-focusing and out-thinking your opponent. It means being focused from the very first point. It also means coming into the match with a Plan A and a Plan B.

One of his best pieces of advice is this. When an approach is failing, rather than try to improve the approach, abandon it and try the complete opposite.

He underlined this with the example of Michael Chang, an American tennis professional who became French Open champion in 1989. Chang’s greatest gift was his movement. He could run like the wind and he could do it all day long. As a result, players would find themselves hitting the ball repeatedly from side to side in an effort to win the point. Chang loved this. He would run down a lost cause, get it over the net and then turn and run down another.

Most players responded to this by trying to hit the ball progressively wider. This had two results. Firstly it meant that they were playing the game according to Chang’s rules. Secondly it cut down their margin of error as they went for increasingly extreme angles. If that happened they would almost inevitably lose. The answer Gilbert found was to try the opposite. He would hit the ball directly at the player. Few tennis players like this as it forces then to skip backwards in order to set up the shot. Chang was particularly vulnerable to this. The result of this tactic was that Chang was no longer playing in his comfort zone. It is often hard to change tack in the middle of a contest. We tend to tell ourselves that if we execute Plan A just that little bit better, things will fall into place. But in sport, as in everything else, we should never be afraid to throw a failing approach under the bus.

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