An unhealthy perspective in sports says “win at all costs; the score is the only concern.” If you do not win, does this make you a loser? Absolutely not, but socialization into 21st Century America teaches many athletes to feel this way. Our culture consistently promotes the false premise that winning is all that matters. The idea that your self-worth depends on your achievement is a distorted belief. Your value as a person does not fluctuate at all based on your daily sport performances. It is immeasurably immense, a birthright that can never be diminished.
Perspective is the “ability to see things in a true relationship” to one another. It can also mean, “a specific point of view in understanding things or events.” Is your way of looking at events honest? Is it the most useful way to look at the truth? Athletes find all sorts of ways to keep themselves from performing at their best and all of them are related in one way or another to a flawed perspective. To improve faster, lead effectively, and perform well through adversity and pressure, athletes need to look at life in a way that is both true and useful. True, because you will not be able to lie to yourself; useful, because there are two sides to every coin. While both sides of the coin are true, only one way of explaining life is the most useful for creating confidence and an ideal internal state.
The first step to a healthy perspective about sports is to recognize that it is just a game. Sports pose no life-or-death propositions. Parents will not stop loving because of what happens today. Athletes in “big” moments on television may have literally millions of eyes on them, and they are sometimes “tough” enough to perform as though they have not a care in the world. Attend a little league game and you are likely to see a few nine-year-olds carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. The source of these polar opposites is not the situation, but the way the athlete perceives the situation. A healthy perspective will empower you with the freedom to be totally engrossed in the moment.
An ideal perspective recognizes that how things go in competition today is important, but it is not nearly as important as knowing who I am. Performance outcomes provide feedback. They reveal the truth about what works and what does not work. However, no single outcome should ever be given too much importance. No loss should ever be seen as a catastrophe. No “failure” should be allowed to carry an emotional scar of inadequacy. Fear of failure, which everyone has to some degree, should not interfere with performance because when you have a healthy perspective on the game, you know that by putting forth great effort, you cannot fail. In fact, you are already successful if you design, practice, and execute your plans (routines) to the best of your ability.
Winning is far better than the alternative, but the “winning is everything” perspective is a problem because it does not encourage effort if the victory can be obtained easily. It also does not encourage effort if maximum effort is not perceived to be likely to lead to winning. Not giving your best effort is not only easier, it is also typically perceived to be safer. Most athletes need and keep this safety net for their psyche. They do not go all out because they do not know what would happen and they fear that their best is not good enough. Leaders do not know what will happen either, but because of their perspective on success, they do not fear the unknown. They do not need a safety net. They share John Wooden’s definition of success: “the peace of mind that comes from knowing you did your best.” They know that their best effort is always good enough. Golfer Greg Norman said it well when he reported after a tough loss, “I am a winner. I just didn’t win today.”
An attitude of gratitude is a key perspective for success in sports, as in life. Being thankful improves the heart's rhythmic functioning, which reduces stress, promotes clarity of thought, and aids the healing process. It is physiologically impossible to feel stressful and grateful at the same time. Grateful athletes are more relaxed, more coachable, more forgiving, more present to the task at hand, and generally more positive than their counterparts. They are less likely to complain. Author Jon Gordon says, “Remember that complaining is like vomiting. Afterwards you feel better but everyone around you feels sick.” Leaders live out the words of John Wooden, “Don’t whine. Don’t complain. Don’t make excuses.” Leaders are consistently grateful.
It is not difficult to maintain an attitude of gratitude, even through adversity on the diamond, because you and I won the lottery when we were born. That’s right, based on nothing but luck, we beat the odds at greater than 10,000,000:1 and we are rich as a result. And healthy and free, too. Think about it. If we could have been born at any time in any place in history, it is likely that we would have either not survived infancy, died in a war, been a slave, or perhaps struggled in poverty through a relatively long life into our thirties or forties. It’s more common, of course, to compare our lives to our neighbors’ lives. The grass typically appears greener on the other side, but comparison is a choice. Choosing to count our blessings every day is wise.
When you are off track from where you want to be during a contest (perhaps you are angry with yourself or someone else for making a mistake), the first step to getting back on track is awareness. Then, it is your responsibility to gather yourself to get back on track. A pre-planned gathering routine to make this happen is a great idea. One step of this plan that may be very powerful for you is a power phrase or image that fills you with gratitude or reminds you that softball is just a game that provides you with challenges. Perhaps you think, “This is a great opportunity to not only play softball, but also work on my toughness and consistency.” Perhaps you imagine a grandparent watching over you. It is your job to find the tools that work for you.
Every athlete experiences many challenges and setbacks along the journey to find out how good he can be. With a healthy perspective, you will remember to think like a scientist racing to perform your best and view each obstacle as a stepping-stone to success. You will compete, with yourself first and foremost, freely. Challenges and pitfalls provide motivation for you to get better, faster; they should not be viewed negatively. You are finding out which things work so you can repeat them and which things could be done better so you can change those. Outcomes are no longer bad or good, they are both bad and good. They give you a chance to learn, and also to demonstrate your ability to avoid the negative snowball effect. Clearly, if you and your teammates use mistakes rather than letting them use you, this will give your team an edge over your competition. Yes, mistakes are good. Because of your healthy perspective, you improve at asking and answering the ultimate questions of life: Where am I? Where do I want to go? And, how do I get there?