Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

In Sports, Winning Is Not The Only Thing

July 29, 1996

The July 1996 "APA Monitor," published by the American Psychological Association, summarizes the effect of sports and competition. Here are some interesting findings.

Are sports good for children? Physical activity and sports have a tremendous potential to enhance a child's self-esteem and motivation. Children who engage in sports earn better grades, behave better in the classroom, have fewer behavior problems, drop out less and have fewer unexcused absences from school. In one study, nonparticipants were 57 percent more likely to drop out, 49 percent more likely to use drugs, 37 percent more likely to be teen parents, 35 percent more likely to smoke and 27 percent more likely to have been arrested.

Children learn to communicate, commit to a goal, work with peers and adults and experience the joys of mastery. They learn to strive for task success, persist in the face of barriers and take pride in their own achievement.

What competitive styles are used in sports? Psychologist Shane Murphy of Monroe, Connecticut names three:

  • A success focus. The primary goal of these people is to win. They can show how good they are, even if they have to cheat. They also avoid experiences in which they risk failure.
  • A failure focus. These individuals choose easy tasks so that they appear skilled. Sometimes they pick extremely difficult tasks that they can conveniently label as too daunting for anyone to master.
  • An action focus. These competitors concentrate their energies not on winning, but on the task at hand. They set personal performance goals that are a means to a larger goal. The action focus is the most effective for long term success.

How does winning affect sports enjoyment? The basic theory, taken from education research, suggests that motivation depends on two types of goals. The ego-oriented goal produces a win-motivated style while the task-oriented goal produces a task-mastery style.

Psychologist Joan Duda of Purdue University found that if parents, teachers and coaches emphasize ego goals over task goals, children will adopt ego oriented goals. Coaches who are win-oriented harshly evaluate mistakes. They give the most recognition and attention to star players, emphasize beating a competitor and create rivalries between their own players.

A task-oriented coach reinforces effort and execution above an outcome. They challenge athletes to improve their technique and convey that everyone has an equal role to play - although they recognize ability differences among the players.

Another psychologist, Darren Treasure of Southern University of Illinois at Edwardsville, found that children are better off mastering skills and trying their best than if winning motivates them. Before age 12, children are generally task-focused. By age 12, they begin to recognize that effort doesn't always mean ability. If they are in an ego-focused environment, they begin to define success as beating others. If they don't win, they drop out.

From ages 12 and 17, 90 percent of children drop out of sports programs. This is fueled by parents and coaches who switch to a win philosophy and de-emphasize a task focus.

Duda's research with recreational and elite athletes found that those who rely on ego goals are emotionally fragile. They have a hard time dealing with a slump, an injury or a drop in rank. If fear of losing dominates an athlete's thinking, he or she will experience more stress and disappointment. If success is measured by an "Am I getting better?" attitude, then the athlete will be happier, see self-improvement and persist longer.

Winning adds to the pleasure of the sport for elite athletes. They rate high on both ego and task orientation. They switch back and forth depending on the context - to get the motivational boost from competition and to put the time into practice. An ego focus provides an additional Adrenalin flow during competition while a task focus help athletes maintain their focus of the moment.

Why do some athletes choke? Pressure to perform well before the public can help or hurt athletes - depending on the sport. Psychologist Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University separates sports into those dominated by skill and those dominated by effort.

Baumeister says trying harder doesn't make you better on a skill-based task. Skills become automatic with practice. They no longer require conscious attention. When an athlete starts paying attention, he or she starts choking. Effort tasks such as running or weight-lifting improve under competitive pressure while trying harder on skill-based tasks disrupts the automatic responses necessary for success.

What causes burnout? Burnout is caused when a young athlete invests too much of their self-concept into the sport. Their motivation relates to pleasing parents, coaches and social pressures. They lose control of their lives. They are perfectionists who overtrain and shut out other interests. Burnout is the body's way of rebelling at an activity that has stopped being fun. Sports participation needs to be brought into balance with other important values in life.

Young athletes at the recreational level do better when they focus on mastering skills and measuring success by personal standards than by winning. Winning may bring status among peers and approval from adults but trying your best ultimately brings more satisfaction from play and practice. It helps young people view sports as a lifelong activity. When winning is the only thing, winning is wrong.