USA Wrestling What's More Importan...

What's More Important Than Winning?

By Matt Krumrie | Jan. 16, 2020, 10:33 a.m. (ET)

We live in a society that places a premium on winning, says Heath Eslinger, a former Division I college wrestling coach and founder of A Better Way, an organization that helps parents, coaches, athletes, teams, and organizations get the most out of their journey by focusing on developing intrinsic qualities that will last a lifetime.

But winning is relative, Eslinger says. There is always another level and another medal that could be won.  

“It would be healthier if we viewed competition like a test,” Eslinger says. “In ancient days, the word test meant to ‘prove in a good sense.’”

Each competition, while it has a winner and loser, could provide more teaching and learning opportunities by instead focusing on:

  1. What we have learned?
  2. What we need to work on?

“Both of these are critical for progress,” Eslinger says. “It wasn’t an outcome in a singular sense, it was simply input to make adjustments on the journey toward what really matters.”

Instead of solely focusing on winning, focus on what Eslinger calls “long haul attributes.” Long haul attributes are those lessons we learn that cross all boundaries and stand the test of time.  

“When we use competition to discover and cultivate those types of long-haul characteristics, we typically see an increase in winning,” Eslinger says. “If we focus on winning alone, we often miss both. Prioritize and praise what really matters, and you might discover the real secret to success.”

We all say how youth sports are great because kids learn about teamwork and winning and losing with grace and so many other valuable life lessons, but it’s important to remember that these don’t just automatically occur when kids show up at fields and courts, says Greg Bach, Vice President of Communications for the National Alliance for Youth Sports, an organization that helps coaches, parents, and administrators provide the best youth sports experiences for children.

Bach has also authored eight books on coaching youth sports. When he was writing “Secrets of Successful Coaching” he spoke with more than 50 coaches in a variety of sports, and a common theme that emerged from those discussions is how important it is for coaches to develop each individual, not just helping them become the best athlete they can be, but more important than anything, the best person they can be.

We want young athletes striving to win and to compete with every ounce of energy they’ve got, but what’s most important in their experiences isn’t how many wins they stockpile on their 12-and-under basketball team, or how many opponents they pin in their junior high wrestling career, Bach says.

“It’s what they are learning about dealing with mistakes and setbacks, overcoming obstacles, staying positive and treating others with respect, because those are the skills that are going to make them successful in their jobs and relationships,” he says. “A big issue across today’s youth sports landscape is that so many young athletes don’t know how to navigate mistakes, and many coaches struggle when it comes to helping teach their athletes just how valuable they are in the big picture of athletics.”

U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly told Bach: “We need to get our kids to celebrate mistakes and maybe stop once in a while and point out how awesome it was that we were trying something and didn’t get it right, because if we’re never making mistakes, we’re not learning fast enough.”   

Tom Trautman, head coach of the Bishop Lynch High School (Dallas, Texas) wrestling program agrees.

“One of the greatest things about the sport of wrestling is the certainty of losing,” Trautman says. “You may win, but eventually you will lose. The sport is humbling and teaches you to find other types of wins to gauge your progress.”

Instead of focusing solely on the result of winning, Trautman uses these strategies with his team and wrestlers to find small and large victories in what they are striving for:

Control what you can control: “We try as coaches to teach our wrestlers to focus on technique, attitude and effort,” says Trautman. “These three things a wrestler has some control over. A wrestler cannot control what their opponent will do, but if their mind is properly focused, if they try to incorporate what we have practiced, and if they give maximum effort, then the result will be acceptable no matter who gets their hand raised.”

Effort in the face of overwhelming odds is a win: The hardest thing a new wrestler does is walk out onto that mat to face his opponent, Trautman says.

“My job as a coach has been to encourage a new wrestler not to look for a victory in the match but to focus on being aggressive, physical, and trying to score when given the opportunity,” Trautman says. “I’ve told them, ‘Hey I know this kid you’re wrestling, and at some point, you’ll probably be on bottom. Let’s keep moving and explode up and show him that we aren’t afraid of the challenge.’”

Adds Trautman: “I know I’ve had some matches where seeing my novice wrestler score an escape against a more experienced opponent feels like some sort of victory."

Measure progress beyond on mat results: Trautman coached a wrestler who was undersized for his weight class and lost every match that first year. He also had one opponent who he seemed to wrestle almost every other week. Trautman challenged his wrestler to strive for improvement, to “just do better” each time and he would slowly see improvement. In the first match he was pinned in the first period. In the second match, a few weeks later, he made it into the second period. The next time he faced the same opponent, he lost by eight points.

“When he walked off the mat, our team was screaming for him as if he had won,” Trautman says. “He came to me and said ‘coach, I know I’m going to beat him next time.’ Seeing his self-confidence and self-respect grow over time was fantastic; but the real victory was for him to realize that our sport of wrestling rewards hard work and determined effort.”

Winning in life: Trautman has seen even greater wins off the mat. Over the years his wrestlers have experienced adversity that goes beyond winning or losing a wrestling match. They’ve had family issues, losses of loved ones, discipline problems in school, mental health challenges, and more.

“Seeing them able to find positives in life through the chemistry of our team and their association with wrestling makes me personally feel successful,” Trautman says. “I have watched mischievous, immature freshmen grow into great representatives of our school. When the juniors and seniors mentor the freshmen about character, respect, and discipline without my prompting, I know that our team will be successful in the long term.”

In sports, we often make quick comments after a contest ends that serve as an emotional boost, but that doesn’t provide much in terms of future instruction, says Dr. Christopher Stankovich, Ph.D., Founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems, an athletic counseling and human performance enhancement center. For example, when we say “great job” to a winning wrestler, or “get him next time” to a losing wrestler, our comments are designed to help the wrestler feel good. But these comments do little as far as helping the wrestler improve for his or her next match. Herein is where great wrestlers separate themselves from good wrestlers, and good wrestlers from average wrestlers. 

For wrestlers looking to constantly improve, the feedback and processing that needs to occur after a match go far beyond post-match hugs and high-fives, and instead should include the following tips and ideas, Stankovich suggests.

Measure specific goals after each match: Sure, it’s easy to tell whether you won or lost. The problem, however, is that wins and losses don’t always tell the entire story. Some wrestlers wrestle poorly in matches they won, while others perform well in matches they lose.

“A better approach is to review all matches and objectively analyze specific goals, like how many successful shots you took, offensive positions you actively got into during the match, and other key things you did, regardless of the final score of the match,” Stankovich says.

Stay within yourself: The saying “it’s a race, not a sprint” applies here. Wrestlers are encouraged to set long-term goals for the season, that allows for tough days and “hiccups” along the way, so long as the end goal remains in sight.

Remain open to quality feedback and instruction: Regardless the outcome of a match, make it a point to always learn from mentors and coaches who can help you continue to improve. 

“The great ones in any sport, including wrestling, keep their ego in check and always look for ways to get better,” Stankovich says.

Drilling deeper, this means not allowing any one loss to wreck your season, or any one big win to allow you to coast a little. Stay within yourself and “keep your eye on your goals” regarding how you can make tomorrow even better than today, and soon you will see yourself separating from the competition. Before implementing any of these steps, Stankovich recommends a 24-hour cooling off period for wrestlers, coaches, and parents, to help remove post-match emotions from the discussion.

Taking these steps is more important than focusing on winning, and in the long run, can lead to winning more on and off the mat.