Winning and losing: What do they mean and how do they shape our lives and society?

Andrew J. Martin, The University of Sydney

Francesco Duina Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 2011 (248 pp). ISBN 9-78069114-706-2 (hardcover) RRP $70.95.

In the 2012 London Olympics, and particularly in swimming (one of our ‘national’ sports), Australian athletes and the Australian public and media were often disappointed with silver medals. Francesco Duina’s book Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession, helps us to understand why. Duina reports ‘nothing represents our restless and confused mentality better, perhaps, than our great love of “winning” and deep fear of “losing”’ (p. 5). Importantly, his analysis leads to the conclusion that ‘unfortunately, we are bound to be disappointed over and over again—regardless of whether we win or lose’ (p. 8). In the present discussion I consider this recent conceptualisation of competition, winning and losing. I extract the major messages from Duina’s book and suggest some extensions that focus on the psychological dimensions of winning and losing that have relevance to individuals and the various communities (for example, school, work, sport) to which they belong.

It is a truism that winning and losing have significant impacts in most aspects of life and in all domains of human achievement. Notwithstanding the well-established yields of winning—and, indeed, losing—there is a darker side to competition. This darker side is a place where winners can be deemed losers and involves processes that ultimately never satisfy the individual. Given this, Duina expounds a ‘new mind-set’; one that endorses a more personalised approach to performance and achievement.


According to Duina, a major yield of winning is that it differentiates us from our peers. Citing the education system as an example, competition is a way of hierarchically organising individuals. This differentiation becomes a major source of identity for the individual (for example, being top of the class) and a means of differentiating individuals for further hierarchical processing later (for example, to a top college and then a top firm). Importantly, Duina also recognises the esteem afforded to parents as a function of their child’s high achievement, indicating yet another purpose of competition and how it flourishes in the home, and then society.

Harnessing examples from sport and politics, Duina explains how winning can also uplift the lives of spectators: ‘a close competitive event affords us the chance to experience the sense of freedom and possibility that is otherwise so very much missing from our lives’ (p. 25). Again, drawing on the London Olympics, the audience was captivated and greatly uplifted by Usain Bolt’s achievements. Provocatively, Duina also argues that spectators enjoy seeing the pain and tension involved in competition: ‘We feel a sort of pleasure when we see others struggle … within certain limits, we are interested in seeing others in pain’ (p. 28). Thus, there is powerful endorsement of competition by others, reinforcing its central and salient position in society.

According to Duina, a major yield of winning is that it differentiates us from our peers.

Another purpose and yield of competition is that it denotes a sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It endorses the behaviours, perspectives, approaches and strategies of the individual if they lead to victory: ‘winning often serves as an objective and external validation that we are right’ (p. 35). Interestingly, even victory in apparently unconnected areas can serve as an endorsement that we are right. Duina documents reactions to American sporting victories over the Soviet Union during the Cold War as reflecting a view that these victories provided support for existing political and ideological positions: ‘A gymnastics victory for the West was thus taken as proof of the superiority of the principles of individualism, freedom of thought, and the private pursuit of wealth’ (pp. 38–39). At the micro level, the same holds: parents of children who achieve see those achievements as confirmation that they are doing the ‘right’ things as parents.

According to Duina, winning also secures an individual or group particular forms of space that are important to them and to their subsequent achievement. For example, in the commercial world, physical space and its location is a benefit of being successful. Even within these organisations, prime physical space, such as a corner office, is a prize afforded to those who compete more successfully than his/her peers. Outside the workplace, there are countless ways and places where physical space is a yield of winning. Airline lounges are mentioned by Duina as one example of physical space reserved to a minority of passengers. There is also mental space. For example, executive personnel will have a secretary or assistant whose main task it is to protect their time and tasks. This affords the executive prized mental space to focus on tasks and activities of greater importance and meaning to him/her.

Sometimes losing can be an important part of victory. A ‘turnaround victory’ is described by Duina as a series of losses leading up to a victory: ‘those who have established traditions as losers … but who manage at one point to turn their situation around and clinch a victory’ (p. 101). Sport and politics are littered with such cases. More than a few prime ministers have come from the political wilderness to seize electoral victory. Another type of loser (the ‘relentless mind’ loser) can also be deemed a winner. Here, ‘the spirit of perseverance makes the person, who is de facto losing, into a winner’ (p. 105). There is something we admire and laud in people who, in the face of consistent adversity, stay the course. Notably, though, this victory ‘depends on a fairly good dose of sympathy from those around the competitor’ (p. 106), such as supportive coaches, family and friends.

There are also circumstances where winning can be perceived as a loss. For example, Duina identifies as a ‘definitive loser’ someone who has consistently won, but in one ‘letdown’ loss eliminates the gains made in the audience’s eyes. There are notorious examples of sportspeople and politicians whose many gains have been discounted following a letdown of some description. Lance Armstrong is one such example, following allegations of doping. All they had to do was ‘not mess things up’ (p. 111)—but they failed to do this.

There are also circumstances where winning can be perceived as a loss.

One major contribution of the book is identifying the very important place a ‘willingness to learn’ holds in individual and societal development. Indeed, although there are yields of winning through competition, the yields of learning from one’s mistakes and losses are potentially greater, authentic and edifying. Notably,

we are willing to grant someone the status of winner precisely when, in the face of defeat, she proves capable of accepting responsibility … and having the acumen to gather whatever information is needed to ensure a better outcome in the future (p. 135).

Thus, it may be that ‘failure’ is neither here nor there; rather, it is the meaning we attach to failure and what we do with it that makes or breaks us. Interestingly, though, Duina seems to suggest that failure is only seen as admirable when it improves the chances of winning next time. Perhaps when personal learning and insight have no concrete connection to winning, the audience does not see it as so laudable. A less widely recognised feature of learning from loss relates to the benefits it may have for society. Duina proposes that one reason the audience looks favourably on mistakes and lessons learnt from loss is because their interests actually align with those of the competitor. Through greater self-knowledge from loss, the individual develops a better skill base and this has broader implications for the effective and efficient deployment of resources benefiting the community.


Much of Duina’s book is premised on the pivotal and essential role of the audience in winning and competition: ‘The pleasure of victory stems from our awareness of others knowing that we are the ones who won that which they themselves want’ (p. 176). Thus, he argues, the audience drives much of our competitive behaviour and competitive motivation. Further, if we constantly strive for others’ admiration, others’ envy and extrinsic reward, then our quest to win will never end. If we constantly strive to prove the point, ‘for most of us, that moment never seems to come’ (p. 177).

Given the flawed nature of our motives and the probability that they will nor can ever be satisfied, Duina proposes that ‘we leave behind the language of winning and losing’ (p. 201). He proposes a ‘new mind-set’ that is dedicated to self-discovery and that pursues activities better aligned with our true nature. According to Duina, this new mind-set ‘is fundamental for the flourishing of the individual’ (p. 202). However, at this most pivotal point in the book, the author is somewhat vague in specific formulations of this new mind-set and how precisely it would be operationalised in a given context. Having made such a robust case for the limits of competition and winning and the need for a new mind-set, relatively little space is dedicated to precisely how things might be done better. Below, I provide one concrete way forward—Personal Best (PB) goals—based on our research with school students.


Personal Best (PB) goals are specific, challenging, competitively self-referenced goals towards which an individual strives (Martin 2011). PB goals can take the form of process goals or outcome goals. Examples of process PB goals include doing an extra evening of homework than was done the previous week, reading an extra book for this assignment than the previous assignment, doing some study at the weekend when previously no work was done at weekends, and asking a teacher for help when previously the teacher was avoided. Outcome PB goals include solving more problems in one’s mathematics quiz than usual and performing better in the yearly exams than the half-yearly exams. In the educational domain, the pursuit of PB goals is associated with greater class participation, educational aspirations, persistence, co-operative learning, relationships in the classroom, homework completion, literacy and numeracy (Liem et al. 2012; Martin 2006; Martin & Liem 2010). They have been found to benefit ‘mainstream’ students and students at academic risk (for example, those with ADHD; Martin 2012).

No-one can definitively conclude that we lack ability if we have not tried hard enough.

Striving for PB goals is an approach that is accessible to all students. Whereas outperforming some (or many) others is probably not attainable, outperforming oneself is perhaps more realistic. Because the goals are personally defined and personally relevant, they tend to be meaningful to the individual. Hence, they are less likely to lead to the personally-irrelevant and dissatisfying loops that normative competition evokes—as explained by Duina through much of his book. Through self-competition, PB goals retain the potentially energising properties of competition, but render that competition personally satisfying and fulfilling. This suggests a less dualistic view of competition than that Duina proposes, when he writes ‘The competitive mind-set produces dissatisfaction in us because it produces outcomes that we are not really interested in’ (p. 211).

Because PB goals are challenging, they are also a sound basis for growth. To the extent that more students (for example) in a classroom or school are committed to personal progress, there is a solid foundation for trajectory at the group level (Harris 2011). From this perspective, value-adding schools are very much the sum total of students and teachers each striving to achieve individual trajectory (Anderman et al. 2010). Moreover, PB goals are a bottom-up approach to considering societal development. How can society advance if its members are not striving to move beyond their current state? Insofar as this is the case, challenge and competition with self can have societal yields.

When considering competition from this ‘self’ perspective, perhaps athletes (and the like) are not as normatively competitive as we might typically assume. PB goals are not at all uncommon for athletes—this is what sustains them even when they have not won in the normative sense. Perhaps it is when athletes disproportionately weight normative success at the expense of personal excellence that they become dissatisfied with silver medals. Indeed, perhaps we should not underestimate the audience’s willingness to recognise PBs as a form of victory. PBs are routinely noted in any sporting commentary and so clearly have currency in the media and public domain.


Another psychological extension I propose to Winning involves greater recognition of the roles of self and self-worth. Although mentioned in a few places in the book, there is relatively little detailed consideration given to the self-worth implications of winning and losing. Duina identifies physical ownership (of an object such as trophy, car), access (to, for example, a seat at the opera), control (in, for example, war or a court case), and intangible ownership (of rights or titles) as the major forms of winning and losing. But he does not deeply consider self-worth forms of winning and losing. This brings into consideration a major line of psycho-educational research and theorising on winning and losing: self-worth motivation theory (Covington 1992).

For some individuals, the motivation to protect self-worth is substantial and can sometimes be paramount to the need to learn and perform successfully. According to self-worth motivation theory (Covington 1992; Martin & Marsh 2003), the motivation to protect self-worth arises from a fear of failure and the implications failure may have for one’s sense of ability and subsequent self-worth. Those who perceive failure as reflecting poorly on their ability may be inclined to protect the self because ability is often equated with self-worth; that is, failure holds implications for individuals’ self-worth because it is interpreted as reflecting low ability and low ability is equated with a lack of self-worth (Covington 1992; Martin & Marsh 2003). Thus, individuals may go to great lengths to avoid failure or to alter its meaning.

Striving for personal best goals is an approach that is accessible to all students.

There are some environments where there are particularly strong motives to protect self-worth—settings such as school, sport and work, where ability is often the currency. Students, athletes and employees whose currency (ability) risks being devalued will sometimes go to extensive lengths to prop it up—that is, they will go to great lengths to protect their sense of ability. Effort reduction is one way to do so (Covington 1992). No-one can definitively conclude that we lack ability if we have not tried hard enough. By reducing effort in the face of poor performance, one’s sense of ability survives—and so does one’s self-worth (for the time being). Classic effort reduction strategies include procrastination, wasting time, clowning around in class/training, doing little or no study/preparation/training, work avoidance and so on. Although these people do not ‘win’ in the normative sense, they do survive (or ‘win’) from a self-worth perspective. Thus, although they have not avoided failure per se, they have avoided the self-worth implications of failure.

This perspective on effort stands in apparent contrast to Duina’s report on the importance and satisfaction of effort in winning: ‘We look positively on the person who tries his best … From this perspective, it matters little that they may have failed to achieve their goals’ (p. 130). This brings into consideration the complex nature of effort—sometimes labelled a double-edged sword (Covington & Omelich 1979): on the one hand, effort is something that significant others (teachers, parents, employers, coaches) promote as a most desirable commodity; on the other hand, effort is often perceived by the individual as a potentially dangerous commodity in that it has direct links to one’s sense of ability and consequent self-worth. That is, if one tries and fails, this has negative implications for one’s sense of ability, leading to low self-worth. If one has given 100 per cent, then one conclusion we can draw is that they lacked the ability. Accordingly, we find a very long line of research demonstrating the human tendency to protect self-worth through various strategies, one of which is the strategic regulation and reduction of effort (Martin et al. 2001; Martin, Marsh & Debus 2003). By reducing effort expenditure, the individual cannot be accused of lacking ability.

Interestingly, the strategic regulation of effort may also have enhancing properties (not just protective properties). Competitors’ ability and skill are caste in a more favourable light when less effort has been invested. The victor must truly have been skilful if they had something ‘left in the tank’ at the end of the race or match. The student must surely be smart if he/she succeeded with relatively little study (Covington 1998).


These intra-psychic dynamics also very much spin on fear of success. Hence, Winning might well be expanded to consider this psychological terrain also. It is the case that some individuals chronically repel success (Fried-Buchalter 1992; Martin 2010). Thus, underachievement has not only been linked to fear of failure (as per self-worth motivation theory above), but also fear of success. Fear of success can take numerous forms. For some, awards and accolades are not sought because this separates them from the ‘pack’ and being singled out is not particularly desirable, especially in an age of conformity, such as adolescence. Thus, counter to Duina’s proposition that we like to win because it differentiates us from others, for many individuals this is precisely why one would not want to win (Martin 2010).

Success can also be aversive because there is more pressure on one to perform next time. Thus, for example, some school students brace themselves for their parents’ excited speculation about law school or medical school following reports of commendable academic performance. For some of these students, the weight of success is too much to bear and there then ensues some level of underachievement relative to potential (Grolnick 2003).

Success can also be aversive because there is more pressure on one to perform next time.

Others may not feel worthy of success. They feel as though they are impostors (known as the ‘Impostor Syndrome’; Kolligian & Sternberg 1990). Every competitive event risks one’s ‘true’ ability being exposed. Every success places them on a higher perch to come crashing down harder next time. Every success is one step closer to be exposed as someone with modest ability masquerading as someone with high ability. With such maladaptive orientations to their accomplishments, is it any wonder these individuals fear success?


Winning is an important contribution to our current understanding and theorising about the individual and societal drive to compete. In careful detail, traversing many domains of human performance, the author articulates much about the nature, forms, bases, yields, and challenges that competition presents to us as individuals, families, teams, workplaces, states, and nations. Alongside the book’s rich and penetrating analysis of competition, victory and loss, I have suggested some concrete expansions to the framework in terms of personal best (PB) approaches to achievement striving. It has also suggested factors particular to individuals’ self-worth that might be integrated into Duina’s conceptualisation as a means of further understanding individuals’ orientations to success and failure, winning and losing.

Taken together, how we approach and respond to competition has a significant bearing on how we develop as individuals and as a society. Both winning and losing are essential for our well-being and development. For example, winning is important for our self-efficacy and losing is essential for insight into our further improvement. Alongside some of my own suggestions around personal best goals, Winning is a valuable offering to all of us as we navigate competition, winning and losing in our own lives—and strive to assist those in our charge (for example, children, students, athletes, employees) who also must come to grips with them.


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Andrew J. Martin PhD. is Professorial Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney. He is a registered psychologist, specialising in motivation, engagement, achievement, and quantitative research methods. He is author of Building Classroom Success: Eliminating Academic Fear and Failure (2010, Continuum, London).