Get an Olympic Attitude: How to Be a Winner, Even When You Lose

Most of us like to celebrate victory in sports, but we cannot all be winners. Someone has to lose. This may mean missing first place by a hair or placing last. No one knows that better than the athletes who compete in the Olympics.

They have to be physically ready to compete, but they also have to be mentally ready to accept the outcome. They have to prepare to face losses, and, in the end, still emerge victorious. You may be able to do the same by learning how they do this.

A Winning Attitude

Although athletes may be born with talent, attitude is something they get through training. "Attitude isn't something you're born with," says Peter Haberl, a sports psychologist with the US Olympic Committee. "Attitude is a decision."

Haberl says there are two parts to a winning attitude: a desire to win and a desire to perform your best. Olympians have a desire to win a medal, but when the competition starts, the truly good ones switch their focus.

Rather than worrying about winning, they worry about doing their best. They cannot control the outcome of the race or how well others race, but they can work to reach the goals that are within their control. "After the race, they'll assess their performance not just on the outcome but on how well they competed," Haberl says.

Measuring Success Your Own Way

Haberl points to gold medalist speed skater Bonnie Blair. She raced the clock and not her competition. If she beat the clock, she thought she had a better chance to beat the competition. "When you become your own yardstick," Haberl says, "you experience success, no matter if you win or lose."

That is the attitude triathlete Joanna Zeiger took to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. The only pressure she put on herself was to do her best and have fun while doing it.

"If the race isn't fun and if I don't feel good about it, then the outcome doesn't matter because I haven't enjoyed the experience," says Zeiger. "When I race, I want to enjoy the experience, and when that happens, I'll have a better shot at doing my best."

What Stops You From Being a Winner

It is not easy to adopt a winning attitude. One of the biggest roadblocks is focusing on the outcome rather than the activity. "You need to focus on getting better, not being the best," says Ken Baum, a sports performance consultant.

Another obstacle is when you compare yourself to others. You may get upset because you are not as good as someone else, but that person has different genetics, background, experience, and training. Haberl says you need to adopt internal ways to measure how well you are doing, rather than just comparing yourself to others.

How to Perfect Your Attitude

You do not have to be an Olympian to have a winning attitude, but you do have to be willing to work hard to get it. Here is how:

  • Set Goals : Focus on goals that you can reach. You can mark improvements from month to month. Reach for a little more each time. When you compete, focus on your performance rather than your finish.
  • Plan for Your Race or Event : Find triggers or cues that help you stay focused on your performance during your competition. Then rehearse that plan in practice. Do what Olympic athletes do and visualize yourself going through the competition, focused on your triggers.
  • Do Not Mix Your Self-worth With Your Performance : This is a danger many Olympians face. Haberl often works with them to separate self-worth from their performance. "Putting the two together puts a weight on their shoulders and makes it hard to compete," he says.
  • Relive Your Best Performance : Write down what you felt and thought. That is your blueprint for how you should capture that performance again, Haberl says. Think back to it often so that you relive the experience rather than the outcome.
  • Dump Your Ego : If you do not, you will not allow yourself to do things that make you look bad. This will keep you from getting better. Tennis players who have a weak backhand might try to avoid hitting a backhand shot and run around the ball to hit a forehand because they do not want to look bad or lose. Do this and that backhand will never get better.
  • Accept Letdowns as Normal : Nobody is perfect, and no game is ever played perfectly. Know that you will have errors but let them slide, Baum says. Focus on the next event.
  • Laugh Often : When the going gets tough, the tough laugh. Take the negative out of the situation and find something to laugh about.


American Council on Exercise
The President's Council on Physical Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition


Fitness Industry Council of Canada


Baum K. The Mental Edge. Perigee; 1999.
Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 6/24/2021

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