09/16/2010 02:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Prime Sport Alert!: The Winning Attitude

In my last post, I introduced you to Prime Sport which I defined as performing at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions. Before you can begin developing the essential mental skills that help you experience Prime Sport, you need to establish the right attitude toward your sports participation. This attitude focuses on two areas. First, your attitude toward competition: what you think of it and how you feel about it. Second, your attitude toward winning and losing: how you define winning and losing and whether you know the essential roles that both play in becoming the best athlete you can be. When you clarify your attitude in these two areas, you will be better prepared to win the mental game and to achieve Prime Sport.

Attitude toward competition

Sports may be important to you. You may put a great deal of effort into your training and competitive efforts. Because of this, you put your ego on the line every time you compete. When you don't play well, you're disappointed. This may not feel good, but it's natural because it means you care about your sport.

There is, however, a point at which you can lose perspective and your feelings toward your sport can hurt how you play. The key red flag is what I call the "too zone." You want to care about your participation in your sport, but you don't wan to care too much. You want how you play to be important to you, but not too important, You want to try hard to achieve your goals, but you don't want to try too hard.

In the "too zone," your self-esteem is overly connected to your results, when how you feel about yourself as a person is too influenced by how you play. If you find yourself in the "too zone," you have lost perspective on the role that sports play in your life. You should reevaluate what your sports participation means to you and how it impacts your life and your well being. You will probably find that it plays too big a role in how you feel about yourself. When this happens, you not only play poorly (because you feel far too much pressure with your self-esteem on the line), but you may find that your sport is no longer fun for you.

The Prime Sport attitude toward competition means keeping your sport in perspective. To play your best and to have fun, you need to keep your sports participation in a healthy place in your life. It may be important to you, but it should not be life or death. Sports should be a part of your life, not life itself. Remember why you play: it's fun, you like the exercise, you like the camaraderie, it feels great to master a sport, and, yes, you like to compete and win. If you have fun, work hard, enjoy the process of your sport, and do not care too much about winning or losing, you will enjoy competing more, you will play better, and you will be more likely to achieve your goals as well.

Attitude toward the ups and downs of sport

To achieve Prime Sport, you must also recognize and accept the ups and downs of sport. In the history of sport, very few athletes have had perfect or near-perfect seasons: Wayne Gretzky, Steffi Graf, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods. Even the best athletes have ups and downs. Since they do, then you should expect to have them as well. It's not whether you have ups and downs in your sport, but how big the ups and downs are and how you respond to them. In fact, this blog series is devoted to assisting you in minimizing the ups and downs of sport.

In a down period, it's easy to get frustrated, angry, and depressed. You can feel really disappointed in how you're playing and can feel helpless to change it. You may want to just give up. But none of these feelings will help you accomplish your important goals: getting out of the down period and returning to a high level of play. This is a skill that makes the great athletes great. The best athletes know how to get back to on their game quickly.

How do they do this? First, they keep the down period in perspective, knowing that it's a natural and expected part of sports. This attitude takes the pressure off to rush back to a higher level of play (which actually keeps you in the hole longer) and keeps you from getting too upset. It also enables you to stay positive and motivated. Most important, never give up; keep working hard, no matter how bad it gets. Great athletes look for the cause of their slump and then find a solution. If you maintain this attitude toward the ups and downs of sport, your down periods won't last as long and you'll more quickly swing back to an up period.

Attitude toward love and fun

It's easy to lose sight of why you compete. There is the competition, awards, rankings, and attention. Yet, when you get focused on the external benefits of sport, you may lose sight of the more important internal reasons why you train and compete. You may not have as much fun and you won't play as well either. When this happens, you need to remind yourself of what sport is all about. Sports participation should be about two things. First, about love: love of the sport, love of others, and love of yourself. If you feel the love for your sport, you have a chance to achieve Prime Sport.

Second, sports should be about fun. Working hard, getting better, the intensity of competition, and enjoying the process -- win or lose -- should all be fun. If you always remember that sports are about love and fun, then you will enjoy participating and you will likely play your best.

Attitude toward winning and losing

Your attitude toward winning and losing will determine your ability to play your best consistently and will either promote or interfere with achieving your goals.

Too often, athletes define themselves in terms of whether they win or lose. The athlete who wins the game is successful and everyone else loses and is a failure. But how many times have you played well, yet lost. The fact is you can't always control whether you win or lose. What you can control is your attitude, the effort you put in, and how well you play. It's fruitless to strive for something that's out of your control, so winning and losing should be defined in terms of things over which you have control. With this in mind, I define winning as giving your best effort, playing to the best of your ability, and having fun. I define failure as not trying your hardest, playing poorly, and not having a good time. The irony is that if you have this attitude and don't worry too much about winning and losing, you'll feel less pressure, you'll play better, and as a result, you'll be more likely to achieve your goals and enjoy the experience.

Both winning and losing are essential to achieving Prime Sport. Success builds confidence and reinforces your belief that you can perform well and meet the challenges of competition. There are, however, problems with too much success. Winning can breed complacency because, if you succeed all of the time, there's little motivation to improve. Sooner or later though, as you move up the competitive ladder, you'll come up against someone who is just as good or better than you, and since you haven't been motivated to improve, you won't win. Winning also doesn't identify areas in need of improvement. If you always win, your weaknesses won't become apparent and you won't see the need to put in the effort to improve. Winning also doesn't teach you how to constructively handle the inevitable obstacles and setbacks of sport. You may become so accustomed to winning that when you finally do lose, it will be a shock to you.

There are also benefits to losing that will ultimately enable you to win more. Losing provides you with information about your progress. It shows you what you're doing well and, more importantly, on what you need to improve. Losing shows you what doesn't work, which helps you identify what works best. Losing also teaches you how to respond positively to adversity, persevere in the face of setbacks, and be patient in your athletic development. Rather than becoming discouraged by losing, you should focus on how it will help you become a better athlete.

If you can develop these attitudes about your sports life, you'll gain the perspective toward your sport that will allow you to achieve Prime Sport, play your best, and have tons of fun.

Learn more about Prime Sport. If you have questions or comments about this issue of Prime Sport Alert!, feel free to email me at here.