Unleash Your Inner Winner
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.
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