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April 10, 2018

Winners and Losers: An Investigation Into A Winning Mentality

I have a working theory. It’s a lukewarm take at best, so please buckle up: In the sporting world there are winners and there are losers.

Pretty good, right?

Let me elaborate. Of course there are winners and losers of every match, game or race. But I’m talking about a more generalized notion of winner and loser – you know what, we’re going to eliminate “loser” from this conversation; henceforth we will say “winner” and “not a winner.” Over the span of someone’s career, or even a season, we can reasonably deduce who is and is not a winner. Sometimes personal accolades don’t tell the entire story; things like points scored, personal bests, and matches won can mean nothing in the grand scheme of being a winner.

How about an example?

In running, I think there is no clearer case of someone not being a winner than our dear friend Alan Webb. A once in a generation talent. One of the fastest milers this millennium. A name that runners will never not know. Webb, though, was not a winner. He had all the physical tools. He had the times, the world class coaches, but when it mattered on the world stage–from a winning and losing standpoint–he couldn’t put it together.

My theory is based on objectivity. Does this person have a championship pedigree? But it’s also mostly rooted in subjectivity. What was it about Webb that made him not a winner? If you asked me this question in person I’d probably look towards the horizon, squint my eyes like I just smelled something funny, rub my thumb against my other four fingers and say, “I don’t know, man, he’s just not. He just wasn’t.”

You would probably then roll your eyes at me and walk away. Rightfully so. That’s why I employed the help of Dr. Rob Udewitz, a Manhattan-based practicing Clinical Psychologist with more than 20 years experience in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I gave him a phone call and presented my theory.

“Psychologists, or even sport psychologists, aren’t really set up to conceptualize it that way,” he said. “I guess, in layman’s terms, I understand what you’re saying.”

Dr. Udewitz’s practice deals mostly with anxiety disorders, stress and depression. Three things that elite athletes are no strangers to, just using some of the articles published on this website as case studies.

About a quarter of his time is also dedicated to sport and performance.

“I work with athletes, but also other performers,” he says. “Musicians, actors, people in business. Being situated in midtown Manhattan where it’s pretty high stress and pretty competitive, people come in with this view of themselves that other people have it together, and they don’t. And they want to have a little more control over putting it all together.”

The ability to put it all together is really at the heart of what separates athletes. In a perfect world, where key workouts are hit and injuries are avoided, the person who can “put it together” on the right day is going to come out on top. But that’s not some groundbreaking notion. You hear athletes all the time talking about “execution” and sprinkling their post-game interviews with stuff like “everything just clicked” or “it all came together today.”

So it becomes a much simpler question: How do you get an athlete to do what they know they’re supposed to do?

“There’s such an effort as a sport psychologist to remove yourself from the performance and the results,” Udewitz says. “Most of my practice is de-emphasizing results and working on process. If you work on the process, you’re going to put yourself in the position to be a winner, to get good results.”

Process is a word that gets thrown around a lot, especially recently thanks to the former general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, Sam Hinkie. In his first press conference as Sixers GM he introduced the idea of process to modern NBA fans.

“We talk a lot about process—not outcome—and trying to consistently take all the best information you can and consistently make good decisions,” Hinkie said. “Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but you reevaluate them all.”

That was in May 2013. Over the next three season the Sixers, by every measurement–not just by this armchair Winner-and-Loser arbiter–were losers. In that span, they won a total of 47 games. To put that into perspective, the year that the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals, they won their 47th game in February with 31 games left in the regular season.

This season, however, the Sixers have won 50 games (and counting) and are headed to the playoffs as a legitimate contender. What did they learn from trusting the process?

“The people that focus more on the process generally come out as so-called winners,” Udewitz says. “People who are able to accept loss and risk loss and even value loss and embrace it–see loss as a gain and a place to learn–those are the people that are more likely to have good results.”

The process can look different for everyone. For the Sixers, it was about tanking and acquiring a series of high lottery picks in the NBA draft. For individual sports like running, however, it can take a different form.

“I try to get people back to how they started. Getting back to the idea of playing and being playful, being creative,” he says. “But I understand that as an adult we’re not going to be able to just get out there and play completely. There’s an element of competition. So it’s about acceptance. To find a balance between that competition and working for results.”

Competition is at the heart of all of this. Competitive results in running are a little more forgiving, at least in the way we talk about winners in track and field. Generally, you don’t even need to have won gold. Earning medals at the world stage is enough for pundits, as it is with most fans. Olympic Medalist carries weight. Bronze or Gold, it doesn’t matter. But you still have to show up when it counts.

“The successful person is able to show up and be very involved in the competition,” Udewitz says. “There are so many people that are so talented in all different fields. But when they’re standing up in front of other people and performing, they’re not able to show the same thing that they can do in practice.”

Practicing process seems to be something done behind closed doors. Putting your faith in that process is what happens out in the open, in competition. So putting together a good performance becomes less about assembly and more an exercise in faith–I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of people say “The hay is in the barn.” It’s also maybe even about having fun.

“I think the people that have fun set themselves up to win more often,” Udewitz says. “Fun doesn’t always look like laughter. It’s investment, involvement. Deep concentration. Being in the flow. Being really present. You’re getting swept away in it. You’re not aware of being watched or evaluated. That in itself is fun.”

“It is counterintuitive,” he adds. “To let go of competition. Certainly, there are people who achieve success the other way around, but I don’t see too much longevity in that.”

The way my theory works removed this longevity that Dr. Udewitz was talking about. In the moment, when your team or favorite runner puts together a string of awful performances, it’s easy to think “Man, these guys suck. It can’t be fun to suck that much.” Then at the end of the competition, you see some of them smiling and slapping hands. As a fan, it’s hard to remove yourself from results-based happiness–this is why bandwagon fans exist. But to sustain yourself as an athlete, this is essential.

“Sports are about losing. Very few people are able to win all the time and winners don’t stay on top for very long. It’s short-lived,” Udewitz says. “So the idea of ‘winning’ is a funny place to start from. Everybody has in them the ability to win and to lose. It’s not a diagnosis.”

It’s not a diagnosis. Though Dr. Udewitz handled my idiotic questions with poise and grace, I think his final sentiment gave the nuance to my theory that it was missing. No! It’s not a diagnosis, it’s something we can all be working on, all the time. In competition, or when we’re practicing in the shadows. The ability to win is there, it’s just about breathing some life into that ability.

That means that until some people figure that out on their own, they can still be NOT A WINNER. That’s why, if you asked me, the Houston Rockets won’t win the NBA Finals this year. Because Chris Paul isn’t a winner. At least he’s not yet.

And there you have it, I wrote 1500 words about winning and losing just so I could say the Houston Rockets will not win the 2018 NBA Championship. But hopefully, you learned something.

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