What makes a winner?
As the 6 Nations kicked off last weekend and Scotland once again could not regain the Calcutta Cup, I was left to reflect on what makes a winner. Scottish rugby fans have had their optimism dashed over and over again at the start of the tournament – and after a reasonably successful autumn World Cup such optimism wasn’t misplaced, yet the home team could not produce a performance to send England homeward ‘tae think again’ as the anthem goes.
So what makes a winner? What are the characteristics that individuals possess which they can then bring to bear in sport, work or life to make them successful? Are they innate or can they be developed?
Here are three that I think are essential ingredients to be a winner:
We are introduced to competition early in life. Who gets top marks in the spelling test? Who wins the sack race on sports day? There are a multitude of minor competitions that we participate in as we grow up – but how much do they mean to us? Having that competitive urge is key to becoming a winner; that desire to be top of the class or to win that rosette in the race. It also means that we may have to deal with the disappointment of defeat, or not getting the top marks – how then do we deal with that? Do we make excuses or do we resolve to try harder? Are we happy just to participate and please others by trying hard or does our competitive drive force us to work harder, to study longer or to really push ourselves to a physical limit.
This is a state of mind. The pre-eminent athletics coach, Frank Dick talks about Valley people and Mountain people; he suggests that to be a winner you have to take a far bigger risk than might otherwise be necessary, because the opposite of victory is defeat. It is binary. No-one remembers who comes second. So that competitive drive has to exist in winners – that relentless pursuit of victory whether it is individual or team success in sport or running a successful business.
But can you develop this? Can you develop a mindset into one where winning is the be all and end all? I doubt it - simply because if you don’t have it when you’re 5, you’re unlikely to find it when your 25, 35 or 45.
Things don’t always go your way – in sport, in business or in life. What differentiates winners from others in my view is their ‘bouncebackability’ – or put in more straightforward language, resilience. It’s that mental toughness that separates people who will fold in a crisis from those who embrace it with open arms.
Winners don’t make excuses – they play with the cards that they are dealt. If they encounter setbacks (and they undoubtedly will) they deal with them as best they can. They don’t apportion blame on others or on circumstances but instead look at how they can improve and learn.
Now I firmly believe that you can develop resilience – how you feel about a situation is entirely within your own control, depending on which part of your brain is active. Professor Steve Peters, author of ‘The Chimp Paradox’ and advisor to British Cycling talks about the neuroscience of this far more eloquently that I can, but the conclusion is that this is a capability that can definitely be learned.
My final characteristic of winners I’m going to call belligerence. There are lots of other words I could have used, like bloody-mindedness, pugnaciousness or pig-headedness but I’m going to stick with belligerence.
For me, winners have that combination of stubbornness, or a downright refusal to accept defeat as an option, combined with an assertive, even aggressive approach to putting things right. It’s that edginess that you encounter in people that gives you a sense that they are not going to be a pushover – that any contest or confrontation might get a bit nasty…..but if you have this particular quality, that is something that you relish. You have to be up for the fight, and sometimes you’ve got to be the one starting it.
Floyd Woodrow, a former decorated Special Forces serviceman, talks about the warrior spirit in his new book and it is just that – a willingness to go to war for your cause.
Can you develop this? For sure – again, it’s a state of mind that you can nurture with the right encouragement but it has to come from within.
So – do you need all three? Will 2 out of 3 be enough? Can you be a winner without these characteristics? I’m sure we will all have views about this and it is not an exact science – but winning is going to be an awful lot easier with them than without them.
We would like to thank David Sole for writing this article for The Alchemy of Leadership. It's time for all of us to start thinking and behaving like winners.