Is Your Focus on Achieving Success or Avoiding Failure?

The Positive Side of Hate

by Noah Gentner, PhD, CC-AASP

I’m a Chicago Bulls fan; have been all my life.  And while I worship Michael Jordan (sorry LeBron, he’s still the best ever…BY FAR), I’m not one of those Bulls “fans” who haven’t watched a game since he retired in 1998 (and yes that was his official retirement as far as I’m concerned…the Wizards years never happened).  So, I was watching on Tuesday night as the Bulls were sent home from the Playoffs by the Cavs.  While I was disappointed I saw something in the final minutes that gave me hope for the future.  Derrick Rose, the Bulls young, extremely talented, and homegrown point guard, barely missed two key shots late in the game.  Why would that excite me?  Well, the misses certainly didn’t have me jumping for joy, but Rose’s reaction to them did.  As the Cavs were sealing the game at the free-throw line the camera panned to Rose crouching on the court with a look of extreme disappointment on his face.  You could almost see him thinking, “I don’t ever want to have this feeling again.”

One of the characteristics that separates elite athletes from their less successful counterparts is their extraordinary aversion to losing.  In Sport Psychology we often talk to athletes about the Need Achievement Theory.  This refers to whether an individual is focusing on approaching success or avoiding failure.  I often use the terms “achieve” and “avoid,” as I ask athletes “Are you more focused on achieving success or avoiding failure?”  In simpler terms we’re really talking about whether a person likes winning more than he hates losing.  Traditionally we have focused on developing athletes who fall into the “achieve” category and really want to win.  However, I have found that many pro athletes truly hate losing more than they love winning.  Sure, they like the feeling of winning but nothing is worse than that feeling right after a loss.  Elite athletes have an almost unimaginable aversion to that feeling; they never learn to accept it.  It’s almost a prerequisite to being great, “Those who can accept losing need not apply.”  Russell, MJ, Magic, Bird, they all HATED losing.  Remember how LeBron James reacted after losing to the Magic last year?  (He refused to shake hands).  How about Tiger after the Master’s…did he look happy?  Compare that to Carmelo Anthony laughing in his postgame interview after getting ousted by the Jazz on Friday.  I love Carmelo but that reaction showed me that he doesn’t hate losing enough to be great yet.  You can learn a lot about an athlete by watching his/her response to losing.  Do they look like they REALLY hate it?

Of course there’s more to being great than just hating to lose.  That hate has to manifest itself in some positive way.  For great athletes hatred fosters hard work.  The great athletes know the only way to avoid that hated feeling in the future is to get better.  They work night and day to improve their game.  All in an effort to avoid that dreaded feeling.  This highlights another characteristic that separates elite athletes from mere mortals: their ability to recover from failure.  It’s easy to be good when things are going well; most people respond well to success.  However, it’s how you respond to failure that ultimately determines your greatness.  All athletes experience failure (yes, even Michael Jordan) it’s almost a rite of passage; some never recover while others use it as a springboard to greatness.

When Michael Jordan returned to the Bulls in 1995 he came up short in the Playoffs against the Orlando Magic.  After the game Jordan vowed to never let that happen again.  In that offseason he worked harder than ever and returned to win 3 straight titles.  Few people remember that in Kobe Bryant’s rookie year he shot 4 airballs in game 5 of the playoffs against the Jazz.  Three of those airballs were shot with less than 1 minute left in regulation or overtime and, had they gone in, would have tied or won the game.  That’s not just one or two misses…that’s 4 AIRBALLS!!!!  Few players would have recovered from such failure, however Bryant used it as motivation and developed into an all-time great player.  On the flip side, Nick Anderson, a promising guard for the Orlando Magic missed 4 consecutive free-throws with his team up by 3 in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals against Houston.  The Magic ended up losing that game and the series and Anderson never recovered (two years later his free-throw percentage had dropped from 70% to 40% and he was often removed from the lineup late in games).  After missing those free throws Anderson said he was never the same again.  “”It affected the way I played.”  He kept hearing a voice in his head saying, “How could you miss those four free throws? . . . How could you miss those four free throws? It played in my head like a recorder – over and over again. I had never doubted myself in any way on the basketball court, but the following year I lost my confidence; I lost my aggression. I started telling myself I was going to miss shots instead of thinking I was going to make them.” (  Eventually, Anderson was benched, traded, and out of the league.

So what separates Jordan and Kobe from Nick Anderson?  They had the ability to recover from those failures.  While Anderson dwelled on the past and lost confidence, Jordan and Kobe used it as motivation.  They despised the feeling so much that they worked tirelessly to avoid it in the future.  They accepted that they couldn’t change the past; they could only prepare themselves for the upcoming seasons.  While Anderson continually asked himself why he missed those shots, Jordan and Kobe focused on how they were going to make the next one.  They never wanted that feeling of failure again.  That not only drove them to the gym and weight room but it also pushed them throughout the rest of their careers.  Rather than letting the failure control them, as Anderson did, they took control of the failure to ensure it would never happen again.

All athletes like to win, but the great ones hate to lose.  They despise it.  You can see it on their faces.  Once they’ve experienced it they vow to never let it happen again.  Larry Bird never forgot the feeling of losing to Magic Johnson in the 1979 NCAA title game and he used that as motivation throughout his career.  After throwing a league high 28 interceptions during a 3-13 rookie season Peyton Manning worked tirelessly to prevent that from happening again.  All athletes fail, it’s how they respond to it that defines them.  Sometimes it destroys them; in many cases it’s the best thing that can happen to them.  So the next time you’re watching sports pay attention to how the players respond to failure.  It might give you a window to their future.  Based on Derrick Rose’s reaction to Tuesday’s failure the future seems bright.

One thought on “Is Your Focus on Achieving Success or Avoiding Failure?

  • May 4, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    This really is a major key to high performance, hating to lose motivates people to work harder and achieve more.


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