Allen Fox, psychologist, successful entrepreneur, former Davis Cup tennis player and Wimbledon quarter-finalist, provides a thought-provoking and useful analysis of the nature of competitiveness.
His book, "The Winner's Mind," goes far beyond the typical "sports metaphor" genre through a combination of theory and practical advice with a tapestry of stories from the realms of sports, entertainment, history, and the business world.
The first half of the book delves into the biological roots of the drive to win and achieve as well as the struggle between ambition and the fear of failure that weakens us and lures us into strategies that are ineffective.
As Fox explains, "Unconscious fear of failure saps the will to win by distorting perceptions and causing competitors to hesitate to compete, procrastinate, lie to themselves, blame others, fail to finish tasks, and panic on the verge of victory."
He has evidence that people who have "Type A" personalities (aggressive, anxious, antagonistic, dominant, goal-and achievement-oriented), those who are classified as "mesomorphs" (strong, muscular body types coupled with pugnacious temperaments) — the same people who 30,000 years ago would have been likely to successfully lead, hunt, acquire and defend their tribes and possessions, and pass on strong genes — have a natural advantage in sports and business.
The drive to best others and possess more territory still exists.... Only now, instead of fighting for food and shelter, we fight for the CEO parking space and the corner office.
But what if you're not a Type A mesomorph? What if you're a laid-back Type B who just doesn't enjoy fighting? Do you have to settle for the subway car and a tiny cubicle?
Of course not, says Fox. You simply need to watch the natural competitive winners and do what they do. The mental traits involved in achievement and success appear transferable from sport to sport and to business as well, Fox writes. And that's the point of the second half of "The Winner's Mind." It explains what makes champions —what they think, their strategies, and how they think about what they do — so that the rest of us can pick up enough of their tricks to get more of what we want too.
Here are a few abbreviated examples:
Become extremely sensitive to actions that succeed and fail. Winners pay extraordinary attention to what works and what doesn't. They concentrate intently on the task at hand, learn quickly form their success and failures, and adjust their behaviors accordingly.
For example, people who succeed in tennis figure out which shot provides the maximum payoff for the minimum risk, and are ultimately able to select the best shot, over and over, for every situation. Makes sense, right? Then why do so many players continue to take low-percentage, counterproductive risks by hitting too hard, too close to the net, or too close to the lines and lose? What blinds them?
Fox answers, "Constantly refining one's techniques takes mental effort along with the physical, and thinking is hard work. People resist that as it's easier to just run around and hit balls. Plus, in tennis there's a hidden factor: it's less stressful and scary to just bang away at the ball and leave the outcome to fortune than it is to, in a controlled and willful manner, struggle to be consistent and keep the ball in the court. If you have a good day, you win; if you have a bad one, you lose — no emotional drama. By contrast, playing consistently leads to long, stress-filled point — a battle of wills — and this requires emotional discipline and prolonged concentration. Unruly nerves and choking raise their ugly heads and must be overcome. None of this is pleasant, so the average person dodges the situation. They don't look and acknowledge what's happening, and lose to the people that do.