Is winning everything?
How important is winning?
Over the last few months I've had reason to answer the question, in a couple of different contexts, "How important is winning?".
It's a very interesting question indeed.
Ultimately, we race to win. In sprint, it's not about finishing the race, unlike most of the people who race endurance events. Just to finish the Warny for example, is a win. Second place in a match sprint is not a win. Finishing a flying 200 is not a win. It sucks to lose a sprint and still get a medal. In some ways bronze is better than silver, emotionally. You won bronze, you lost to get silver.
How important is it? It's very context-sensitive. If you're a recreational sprinter racing the Summer Sprint Series, it's important to be competitive and have fun, that's why we grade it and it's a round robin format. For development purposes, this is an ideal format, plenty of racing, plenty of chances to win, and try things and to try things that don't necessarily work the way you expect them.
If you're a coach in a government funded elite squad, winning is all-important. Head sprint coaches at the Olympic games for Australia, Great Britain, Germany, France etc are there to win. That's their job. It's absolutely vital that they win. They can't all win, and those that don't can get the chop by their organisations if they don't. It's very intense and the stakes are high. It's only a bike race, but it's not! Millions of dollars of goverment and private funding, years of dedication and sacrifice from the athletes and the coaches, there's a lot at stake. When it goes badly at that level, it's brutal.
Compare this to Cool Runnings. We've all seen it, it's a classic and one of the best sporting movies ever made. Those guys won, not the race, but a battle against almost overwhelming odds to get to the start line. If you're not at the top level, getting to the top level is a win.
Think about Lori-Ann Muenzer in our context, or Sir Chris Hoy, who was a pioneer of what is now one of, if not the, best sprint programmes in the world. Hoy's story really is amazing. His autobiography is a must read for anyone in sprint cycling.
From a development perspective, working with a development group like I do with the Vic sprint group (15 to 18 year olds, mostly) and some of the aboc guys, winning bike races isn't as critically important in the short term. It'a a long term goal - we ARE training the kids to win races and it's important that they do, but it is at least as important that they develop the strength, power, speed, skill and emotional maturity to cope with the pressure to win that they will face if they make it into an elite squad.
These attributes can take time. A junior athlete with potential may not be winning much at first, it may take years of hard work for them to progress to the level where they are winning races and if winning is everything, these guys drop out. We need them (and the seniors!) to concentrate on improvement and processes. You'll hear a lot of "focus on the process". This means focussing on what you're doing, whatever it is, and letting the results take care of themselves. If you're focussing on a solid start out of a gate, arms straight, head up etc and not on "I must win this race", you'll usually do a better start, and are more likely to win, or at least, give yourself the best chance you have to win. The athletes need to protect themselves from this pressure (pity the coaches!) and have sports psychs to help them with it. In order to win, they need to forget about winning. Just like tennis in a lot of ways. There are some very good books on tennis winning, I can recommend The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey. Get it, read it. It's good.
Back on topic, winning is, ultimately, what it's all about for us, but we must approach that with a long term plan and process and with athletes fully aware that while we're preparing them to win, we want to see focus, dedication and improvement. Tick those boxes and the wins will come.