What It Takes to Win
To the 20,000 cheering fans at a Tampa Bay Lightning pro hockey game last March, Alisa Savoretti was the epitome of a winner as she accepted the team's $50,000 Community Hero Award. What her beaming face didn't reveal is that her path had been far from smooth skating.
After battling breast cancer and having to wait nearly three years for reconstructive surgery because she was uninsured, Alisa founded the nonprofit My Hope Chest in 2003 to help other women like her. But she struggled to keep up financially as desperate pleas poured in asking her organization to pay for surgeries. Alisa refinanced her house three times and ultimately filed for bankruptcy. Yet she refused to throw in the towel. "You can't give up just because the going gets tough," Alisa, 49, says. "You have to have confidence, perseverance, and belief in yourself and your project."
Alisa learned the hard way that winning takes much more than a catchy Charlie Sheen hashtag or Pollyannaish pipe dream. Winning is the result of working your butt off, experts say. Instead of making excuses, winners stick it out in the face of mega-adversity, conquering inner obstacles like fears, doubts, and insecurity to stay laser focused on their purpose.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania call this perseverance and passion in the pursuit of long-term goals "grit" and say it's a key to being a winner. Their studies showed that elite college students with more grit earn higher GPAs, and grittier competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee rank above their opponents.
The good news is that you can develop grit, says Timothy Gallwey, the author of the Inner Game series of books and star of a new life-coaching show by the same name airing on PBS in August. "Ask yourself what you really want to win in life and you'll get in touch with your thirst," he says. "Any loser can turn into a winner."
Why We're in It to Win It
The drive to win is in us all, and it goes way back. "Competition has always been a means to figure out status hierarchy, who is going to rise to the top," says Pranjal Mehta, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. He gives the example of two Stone Age child-toting mamas scoping out the same cave as a refuge for the night. "They may engage in some sort of physical confrontation to determine who gains access to the safe haven," he says. Winning ensures survival plus the confidence, power, and dominance to fight off other potential competitors. Losing means possible injury or even death.
Our impulse toward triumph is strong and self-perpetuating. Scientists like Mehta have repeatedly researched the link between winning and testosterone: People with higher levels of the hormone want to win more, and when they do, they experience a testosterone bump that propels them to — woo-hoo! — win again. The scientists think that spikes in testosterone trigger a chemical reaction in the part of the brain that controls rewards, making you yearn to keep winning. Victory also boosts mood: People report feeling happier and less anxious after a win, research has shown. Conversely, if they lose, testosterone drops, making them less likely to reenter a competition in which they could risk further hurt.
These biological underpinnings are so fierce that we experience physiological changes even when we win vicariously. Researchers can measure hormonal shifts in our saliva when we're rooting for a sports team or presidential candidate and our favorite wins or loses.
The XX Factor
Problem is, hormonal research has focused largely on men. Scientists have only recently started zeroing in on what makes women tick. The more important hormone for women might just turn out to be estrogen, says Steven Stanton, PhD, a research neuroscientist at Duke University. In two studies he conducted, women who had a high estrogen level were more motivated to win. When they did win, their production of estrogen went up; when they lost, it went down.
Other research raises another pointed question: Are women afraid to win? Heck, no — if you're judging based on exhibits (A) Hope Solo, (B) Kerri Walsh, (C) Lolo Jones, and (D) FITNESS readers. Yet studies have shown that women and girls have a tendency not even to put themselves equally in the running. One found that when 9- and 10-year-old kids in gym class ran alone, they traveled at about the same speed. But when pairs with similar initial speeds raced each other, the boys' speed increased; the girls' time stayed the same when they ran against a boy and slowed when they were paired with a girl. "Women don't seem to get the same kick out of competition that men do," says Muriel Niederle, PhD, an associate professor of economics at Stanford who has studied gender differences in competitive situations.
Why? One important factor, research has shown, is that women appear to be less confident in their abilities. "Everyone has doubts; women have more," Niederle says. Use that knowledge not as an excuse, but to motivate yourself. "Don't quit before trying," she advises.
Competitive Strategies for Success
Get in the Game
The road to winning isn't always pretty — it can be downright uncomfortable at times — but staying stagnant in a boring job, a bad relationship, or a workout rut is worse. When you have a nagging feeling telling you it's time for a new challenge, go for it. Use these research-backed strategies to help reach the winner's podium, whether you're aiming to change from microwave zapper to five-star chef or from couch potato to marathon runner.
Determine your gold medal.
Jacqueline Depaul set her sights on modeling — at age 38. "I felt uninspired with my life and needed a creative outlet," says Jacqueline, a salesperson for an engineering company. She read self-help books; volunteered as a model for charity events, photographers, and designers; took runway classes; studied nutrition; and began exercising five to six days a week. "I basically attacked my hobby," she says. At 42, she beat out 5,000 women in a 40-and-over model search to win a contract with the Wilhelmina agency. "When they announced my name as the grand-prize winner, I felt that four years of effort had come to fruition," Jacqueline says. "I had started with just a dream, my North Star."
Your gold medal doesn't have to be awarded in a formal contest. It simply has to fill in the blank: "I want ___."
Trick your brain.
Once you've settled on your goal, figure out ways to break it down. Your brain can't process big goals, because we're not wired that way, says Scott Huettel, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Instead you have to craft a lot of little wins along the way to keep your brain's reward center activated. Work backward from your milestone to map a route filled with smaller, reachable triumphs so you can continually see yourself progressing.
Put in the work.
Don't waste time worrying about whether you have enough talent. "I tell athletes that the next time someone says they're gifted, reply, 'I'm not talented; I work hard,'" says Simon Clements, a performance coach for the sports psychology organization EXACT Sports. The most predictable route to winning, experts say, is frequent, focused practice on what you can improve and what you can't yet do. It typically takes a minimum of 10,000 hours of this kind of practice before athletes, musicians, and other competitors win international competitions; that's four hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for seven years, according to K. Anders Ericsson, PhD, a professor of psychology at Florida State University. Okay, so maybe you're not aiming to be an acclaimed concert pianist. The point is, expect to get out of your comfort zone and put in some blood, sweat, and tears for the long haul.
Sign on support.
Forget flying solo. You'll most likely need a coach, a mentor, or a community. It could be a coworker, a training group, or even a social network like Fitocracy.com, in which you can compete against friends while tracking your fitness, but you need someone to push you. "When you face failure, disappointment, or pain, a partner can say, 'I hear you, but do it again,'" says Angela Lee Duckworth, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology who studies grit at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's hard to get yourself to do that." Linking up with others can also help you learn some of their winning traits.
The stress hormone cortisol can interfere with the production of testosterone and estrogen. New research by Mehta showed that stock traders who did a two-minute mindfulness meditation exercise decreased their levels of cortisol, increased their levels of testosterone, and boosted their performance. "It's the first time we've shown that meditation can change people's hormones and affect performance in competitive settings," Mehta says. When you need a confidence boost before jockeying for a promotion or running your next 5K, take a few minutes to close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and acknowledge your thoughts without judging them.
Clements helps his athletes come up with personal identity statements to stay on point. Dreaming of winning a book contract for the next hot trilogy? Wake up every day saying, "I am a prolific writer and a best-selling author." That becomes the answer to any questions or doubts that pop up in your head. You can also use special cues to inspire yourself. Taylor Swift draws 13, her lucky number, on her hand before going onstage.
Face your fears.
What is the one big thing you're scared of that's getting in your way? Maybe you want to knock surfing off your bucket list, but you're terrified of six-foot swells. Break it down: Identify one component that you can do. Are you afraid of splashing waist-high? If the answer is still yes, go even smaller. Can you do 10 laps in a pool? "Find something that feels manageable to you," Clements says. If doubt creeps in, think back to a moment in the water that felt phenomenal and mentally walk through that experience again. The visualization will give you the boost you need to believe that you are capable of mastering something that once seemed frightening.
Embrace bad days.
People have a tendency to quit on the bad days. Don't! "Make decisions on days where you're in a much better place emotionally," Duckworth says, and use difficult days as tools to move closer to your win. "It's important when you fall down to say, okay, while I'm down here, what can I learn from this?" Gallwey says. "Ask yourself, What am I going to do differently next time?"
Find your balance.
"Some people become obnoxious because they have to win everything, including every argument," says Leon Sloman, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Pick and choose your battles, competing only for things that truly matter to you, and take time to soak up your successes. If you're always looking for the next victory, you never give yourself time to relax and enjoy the glory.
Competitive Tips from Olympian Hope Solo
"How I Keep My Winning Edge"
The Defending Champion: Hope Solo
Goalkeeper Hope Solo, 31, became the face of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team in the 2008 Beijing Olympic finals by shutting out Brazil and bringing home the gold. Now she has her sight set on the top of the podium in London.
Why I do what I do
"As a forward, I tried to win games, and now as a goalkeeper, I try to save them. I thrive under pressure. That's when I really step up."
Bouncing back after a missed save
"I have to channel my anger. I pick up a piece of grass, hold it for a second, throw it up into the air and let it come down. I let everything go with that blade of grass."
Finding inner strength
"One of the toughest years in my life was 2007: First I lost my best friend [who was hit by a car while running] and then my father [who suffered a fatal heart attack], and then I got kicked off the team in the World Cup [for comments to the press about getting replaced during a game]. I hit an all-time low. I didn't leave the house. I was in a complete depression. It took putting one foot in front of the other every single day to get through it to the point where I made it back on the team and won a gold medal in 2008. You're always going to survive the pain of loss. I can live with that confidence inside of me."
Looking to London
"I've learned that winning isn't everything, and it's more about the journey. But at the end of the day, I just want to stand on the podium with the gold medal."
Competitive Tips from Olympian Kerri Walsh
"How I Keep My Winning Edge"
The Repeat Queen: Kerri Walsh
Beach volleyball force Kerri Walsh, 34, says she doesn't know anyone who hates to lose as much as she does. Thankfully she hasn't had to worry about that since teaming up with Misty May-Treanor in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games and then again in 2008. The pair brought home consecutive gold medals, winning every single set in Olympic competition. This time around, Walsh has two new fans: her boys, Joey, age 3, and Sundance, 2.
"I own it now. I'm going to crush you even if you're my best friend. Also, I've learned not to compare myself with other people. I want to be the best that I can be, not necessarily better than you. That's pretty liberating."
"Now I can go home whether it was a good day or a bad day [at practice] and have it end great because I'm with my kids. It's like, Chill out, you worked really hard today, you have tomorrow — enjoy."
Playing with a partner
"Misty makes me want to be better so I can make her life on the court as easy as possible. If I'm having a bad day, I'm going to keep working to improve. If she's hurting, I want to step up for her."
Taking a time-out
"Last year my sports psychologist and my coach said I needed to pause. Now I go somewhere quiet and just breathe, which is hard for me to do because I always want to get everything done. God is really present in my life. I talk to Him every single day, and I know everything is going to be okay. I have a lot of faith."
Competitive Tips from Olympian Lolo Jones
"How I Keep My Winning Edge"
The Redemption Seeker: Lolo Jones
Hurdles are what Lolo Jones, 30, knows. Growing up, the U.S. record holder for the 60-meter hurdles went to a different school every year and for a time lived in a church basement as her single mother struggled to pay rent and raise five kids. Jones missed making the 2004 Olympic team. In 2008, she was the favorite to win gold in the 100-meter hurdles in Beijing, but clipped the second to last hurdle, sending her from first to seventh place. This summer, she's looking to redeem herself.
"Man, I was so close to that gold, I tasted it. Everywhere I've gone the last four years, people say, 'Oh, you're that girl who messed up.' I no longer want that reputation."
"Any time a bad thing happens, when I haven't made a team or I've been injured, I think, There's got to be a reason for this. Adversities make you mad, they make you sad, they literally break you down, but if you fight through them, they make you stronger, sharper, and more motivated."
Finding her strength
"I put so much energy into coming back from spinal cord surgery last summer — learning to walk again — so when I injured my hamstring six months later, my motivation was wiped. Then I started reading a bunch of books, writing down affirmations and goals, and visualizing myself running healthy and superfast. I carry The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale to every race."
Looking to London
"My focus is not even on a gold medal. It's about me having the best possible race. I want to hold my head high and be able to say I put it all on the line."
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, July/August 2012.