Defining success in sports is a difficult task. When I ask most athletes and coaches how they define success, it is usually in terms of results, whether wins, rankings, or times. Though, admittedly, results are the ultimate determinant of success, I have found that a preoccupation with them can both interfere with achieving those results and can produce feelings of disappointment and frustration (or worse).
One problem is that focusing on results can actually prevent you from getting the results you want for two reasons. First, if you're focusing on results before a competition, you're not focusing on what you need to do to get those results. Second, focusing on results, specifically, the possibility of bad results, is what causes you to get nervous before competitions which will only hurt your performances.
Another problem with sports is that your efforts don't always lead directly to the results you want because you can't control everything in a competition. In other words, "S&%# Happens" in sports that can derail your best efforts.
To help demonstrate this point, let's compare success and failure in sports to success and failure in school. Let's say you have an exam coming up. If you study hard and are well prepared, assuming the test is fair, the chances of your doing well are very high, say, over 95 percent. Why? Because there are few external variables that can prevent you from doing well.
Sports, however, are very different. You can be completely ready to have a great competition, but things don't work out in your favor. For example, you experience bad weather, such as fog or high wind, or make a costly mistake that you can't recover from. The odds of doing well in a competition are, if you are really prepared, I would say, around 80 percent.
Given the uncertainty of sports, basing how you feel about your performance (and about yourself!) solely on your results is a recipe for experiencing the very thing you want to avoid -- failure -- and some pretty bad feelings.
I prefer to define success in terms that are controllable.
Goal #1: Before the Game: Total Preparation
On game day, all you can control is yourself, which means your preparations. When I work with athletes, I tell them that when the game starts, I want them to be able to say, "I'm totally prepared to achieve my goals today." Ultimately, that's all you can do.
I have two thoughts about preparation. First, being totally prepared is the only chance you have to get the results you want. If you aren't completely prepared, you have zero chance because many of your opponents, who are just as good as you or better, will be really prepared. If you are totally prepared, you don't, as I indicated above, have a 100 percent chance of success, but your chances are pretty darned good.
Second, if you aren't totally prepared to perform your best, I have no sympathy for you because, as I just noted, you can control your preparations. If you're not completely ready to play your best, you have nobody to blame but yourself. On the other hand, a tough break during a competition, for example, a bad call from a ref, is worthy of some sympathy (though not too much because that's the unpredictable nature of sports).
Total preparation involves looking at everything within your control that can impact your performances and taking steps to maximize all of those areas. On the day of the competition, these areas include your sleep, nutrition, equipment, and pre-game warm-up. Just before the game, they include a comprehensive pre-game routine that is comprised of final equipment preparations (if your sport involves gear) and getting physically (e.g., warm-up, breathing, and reaching your ideal intensity) and mentally (e.g., imagery, focus, mindset) ready. So, when the game begins, you feel totally prepared and confident you can play your best.
Goal #2: During the Game: Bring It!
I would argue that "solid" play isn't usually enough to get the results you want. If your outcome goals are at all high, your only chance of real success and achieving those goals is to "bring it!," meaning pushing your limits and competing with abandon.
This goal seems pretty obvious given that we all know that holding back usually doesn't work (more on this in Goal #3 below). So, what prevents you from bringing it every time you compete? Well, an inherent danger of bringing it is that the risks you take in the process may not pay off; bringing it may lead to a costly mistake. In other words, bringing it may result in failure. And, for most athletes, failure is the worst possible thing to experience and to be avoided at all cost. Yet, by not bringing it, you guarantee failure (or, at least, mediocrity).
Goal #3: After the Game: No Regrets
Have you ever been at the start of a competition and just wanted a solid performance? Maybe you've had a string of poor performances and just want to get through one without any major mistakes? So, you perform cautiously. When the competition is over, you're relieved at finally having not had any major fails.
But what is the usual result of this sort of attitude? Usually a pretty mediocre performance and a loss. What's your immediate emotional reaction? Regret. What's regret? Wishing that you had done something differently, in other words, you wish you had gone for it (even risking mistakes) rather than performing so tentatively. You look back at the competition and wished you had charged more rather than held back.
Regret is a huge value for me both in my personal life (I want to look back on my life and have as few regrets as possible) and my professional work with athletes. I want you to look back on a competition, season, or career, whether success of failure, and be able to say, "I left it all out there. I may not have achieved my greatest goals. But I did everything humanly possible to be the best I could be." You will certainly be disappointed in not fully achieving your goals, but you will get over that feeling and will likely feel great pride and inspiration in knowing that you did everything you could to accomplish your goals. Regret, by contract, can gnaw at you forever.
The Bottom Line
You want to give yourself every opportunity to achieve your outcome goals. Yet, when you fail to achieve these three goals, you have about a zero chance that you'll get the results you want. By contrast, I can't guarantee success today or tomorrow, no matter what you do. But if you commit to and consistently strive toward these goals, I'm willing to bet that good things will happen in your sporting life and in your life in general.