Public Release: 

Expert Says Focus On Winning Doesn't Always Help Athletes Succeed

Ohio State University

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The American focus on "winning at all costs" will not always help athletes achieve their best, according to a sports psychologist at Ohio State University.

In fact, athletes often perform better -- and are happier --if they focus on meeting personal goals rather than winning all of their events.

"You can't win all the time, and if winning is your only goal you're going to be dissatisfied much of the time," said Chris Carr, psychologist for Ohio State's athletic department and for the U.S. Men's Alpine Ski Team.

Carr made a presentation August 16 in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, in which he discussed how competitive athletes can manage stress and anxiety.

"There's nothing wrong with wanting to win, and a desire to win can sometimes motivate athletes to do their best," Carr said. "But athletes who believe winning should be their only goal can actually make it harder for themselves to succeed."

Carr urges athletes to set process goals for themselves rather than outcome goals. For example, a competitive marathon runner should avoid an outcome goal of simply winning a race. Instead, he or she should set a process goal, such as cutting time from each race. Process goals help athletes gain a sense of control over their performance, he said.

"You can't control whether you win or not, because you can't control how others perform. But you can control how you do," according to Carr, who is also clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Ohio State's Sports Medicine Center.

The problem with winning as the only goal is that athletes lose motivation if they don't win. As a result, they may fail to continue pushing themselves to improve. But by having process goals, people can measure their improvement against themselves and take pride in their development.

Setting effective goals can help athletes manage their stress and anxiety, but there are other things they can do to improve their mental conditioning. Carr said he helps athletes control their psychological arousal (the feeling of "butterflies in the stomach"), focus their attention, and maintain emotional control during tense competition.

Deep breathing exercises and guided imagery, particularly before an important competition, can help many people both relax and become more focused, Carr said. He also encourages athletes to keep a journal about their performances and other important events in their lives. After enough time, journal entries can give people clues about what leads to better performances and yield insight into events that may be distracting them.

The important thing, Carr said, is to take mental preparation seriously. "When I ask athletes what percentage of their sport is mental, most will answer somewhere between 60 and 99 percent," he said. "But when you ask them how much of their preparation time is spent in mental conditioning, most respond between zero and 10 percent. That has to change."

Carr said his focus on process goals does not mean he doesn't care about winning. "I'm not against winning. However, I think striving for optimal performance is a better goal for athletes and will serve them better in the long run."

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