The psychology of winning

Can studying successful people help you become become successful too?

The psychology of winning

Chartered psychologist Martyn Stewart considers how the characteristics of successful people such as elite athletes and sportsmen can help us achieve our own goals.

‘I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed’ – basketball legend Michael Jordan.

If you want to make better decisions under pressure, how do you do it? We see so many success stories in the world of business, entertainment, education and sport, yet the majority of us struggle to replicate it. We mere mortals may lack the talent or capacity to achieve what they have, needing something more to excel. It usually helps if we have the support of others too as being liked acts as an incentive, making achievement seem much easier. Some people need to be told constantly that they are beautiful or do amazing things.

However, what happens if the cheers become a chorus of boos? A slight dent in the self-esteem and determination of the average person is likely; few people cope well in the role of pantomime villain. How can you win in these circumstances? Naturally, you ponder the intentions of those who hurl negative responses in your direction. Do they really dislike your character or are they just envious, unhappy with their own situation in comparison to their perception of yours?

In the pursuit of our goals, we often hear people say things like “I don’t care what they think of me” or “I don’t need anybody to like me.” But come on, who are they kidding? Most of us would agree this is nonsense, even if we only admit it privately. Does a strong, healthy mind have the desire to be liked and appreciated? Solomon Asch found that 75% of people conform to an obvious wrong answer at least once because of a “desire to be liked” or accepted by the group, suggesting the answer is yes.

Is wanting to be liked prohibitive?
However, a strong mind also knows that being liked can be fleeting and superficial. Although desirable, it is not essential for success and can easily become a distraction. Take this example: on May 2, 2015, Floyd Mayweather Jr placed his undefeated boxing streak on the line against Manny Pacquiao in the “Fight of the Century.” You don’t have to like boxing to appreciate the psychological story that unfolded that day.

Mayweather was exceptionally prepared and his self-belief was sky high, (as usual). He believed his achievements spoke for themselves. Nobody had beaten him, and he proclaimed to be “the best ever,” but still some critics found fault. They argued that he was arrogant, past his best and had finally met his match. The coverage didn’t endear him to the watching millions. Many hoped, maybe even wished, that he would lose to his more humble opponent.

On fight night, the boos and insults were inevitable. Anyone would have forgiven Mayweather if he wanted to retaliate, to lash out, to attack. However, that would have made him lose his focus, and there lies the psychological key to a strong mind in situations such as these.

None of the peripheral crowd reaction actually mattered to the real task at hand. The only question that counted: will it affect what he needs to do to remain undefeated?

Top athletes have the ability and the talent to do amazing things when it is easy but take for granted the strength of mind needed to do the same under the most challenging circumstances. Mayweather won the fight. But how? How do you stay focused when every sound is potentially a negative distraction? How do you remain patient when everyone is telling you to do something now? When the crowd is bellowing hate your way? Mayweather could easily have succumbed to the weakest version of himself and given into the situation, but he didn’t. He remained focused amongst the chaos.

Calmness will carry you forward
In circumstances people consider to be chaotic, people tend to lose their calm, their patience and their focus. They become reactive, so the situation now dictates the behaviour. They forget the blueprint to their own goals. In achieving your targets, do not get caught up in the external hype. Some people want to add colour to their experiences when there is none. You only have to fight the crowd if you make them an opponent. Everybody has an opinion, no matter what you do, so trying to listen or appease them all will be detrimental to achieving your goals. You need to develop the self-belief and skills to know how and when to block out the hysteria of the masses.

If you prepare effectively you can develop unwavering self-belief in the face of adversity. You may question the dynamics of the situation, the unexpected things that don’t go to plan. But you never doubt yourself, your preparation or your ability. And Floyd isn’t the only one who has done this. Think of David Beckham’s last minute free kick against Greece in 2001, Jonny Wilkinson’s World Cup winning drop-goal against Australia in 2003 or Michael Jordan’s buzzer beater in 1989 against the Cavaliers. They were able to block out everything else around them to focus on the task at hand. It wasn’t just that Mayweather was a better fighter or boxed the better fight. It was that his mind remained strong in the face of the opponent that could have broken him down much easier – himself.

What do you need to succeed?
The mind state of the successful is not exclusive to elite athletes. You can acquire this state of mind too and apply it in many other areas of your life, including education and the workplace.

1) Understand that making errors are an essential part of any learning process. Successful people know this, so they don’t fear making them. They help you to know where you are going wrong, so when placed in the moment of truth, you are less likely to falter. A trained mind will always achieve more than an untrained one, regardless of your talents and abilities.

2) Develop skills that are attainable. Increase your drive and ambition by energising your focus, patience and discipline. Understand the importance of continual evaluation in making progress. All of these skills can be developed in everybody.

3) The strongest version of yourself needs to be prepared to go longer and further than your most dangerous opponent – the weakest version of yourself. This is who defeats you. This mental opponent will attempt to beat you every chance it gets. It needs to be “liked” to do anything. This version of you will give up in the face of challenges; it will take the easy road or it will find an excuse.

In the defining fight of his career, Mayweather didn’t allow the weakest version of himself to take over in the ring. He resisted the obvious pressure to give in to his ego or get distracted by the boos. He could have given in to the critics and fought the way they wanted him to fight through his desire to be liked. This scenario would have increased the likelihood that he would have been beaten. But he didn’t. He remained focused on what the strongest version of himself needed him to do to achieve his goal. He remains undefeated.

We all possess a strongest version and a weakest version of ourselves. When your defining fight presents itself, ask yourself, which version of you do you want to fight for you?
Martyn Stewart is a chartered psychologist and relationship coach. He has over 15 successful years facilitating positive change with individuals internationally via teaching, mentoring and coaching. He is currently Head of Psychology at Doha College. He is also a published author and public speaker. For more about Martyn’s services, visit his website; email: or follow him on Twitter @martynpsych /@findasolutionuk

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