On Winning, Part I

February 4th, 2013 by Nate Smith

I’m the most insanely competitive person I know.  When I was 8, I locked my younger brother in a toy chest for beating me at Monopoly, and again for scoring on me in Colecovision Head to Head football.  The Dewer’s Supercubs winless T-ball season of 1984 was ruined when someone sick of losing punched a girl in the handshake line after the final game.  One winter in high school, I dived flopped across the hood of a 1984 Subaru GL Wagon to catch a street football touchdown.  This was the same winter I ran into a mailbox for the first time.

College wasn’t any better.  During intramural basketball, with an elusive win in sight, the Skankin’ Dave Hortons managed to foul out the jock dorm douche bag team’s fifth player with a minute left, and then go 1-10 from the free throw line to blow a 10 point lead and a 5-4 man advantage.  The stream of obscenities that graced the far reaches of UAF’s Student Rec Center after that loss, still cannot be reprinted, and I still think I owe them a basketball for the one I warped while punting it up to the running track.

At thirty, I almost ruined a high school graduation party by throwing a hand full of cards into my cousin’s face and calling him a (rhymes with “cluck”), for baiting me into bidding on a hand I had no business calling, and then euchring me.  I am no longer allowed to play the economics game Modern Art, after literally tearing my hair out.  My scalp’s never been the same.  And finally, I’ve taken a very long sabbatical from YMCA pickup basketball this year after a string of separated shoulders, knee surgeries, black eyes, and facial laceration scars.  All this insanity, leads one to wonder, after 30 years of competition, what is the point of it all?

Winners get to do what they want.  -Ricky Bobby, Talledega Nights

We’re a society obsessed with winning: from high school sports, to the World Series of Poker, to the Super Bowl, we value “winning.”  There’s very little sympathy for a team that plays well and loses.  The Buffalo Bills are not referred to as winners of four straight AFC Championships, they’re known as losers of four straight Super Bowls.  We define the verb “win” as such, (thanks reference.com):

1.  to finish first in a race, contest, or the like.
2.  to succeed by striving or effort: He applied for a scholarship and won.
3.  to gain the victory; overcome an adversary: The home team won.

verb (used with object)

4.  to succeed in reaching (a place, condition, etc.), especially by great effort: They won the shore through a violent storm.
5.  to get by effort, as through labor, competition, or conquest: He won his post after years of striving.
6.  to gain (a prize, fame, etc.).
7.  to be successful in (a game, battle, etc.).
8.  to make (one’s way), as by effort or ability.
“To Win” is not only the act of winning a contest or sport, but is the word for success in life: a result of the virtue of labor, effort, ability, serendipity, and in evangelical America, the favor of God.  What programmed us to be so obsessed with winning?  Certainly the drive to pass on one’s genetics to viable offspring and the competition for mates is a factor.  Ancient man must have had to compete through strength, muscle, and cunning to win a mate and dominate in society.  This fascinating paper by Allan Mazur elucidates some of that.

Male testosterone(T) varies in predicable ways both before and after competitive matches. First, athletes’ testosterone rises shortly before their matches, as if in anticipation of the competition (Campbell et al. 1988; Booth et al. 1989). This pre-competition boost may make the individual more willing to take risks (Daltzman and Zuckerman 1980) and improve coordination, cognitive performance, and concentration (Herrmann et al. 1976; Klaiber et al. 1971; Kemper 1990).

Second, for one or two hours after the match, T levels of winners are high relative to those of losers (Mazur and Lamb 1980; Elias 1981; Campbell et al. 1988; Booth et al. 1989;…). This rise in T following a win is associated with the subject’s elated mood. If the mood elevation is lessened because the subject has won by luck rather than through his own efforts, or because he does not regard the win as important, then the rise in T is lessened or does not occur at all (Mazur and Lamb 1980; McCaul et al. 1992)…

Additional studies show the same pattern of male T responses during nonphysical contests or ritual status manipulations. First, T rises shortly before chess matches (Mazur et al. 1992) or laboratory contests of reaction time (Gladue et al. 1989: Figure 1), and in subjects confronted with a symbolic challenge from an insult (Nisbett and Cohen 1996). Second, T levels of winners are high relative to those of losers following chess matches (Mazur et al. 1992) and contests of reaction time, especially if subjects’ moods are appropriately positive or negative (Gladue et al. 1989; McCaul et al. 1992). Similar effects occur among sports fans who are not themselves participants in the physical competition. Following the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament in which Brazil beat Italy, T increased significantly in Brazilian fans who had watched the match on television, and decreased in Italian fans (Fielden et al. 1994)…

Thus, the T pattern appears in nonphysical as well as physical competition, and in response to symbolic challenges and status changes among men.
So it isn’t all just in our heads.  The response and reverence placed on winning and losing is physiological, at least in men.  Furthermore, it’s habitual.

The function of the elevated T following a win and the drop in T following a loss is not known. One possibility is that winners are soon likely to face other challengers; the high T may prepare them for this eventuality. The drop in T among losers may encourage withdrawal from other challenges, thus preventing further injury.

Winning leads to higher testosterone, which can help lead to more winning, and losing leads to a loss of testosterone, and perhaps desire to “shut it down.”  The emphasis on winning is cultural as well, with its roots in warfare.  Traditionally, cultures that win wars propagate.  Cultures that lose them do not.  In researching this post, I read through a vast array of pithy quotes on winning and losing.  I suggest you click the link because the people here have a lot more concise and interesting things to say on the subject than I do, and their views are varied and novel.  I find there to be two schools of thought on the matter.  First, there are the Charlie Sheens and Vince Lombardis of the world, obsessed with winning.

Boom, crush. Night, losers. Winning, duh. -Charlie Sheen

Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.  -Vince Lombardi

I’m a mad dog whose only concern is winning. -Charles Barkley

There is winning and there is misery. -Bill Parcells

I’ll admit, this was my mindset most of my life.  I could not step outside of the moment of competition.  The moment was all that there was.  It is with this mindset that I that I watched the Cavaliers, for the past twelve years. Every analysis of every game, every moment of viewing till the last two years was an exercise in testosterone manipulation: winning good: losing bad.  This ethos pervades American thought.  One thing that I’ll always be strangely grateful to LeBron James is that in the wake of LeBrocalypse, I began to realize that yes, there was more to life than winning.  I mean I knew that consciously, or rather, I was aware of the idea, but I didn’t really believe it.  The obsession with winning and losing and being perceived as a winner or a loser is definitely some paleo thinking.  It’s hard wired into our brains, but as enlightened beings, I think that we must somehow find a way to transcend that.

We’ve been able to do that to a certain extent with this Cavs team.  One thing that will cure the need to win day to day would be watching a young basketball team that is still learning how to play hard consistently.  The riddle of what must take the place of winning in day to day existence is something that I’ve coped with, personally, and we as teams have coped with since it became obvious that the Cavs weren’t going to be winning very often.  The question is, how do we get there, and how do we live our lives as fans, athletes, coaches, and individuals once we do realize that there must be more than winning? The way we judge ourselves on a day to day basis must be something more sane and less haphazard than on whether a ball goes in or out of a basket more often than it does for someone else.  In perusing brainyquote.com, a few pearls stand out.

By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond the winning. -Lao Tzu

On the field I’m trying to play for the glory of God but then also I’m trying to give everything I have and win and compete. And so I think more than just winning or losing, I think He cares about where our hearts are when we’re playing. -Tim Tebow

First, accept sadness. Realize that without losing, winning isn’t so great. -Alyssa Milano

Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming. -John Wooden

I used to get stressed out all the time when I thought winning was important. I wanted to try to win and help my kids win. Once I figured out it wasn’t about winning or losing, it was about teaching these kids about being men, that’s when I started to relax. -Snoop Dogg

Learning how to let go is certainly difficult, Lao Tzu.  That’s some Ben Kenobi shizzle right there.  But who knew that Snoop Dogg, and Alyssa Milano, and the Mile High Messiah would have all the answers about the zen of competition?  For myself, perhaps I need to copy Byron Scott’s detached stoicism that I’ve derided for so long.  Or, maybe taking joy in the moment is the key: relishing the moment and the experience more than the outcome.  In being a Cavs fan, I’ve learned to relish improvements and moments of beauty on the court more than I ever thought I could when a group of guys I love are losing a basketball game.  I think I’ve even learned not to get too high after a win, and to examine (but not over-examine) the things that could have gone better, and the moments of serendipitous luck.  In the next part of this series, we’ll be looking at how to transcend winning, and what it means for teams, coaches, players, and fans.   In the quest for truth and transcendence over the bliss of testosterone rush, I certainly would appreciate any ideas you’d care to share.