Updated: May 21, 2020
A big part of coaching motivating her or his athletes to strive for excellence and ultimately win competitions and games. In order to do that, coaches often turn to quotes or sayings. These sayings often portray some kind of idea or philosophy about concepts like mindset, mental toughness or how to deal with success and failure. Personally, I like to use "you have to learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable" when talking about stepping out of your comfort zone and taking risks in sport. Or I use: "don't try to be good, try to be great" when talking about working to be the best you can be. There are many great examples and stories out there in which these kind of quotes and sayings were used to help motivate athletes. For instance, Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who gave each season a different theme with a different message. Unfortunately, there is an equal amount of examples and stories in which coaches completely miss the point with these quote and sayings and that can lead to decrease performance and lower athletes' well-being. On top of the list of inefficient motivators is a saying I personally hate most:
"You have to hate loosing more than you love winning"
At first glance, it might seem like something that makes sense, and it is used quite a lot. For instance, you can buy this great notebook on Amazon (picture on the right). On Quora, a popular question and answer website, people ask whether this is the right mindset and the common answer is that it is the perfect mindset for a competitive athlete. There are more inspirational quote pictures with this saying on it than you can consume and it even used by Brad Pitt in his role of general manager Billy Bean in the movie Moneyball. However, I believe based on what I know, that the basic message in this saying is wrong and using it as a guide to coach athletes might actually decrease their performance and hurt their well-being.
To get more great content, subscribe to my newsletter
In order to explain why I think this saying is trying to tell the wrong message, we first need to take a look at what people are trying to achieve by using it. This anonymous online user* gives a pretty good explanation of the common idea behind this saying:
"Everyone likes to win. But liking winning is not what makes one competitive. Hating to lose, hating it so much that one is willing to make all kinds of personal sacrifices to avoid losing, is what drives one to maximize their competitive performance. Competitive athletes, those who are driven by the desire to avoid losing, will spend more time practicing, will work harder in practices, will work harder during games and will keep on working and trying just as long as there is even a remote chance of avoiding a loss."
There are several things that I don't agree with in this quote but the bigger message is hard to argue with. If someone really hates losing, they will stop at nothing to avoid that from happening, makes sense right? However, the same can be said about an athlete that loves to win. Look what happens if I take a part of that quote in the last paragraph but change 'hate to lose' with 'love to win.
Those who are driven by the desire to win, will spend more time practicing, will work harder in practices, will work harder during games and will keep on working and trying just as long as there is even a remote chance of winning.
That makes total sense as well right? As long as your desire to either win or not to loose is strong, you will work hard and be competitive. If we would just look at this on the surface with what our brain feels is intuitive, wanting to win or not wanting to lose seem very equal in their possible effect on an athlete. But are they? Is there really no difference between wanting to win and not wanting to lose both in expected performance outcomes and the other possible effects that these two mindsets can have?
In order to answer that question, we have to look at one particular theory and its underlying ideas. The theory I am talking about is the Achievement Goal Theory (See Roberts, 2012; for a better description click here), a widely accepted theory of motivation that combines several theories into one. However, for this example, we can focus on a more particular part of it, the Need for Achievement Theory (McClelland 1961, Atkinson 1964) and the 2x2 Achievement Goal Framework (Elliot & McGregot, 2001). What these two theories describe is that when striving for a goal or an achievement, like winning a game or setting a personal best time, there are two distinct approaches that people can take. They can either try to approach success or they can try to avoid failure or the words of theory, you either have approach goals or avoidance goals. (you can see this in the valence of strivings dimensions in figure 1.1). Sound familiar? This striving dimension is exactly what our saying is talking about. You can either hate to lose (avoidance mindset) or love to win (approach mindset). Once these two concepts were accepted in the scientific community, researchers started to investigate the effect of the difference approaches not only on athletes' performance but also on their emotions, well-being and a whole host of different concepts. The outcome of this research allows the question I asked earlier to be answered. So let's take a look at some of the results of those studies**.
First of all, if we look at the approach goals, (there are two types of approach goals in the model but for simplicity sake I have combined the two), the overall consensus is that they will lead to optimal performance in athletes, some studies even use the word superior to describe the performance outcomes. On top of that, the research concludes that approach goals can have a positive impact on other important aspects such as better motivation, reduced anxiety, and higher self-evaluation of competence. If we project those results onto a fictional athlete, you would see an athlete that is determined to practice and compete hard and is relentless in trying to achieve his or her goals. The idea of winning makes this athlete excited and he or she does not feel fear of losing, is able to immerse him or herself fully into the game and can take risks when necessary to strive for a win.
The story is a quite a bit different with avoidance goals on the other hand. Although, they were only linked with lower performance in some cases (but in no case did performance increase), all avoidance goals lead to undesirable consequence such as increased anxiety, decreased motivation, fear of failure, and other negative emotional outcomes. Our imaginary athlete is now afraid of losing and although he or she does everything in their power not to loose, the idea of loosing makes them feel anxious and they focus on the possible consequences of that loss. Because of that, the athlete is only able to concentrate on the surface level of the game and feels like he or she is not worth much after a loss.
Summarizing all the research on this topic can best be done with two statements:
Loving to win (approach mindset) will make athletes feel better and can lead to better performance.
Hating to lose (avoidance mindset) will make athletes feel worse and can lead to worse performance
Conclusion, a 'hating to lose' mindset and a 'loving to win' mindset are far from the same when looking at all the research that has been done on this topic.
Looking at this, which one would you want to use as a coach? Or if you are an athlete, which one would you want you coach to use? I don't think that is a hard decision to make.
As a coach, using quotes and sayings to convey your message about motivation, mindset and other things is a great tool. However, a tool that has to be used with caution since it can have significant impact on your athletes. At the beginning of this post,"You have to hate loosing more than you love winning" might have seen like an innocent sentence to push athletes to be more competitive but when you look at the underlying science, you can quickly find out that it is not nearly as innocent as it seems. A mindset like this can have lasting effects on an athlete's performance and well-being. This is not a case of opinion or philosophy, nor is it a problem of coaches not having their athletes' well-being as a top priority. I am not trying to make coaches who use this saying look bad and I believe every coach is trying to do the best thing in their situation. What this is, is an example of a bigger problem that everyone faces all the time. What feels intuitive to us does not always align with the best way to do things. There are many more examples of situations in which this causes problems. From pressing the break when you car start spinning out of control to the fascinating science of how we misinterpret draft picks. I mentioned Moneyball in the beginning of this post, that is an entire story about this precise problem!
Now this obviously is a simplified explanation of the extremely complex concept of mindset and motivation. As you can see in the model, there is another dimension talking about the definition of competence an athlete has. This dimension plays an equally big role in the performance and well-being of an athlete. On top of that, this is only one of the several influential and equally important theories about motivation and mindset (e.g. Self-Determination Theory, for a better explanation of that, listen to this podcast episode). Lastly, there are always individual differences between people that make everything even more nuanced. However, despite all of that, I am still confident to say that when coaching an athlete or when coaching yourself, you should always try and strive for achievement rather than to try and avoid failure, so from now on this can be your new go to quote:
"You have to love winning more than you hate losing"
Atkinson, J. (1964). An introduction to motivation. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.
Elliot, A. J., & McGregor, H. A. (2001). A 2× 2 achievement goal framework.Journal of personality and social psychology,80(3), 501.
McClelland, D. (1961). The achieving society. New York: Free Press.
Roberts, G.C. (2012). Motivation in sport and exercise from an achievement goal theory perspective: After 30 years, where are we? In G.C. Roberts & D.C. Treasure (Eds.), Advances in motivation in sport and exercise (pp.5–58). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. * I kept the identity anonymous because there is no desire to shame people here. Additionally, this person did note some very good downsides of this mindset as well, so the quote may not fully represent his opinion on the topic, I merely used it as an example. ** The reported results come from a combination of sources including the 2007 textbook: Handbook of Sports Psychology.