Say this for LeBron James: Just when he seems about to sink under the lead weight of embarrassment and expectations, he rises above them with chiseled potency. The same goes for swimmer Diana Nyad, disappointed four times in her impracticable, jellyfish-tortured attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, yet about to try again. And whether you apply the term “winner” or “loser” to Phil Mickelson, give the six-time runner-up of the U.S. Open this much: He does things with his whole heart.
All of these people have something in common: They repeatedly put their competitive reputations and vanity at risk. Somewhere in an avocado grove back home in California, Mickelson is a slumped-over mess. But there is something deeply interesting — and worth admiring — in the way Mickelson keeps chasing the U.S. Open even though it means submitting himself to almost radiological exposure. At Merion last week he led for the better part of three days, only to play some of his worst golf in the final round. Afterward he was frank about his mistakes and what they cost him.
We don’t much like to discuss losing, though it’s a far more common experience than winning. But Mickelson went right at the topic. Had he won, “It would have changed the way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record,” he said. By losing, “I just think of heartbreak.”
Mickelson’s honesty, though he may not know it right now, is an indispensable key to changing the outcome next time around. Here is a scientific fact: Athletes who don’t shy from failure — and who examine it honestly — tend to eventually come out winners.
In 2009, two researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Jonah Berger and Devin G. Pope, asked the question: “Can losing during a competitive task motivate individuals and teams . . . to perform better overall?” They analyzed more than 45,000 college basketball games and 18,000 NBA contests and found that trailing slightly at halftime actually led to an increase in winning percentage. NBA teams that trailed by small margins won approximately 6 percent more often than expected.
Why would this be? Simply put, champions are good losers, in the sense that they learn from reversals and respond to them — and that’s a lesson we can import from them. Winning and losing are learned behaviors.
A few years ago researchers asked Canadian swimmers who had performed poorly in the Olympic trials to watch video replays of their failures and took functional magnetic resolution imaging (fMRI) brain scans as they did so. The neural activity of an athlete who has lost, not surprisingly, looks very much like that of someone who is profoundly depressed.
But then researchers did what’s called “cognitive intervention.” Rather than just focusing on the swimmers’ failures, the researchers asked the swimmers to examine their races in technical terms, the aspects of what they did wrong and what they would change. The second set of brain scans showed less emotional, depression activity in the amygdala and more activation in the motor and frontal parts of the brain that control focus. The result: The swimmers all showed improvements in their next performances.