An Exploratory Introduction
By: Neal Wen
In recent years it is becoming increasingly contentious that modern day athletes are losing an ‘edge’ and a relentlessly competitive desire to win. It seems some athletes are content to just make the team and as long as you try hard, gave your best shot losing is okay. I highly disagree with this sentiment, at the end of the day competition outcomes are the fundamental premise for competitive sports. Through a rudimentary exploration into the origins of sport we will quickly discover that winning and losing in the ancient times carry fatal consequences that often dictates the livelihood of a competitor. While we are far removed from those relatively primitive times however it is this sense of urgency for survival that breeds an ultimate competitor and prompts advancement in technology and innovations. If we are no longer judged by the outcome - wins and losses - in competitive sport, then we have lost the essence of competition itself. I believe the fading of this authentic competitive spirit is a multi-factorial, society-driven consequence. In my opinion the main culprits are:
i) Young athlete are celebrated and awarded simply for participation. If you are already rewarded on a failed attempt then why would you need to work hard, innovate and evolve for better placing?
ii) Coaches and leaders that endorses a process-driven approach to training and development
Now, it is nice that an athlete may have picked up some some invaluable life lessons along the process of sports training and preparation, but no ‘process’ should be considered successful unless it accomplished it's primary objective. Imagine working hard farming all year only for the crop to die at the end of the season, it doesn't matter how good your process was if it doesn't bear fruit you will starve. So 'staying in the moment', and 'trusting the process' are all important concepts however, the final outcome is ultimately what matters the most.
iii) The monetary rewards and incentives are becoming too large and it is driving the athletes away from the purity of competition itself. Same can be said for some athletes who seems to enjoy the fame and cool social media photos that they are able to share more than caring about excelling at the competition itself.
The best way to explore the topic winning is undoubtedly to study the habits and traits of winners. To some lay person certain individuals (i.e. Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Floyd Mayweather, Geva Mentor etc.) just wins. Instead of investigating key traits and attributes that make these individuals successful it is far too often and easy for the public to deem these high performers as superior talents who are just ‘gifted’.
Contrary to conventional wisdom winning does not happen by accident as a result of 'luck'. First and foremost winning is a non-accidental skill, it is a result of very precise traits and habits that cultivates extraordinary performances. This is why you often find athletes and organizations working assiduously to pursue that first elusive title, and once they have figured out the Goldilocks combination, they sometimes deftly become serial winners and a dynasty is formed. Meanwhile athletes, coaches and managers from winning organizations become highly coveted assets by rivals who will pay a premium for their services.
While research continues to strive for that sure fire winning combination unfortunately there are simply no ‘guarantees’ in any proposed winning formula. Evolving from the story of Oakland A's baseball team that is portrayed in the movie Moneyball, there has been an explosion of data-driven team management systems that attempts to resource their playing roster based on analytical values. I anticipate these ‘advanced’ systems will soon learn that analytical-based decision making are sound in principle but it largely neglects the fact that there is nothing analytical and predictable about living organisms and their associated performances. You cannot predict a player’s in-game behaviour during clutch moments through analytics; data can change at any given moment influenced by fundamental sciences in neurobiochemisty and physiology. Although there are inherent shortcoming in analytical sports management system it should be pointed out that such system should remain a useful tool to supplement the decision making process.
As previously mentioned, the key to winning is to learn from winners. In the remainder of this article we will explore some common denominators that are the foundations to any winning organization. In the book titled Winners: And How They Succeed (link below) Alastair Campbell suggests winning starts with three foundational pillars: (i) strategy, (ii) leadership, and (iii) teamship.
Developing a sound strategy to achieve success should be the foremost concern of any organization or individuals with an ambition to win. Good organizations have sound strategies and great organizations are world class at implementing their strategies. It is easy to be wooed by all the talents one can buy and ambitions one may possess but without sound strategy clearly understood from the top to the bottom of an organization, an ambition will not be fulfilled.
Strategy should not be confused with tactics, the two terms are interrelated but not the same, strategy is the foundations that drives all tactical maneuvers. For instance, a basketball team may decide to implement a winning strategy characterized by employing a tall and physical gameplay style, based on these requirements a manager will need to construct a team of players and coaching staff that fulfill these characteristics. Now the practical means of roster management and construction will be accomplished using various tactics such as drafts, trades, and free agent signings. French chess master Savielly Tartakower eloquently differentiated the applied meaning between the two terms:
"Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do; strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do."
A strategy represents the how of winning. It is the path to achieve your objective – the what. So before you start working on your strategy first sit down and define your objectives. Once you have established your objectives, the strategy to accomplish it needs to be formulated based on your environmental and logistical constraints. This is why one organization should never blatantly copy the strategy of another successful organization, that strategy only worked for that organization in their specific circumstances.
“If you do not have a clear objective, you have no definition of winning. If you do not have a clear strategy, you have no chance of winning. And if all you have are tactics, you have no right to win.”
Great leaders comes in different forms, they may vary along the spectrum of an authoritarian to that of a nurturer. However a universal creed of a great leader is within their ability to elevate the performance of their followers. The precise role of a leader was brilliantly outlined by music maestro Ben Zander, he describes:
“the role of a leader is to utilize his power to empower those under his leadership”
This ability to empower and unleash human potential is an indispensable attribute of a great leader. A leader must be able to identify and cater for the needs of each team member and utilize his power to maximize their potentials. Besides caretaking for each team member a leader is also responsible for the concise execution of an organization’s strategy. During critical times a leader must exhibit patience and intellectual lucidity to maintain sight of the bigger picture and all decisions and manoeuvres are synthesized in the best interest of a team’s overall objective. In essence a leader must ensure the organization does try to win every battle and ultimately lose the war. For these reasons a leader carries tremendous responsibility for the success and failure of a team.
Teamship represents each team member’s commitment to the group’s primary objectives. The pinnacle of team operation requires each individual to forgo all self-interests and agendas for the betterment of the whole. All team members must have a clear understanding of their roles on the team and every decision and action has to be made for the sole purpose of accomplishing team objectives. While a good strategy is vitally important, a strategy without a team is simply an idea that remains a stillborn.
A strategy is the first step on the way to success, a team makes it possible.
The construction of a successful team must feature a variety of specialists who complement each other’s skillset and personality. For instance there is no use to have a team of superstars who all specialize in scoring the ball; great rebounders, defenders, and passers are all equally as important. A harmonically balanced team will be able to compound the abilities of each individual, such synthesis of abilities in this manner are far greater than bland addition of each individual's ability; the resultant power of a collective team effort is multiplied.
While we examined strategy, leadership, and teamship in its component parts it’s important to reiterate the interrelationships of the three pillars. A great leader is responsible for both the orchestration of teamship and strategy implementation. It is his obligation to construct a team, designate specific roles that maximizes each individual's potential and ensuring everyone genuinely accepts and understands their respective roles and responsibilities. An important note, a great leader must be very comfortable at seeking the services of people smarter and more capable than they are. This ego-less approach to leadership will make an ambitious team that much more dangerous!
Through this article we have established that winning is not a result of pure luck and talent, it is a culmination of discipline, hard work and preparation. These attributes are built upon the three pillars that lays the winning foundations: strategy, leadership, and teamship. Although this article does not provide a comprehensive scrutiny on winning however I do hope it is an impetus that fuels the drive and development of winning traits and attributes among ambitious athletes. For coaches and managers I hope the concepts in this article provides some food for thought in the construction of a winning organization.