When I was younger I played in a premiership-winning football team. At three-quarter time in the grand final, we were 30 points down and we scored 42 points to 1 in the last quarter to win by 11.
Late that night as the celebrations were slowing down, I was sitting by myself, reflecting on the day and the game. Our coach Bob came and sat beside me, congratulated me again and asked me how I was feeling. I told him that while I was elated to win a premiership, I felt that I hadn’t played as well as I could have today and that I was identifying the things that I could have done better in the game today. He said “You probably won’t understand this for a long time, but that’s why you won a premiership today.”
It was later that I realised that Bob had never coached us with a focus to win. He had always coached us with a focus on doing our best. Which is how we won that premiership. If we were focused on winning, the task at three quarter time would have seemed too enormous and as a team we would probably have given up. Because we were so well practised on just doing our best, our winning last quarter of football was almost mechanical, when even our opponents expected that we would give up.
What Bob didn’t tell me (although he obviously knew) was that by consistently focusing on doing your best, you will get better and then win more than if you simply focus on winning.
In sport and in business, I have realised the importance of a best-performance focus over a winning focus. Here are some of the differences I have learned:
‘Winning’ Puts Too Much Focus on Your Opposition
I have seen, and played in, teams who assessed their opposition as easy and then set their own playing level too low, and ended up getting beaten in an upset. The focus was on winning against a supposedly weak opponent instead of a focus on playing the best possible football.
When the focus is just on winning, it is natural to assess your opponent and do what you think you need to do to beat them. Even in cross-country running at school we were coached to never look back to see where your opponent is, because it will slow you down and give him a better opportunity to pass.
In business, I have seen manufacturers who set non-number-specific goals at the start of the year to ‘beat’ a particular competitor in sales results for the year. As the year progresses, with a bizarre focus on ‘winning’ they engage in behaviour that damages their business and their brand: pre-registering cars, dumping cars onto dealers and the market, false reporting of numbers, non-strategically discounting their cars, reacting in a panic to any unexpected progress by the ‘competitor’. All this to ‘win’ a competition they invented in their heads (often the nominated ‘competitor’ is oblivious to the ‘competition’).
A Primary Focus on Winning Can Cause Cheating
In recent years, many sportspeople have had their reputations ruined because it was discovered that they had cheated. It has become evident that those athletes weren’t focused on doing their personal best – they were focused on ‘winning’.
In business, cheating to ‘win’ can ruin your business reputation and brand image. In extreme cases, you can be breaking the law.
Doing Your Best Puts the Focus on What You Can Control
Focusing on doing your genuine best means you are investing energy in what you can control: your performance. You don’t waste energy on things you can’t control.
Doing Your Best is Better Management of Your Expectations
If your team is last on the ladder and you are playing the top team and you rev yourself up by focusing on winning, you can be extremely disappointed when you are getting thrashed in the first ten minutes because your expectations are so far from reality. It is easier to give up at that point because your goal (winning) is highly unlikely. However if your goal is to play your best, that is possible at every moment in the game, irrespective of the scoreline.
In the years preceding our premiership, our team had struggled to get a full side on the field every week. Often we would play with only the required minimum of 15 players (out of 18), frequently bolstered with a few reserves from the opposing team. As we were hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered, it was a landslide victory for the opposing team. But we could resist. We could contain them in patches. We could be more precise with our passing. We could learn to contain the ball in our tackling and smothering. We all became better footballers because in those circumstances we had to be. As the ruckman, from boundary throw-ins I kept thumping the ball out of bounds to our advantage, 20 metres at a time (this was still legal in the 90s). It gave my team mates a rest, we moved closer to our goals and frustrated our opposition, creating more pressure on them, which meant more mistakes from them. We learned to reduce a 20-goal thrashing to a ten-goal thrashing.
If we had focus and expectation of winning we would get very frustrated very early in the season but by focusing on playing our best football, we created opportunities where there were none and surprised a few opponents by beating them, and built the skills and more importantly the mindset we needed to win that premiership.
In business, focusing on doing your best builds sustainable results and enhances your reputation, especially with your customers.
Summary: Do Your Best v. Win
Both in sport and business I have found that a focus on doing your best (and consistently pushing the limit of what your best is) creates long term, sustainable success and gives you a better chance of ‘winning’ more often.