Why Winners Win at -

Article excerpt

Byline: Nick Summers

The new science of triumph in sports, business, and life.

Andre Agassi was losing. A lot. After a meteoric start to his professional tennis career, with the best return and fastest reflexes in the game, Agassi had become a chronic underachiever by the early 1990s, dropping early matches and choking in finals alike. And in Key Biscayne, Fla., in March 1994, he was set to lose again--badly--this time to a Pete Sampras who had been nearly incapacitated by food poisoning just moments before the match was to begin.

Frustrated and rudderless, Agassi agreed to have dinner with a prospective new coach, a man whose tennis he didn't much admire. Brad Gilbert was the anti-Agassi, a moderately talented junker who in his own career had eked out matches he had no right to win. His book about tactics, just published, was titled Winning Ugly. At dinner in Key Biscayne, Agassi wanted an honest assessment of his game. Why did he keep losing to less skilled players?

Gilbert excoriated him for trying to play with perfection. Instead of risking a killer shot on every point, why not keep the ball in play and give the other guy a chance to lose? "It's all about your head, man," Gilbert said, as Agassi recalls in his memoir, Open. "With your talent, if you're fifty percent game-wise, but ninety-five percent head-wise, you're going to win. But if you're ninety-five percent game-wise and fifty percent head-wise, you're going to lose, lose, lose."

Agassi hired him on the spot. An immediate losing streak ensued, as Gilbert razed and rebuilt his game. But gradually Agassi began to pull out wins in matches that the old Agassi would have lost, and five months later he bulldozed his way to his first U.S. Open championship. "I fall to my knees," Agassi writes of the moment in Open. "My eyes fill with tears. I look to my box ... You know everything you need to know about people when you see their faces at the moments of your greatest triumph. I've believed in Brad's talent from the beginning, but now, seeing his pure and unrestrained happiness for me, I believe unrestrainedly in him." At last his head was clear. Symbolically, and seismically, Agassi shaved his iconic glam locks--and punked Sampras in four sets to win his second straight Grand Slam, the 1995 Australian Open, en route to his first career No. 1 ranking. There would be more losses, many more, in his long career. But Andre Agassi had learned how to win.

What is it that separates winners from losers? The pat answer is that, in sports at least, winners simply have certain things that mortals don't--as one might conclude from watching the suddenly indefatigable Novak Djokovic, the Wimbledon and Australian Open champion, who has lost exactly once in his first 49 matches this year. But fitness doesn't tell the full story. "There are more players that have the talent to be the best in the world than there are winners," says Timothy Gallwey, the author of several books about the mental side of tennis, golf, and other pursuits. "One way of looking at it is that winners get in their own way less. They interfere with the raw expression of talent less. And to do that, first they win the war against fear, against doubt, against insecurity--which are no minor victories."

Defined that way, winning becomes translatable into areas beyond the physical: chess, spelling bees, the corporate world, even combat. You can't go forever down that road, of course. The breadth of our colloquial definition for winning--the fact that we use the same word for being handed an Oscar as for successfully prosecuting a war--means that there is no single gene for victory across all fields, no cerebral on-off switch that turns also-rans into champions. But neuroscientists, psychologists, and other researchers are beginning to better understand the highly interdisciplinary concept of winning, finding surprising links between brain chemistry, social theory, and even economics, which together give new insight into why some people come out on top again and again. …