It was Round One of the US Open Tennis Championships in late August. Coco Gauff versus Magda Linette. Linette – unseeded from Poland – was ahead and had one of America’s top players on the ropes. Somehow Gauff managed a comeback, eking out a win over Linette after a third set victory that saw her onto Round Two.
It was a compelling match that had me glued to my TV. But what really got my attention was the commentary by tennis great Chris Evert, who noted that Gauff was able to win despite not playing her best. That’s the stuff of champions, Evert said: rising to the top when your game is far from it.
I couldn’t agree more. As a collegiate soccer player in another life, I know what it takes to win. Winning is mostly a mindset. A scrappy team that’s all-in to win will almost always outplay a team of better skilled players. My Lindenwood University team pulled out some unlikely victories on sheer grit alone, because we were all aware of the team goal: get the ball in the back of the net! We just wanted it more than the competition, who didn’t bank on our tenacity.
Yes, I know what winning feels like, and it’s great. The 5th and winning penalty kick to close out the game in victory. The perfectly headed ball into the right bottom corner of the net. No one loves winning more than I do.
Except maybe my family. My wife is a retired Olympic beach volleyball player and our two children seem to have inherited our champion-minded DNA. Although 11 spinal surgeries have benched me from contact sports, I still try and tap into what victories big and small feel like daily. On and off the field. Especially as our son does not take defeat lightly, and we want to ensure we honestly convey what it looks like to be a gracious winner.
What it means to “win” changes over time. As a child, winning means being the best. The MVP. But that’s an external definition of victory, the long-recognized only one. As my military pilot father used to tell me, “One ‘aw shit’ wipes out 1,000 ‘atta girls’.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. Although at the time it made sense, I don’t agree with it now. The “aw shits” and other teachable moments both in sports and in business are precisely what we need to capitalize on.
Over the years – especially after becoming a mom, owning my own business, and re-entering the corporate world – my idea of winning has expanded to include the assists and the improvements. My 5-year-old was devasted when he missed a recent goal. We worked to help him realize the value of his earlier assist. My 8-year-old recently took seven seconds off her freestyle time. She came in 2nd, upset she didn’t win, but she dramatically improved her time. We taught her to celebrate that.
Because if those aren’t wins, I don’t know what are. So are getting into new business pitches even if we don’t win. Or, securing an assignment to prove our social-good, performance marketing chops before becoming agency of record.
As parents and business leaders, we must adjust our mindsets of what winning means and mentally prepare our people to adjust their own expectations so we can all move forward. During the lock down, I celebrated my ability to just wake up and put on pants. Victories may be big or small, and I am trying to lead by example in both the family and the agency. Even during crises, I’m searching for that silver lining, finding those nuggets to celebrate — whether it’s learning from our mistakes or marveling at how we pull together to overcome obstacles.
Because so much of success is about teamwork, it’s essential that everyone buy into the overarching goal. In soccer, it’s to get the ball in the back of the net. At work, we must identity the goals of our team and take our positions. Striker or IT manager, it’s almost the same thing. Titles are not about rank. They’re job descriptions, clarifying roles so everyone can kick one in for the team. We must break down the silos. Because when one wins, we all win.
Even when winning looks nothing like we’re taught it should. I’m thinking here about Naomi Osaka. After pulling out of the French Open in May to focus on her mental health, she once again tearfully faced journalists after her surprise loss at September’s US Open to say she was taking a break from the game. On the eve of the tournament — the same one that a few years earlier saw her sharing a podium with Serena Williams after upsetting her idol to win the US Open in the most heart-breaking trophy ceremony I’ve ever witnessed (and the admitted start of Osaka’s depression) — Osaka took to social media to talk about finding new approaches to life, tennis, and winning. “I’m gonna try to celebrate myself and my accomplishments more,” she wrote on Twitter. “I think we all should…. Seeing everything that’s going on in the world I feel like if I wake up in the morning that’s a win.”
Celebrating the small victories. On her own terms. Now — despite losing on the court, despite her tears and red nose — that’s a huge win, both for herself and the young girls and boys watching who might one day benefit. Because for someone out there dealing with mental health issues on her own, Osaka will be a lifesaver. As will superstar gymnast Simone Biles, whose similar decision to pull out of the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her well-being is the choice of today’s champions who are wisely moving self-care and self-love to the win column. The days of chewing up and spitting out our superstar athletes are being sidelined as corporate sponsors from clients like Nike and Gap stick by their winners.
A great part of the Grand Slam was seeing winners everywhere. Olympic champion swimmer and mental-health advocate Michael Phelps in the announcer booth supporting Osaka. Win. Two teenage girls playing their hearts out to adoring and sympathetic fans. Win. Those same two winners representing some six ethnicities and nationalities between them. Win.
My soccer days are long gone but I’m training for a triathlon. When my children watch me cross the finish line – limping or smiling – that will be victory enough for us all. Win.