The difference between winning and succeeding

Coach Wooden

This week I have been thinking and reading a lot about competition and whether or not it has a place in education.

In 1986, Alfie Kohn wrote No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Kohn needs no introduction as an American academic who studies and writes extensively on human behavior, education, and parenting. He believes that competition, which he defines as one person succeeding at the expense of another, is always unnecessary and inappropriate at school, at play, and at home. Kohn makes very persuasive arguments against competition and rewards that continue to be widely discussed and debated.

I believe that there is a difference between winning and success and I looked up definitions of both words. Kohn also makes a distinction between winning and success. Here are the Cambridge Dictionary’s definitions of both words:

Win – to achieve first position and/or get a prize in a competition, election, fight, etc

Succeed – to achieve something that you have been aiming for

While I was searching for definitions, I stumbled across a wonderful TED Talk by John Wooden. Wooden was a very successful basketball coach. He is regarded as one of the greatest coaches, of any sport, ever. Needless to say, his teams won a lot.

Wooden’s TED Talk, The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding, has some absolute pearls of wisdom from a man who shunned many of the conventions of competition to win more NCAA championships than any other college basketball coach.

Wooden developed his own definition of success as a peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable. He felt that he needed to develop his own definition to make him a better teacher and coach and to give his students something to aspire to other than a grade or a score.

Wooden developed his definition from beliefs that were grounded in the teachings of his parents and his own experience. I have reproduced these beliefs in Wooden’s own words:

  • Never try to be better than someone else. Always learn from others. Never cease trying to be the best you can be. That’s under your control. If you get too engrossed and involved and concerned in regard to the things over which you have no control, it will adversely affect the things over which you have control.
  • If you make the effort to do the best of which you’re capable, trying to improve the situation that exists for you, I think that’s success, and I don’t think others can judge that.
  • I believe that we must believe, truly believe. Not just give it word service, believe that things will work out as they should, providing we do what we should. I think our tendency is to hope things will turn out the way we want them to much of the time, but we don’t do the things that are necessary to make those things become reality.
  • You never heard me mention winning. Never mention winning. My idea is that you can lose when you outscore somebody in a game, and you can win when you’re outscored. I’ve felt that way on certain occasions, at various times. And I just wanted them to be able to hold their head up after a game. I used to say that when a game is over, and you see somebody that didn’t know the outcome, I hope they couldn’t tell by your actions whether you outscored an opponent or the opponent outscored you.
  • If you make an effort to do the best you can regularly, the results will be about what they should be. Not necessarily what you’d want them to be but they’ll be about what they should. I wanted the score of a game to be the by-product of these other things, and not the end itself.

If we can develop Wooden’s peace of mind in our children, arguments for or against competition in education become moot. Regardless of the context, competitive or uncompetitive, our children will be able to take control and succeed – win or lose.

One thought on “The difference between winning and succeeding”

  1. Hey Mike!

    Enjoyed reading your article. Guess you followed Greg to Yangon. I’m sure you are both doing wonderful work there.

    All the best to you and your family.

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