MOST OF us are optinists. A tiny minority is incorrigibly so. Another term for this is "blind faith."

In sports, as in war, athletes, like warriors, have to be incorrigible optimists. Faith in themselves is imperative. Without it, the nature of highly competitive events would find them wanting.

Joe Namath and Muhammad All stand out as modern masters of sporting optimism. In the most physically brutal of all sports endeavors, All not only predicted he would win, but he called the round. Blind faith, cockiness. conceit -- call it what you will -- his audacity before a fight did more than anything else to create his mystique.

And what football player, especially one as vulnerable as a quarterback would dare guarantee a victory by the underdog? Namath did, then delivered.

But no matter what is said before a contest, it's the final result the counts. Winning is where it's at. Outerwise why keep score?

So, what separates the winners from the losers? Part of the answer depends on your definition of a winner. I have two definitions to offer.

First, a winner is that person on a team who, when the competition over, has won out over the opposition Enduring is not quite enough; on must overcome.

A far more important definition also much more human. A winning while enduring, reaches his potent no matter the results.

Pro sports are contests among people with higher than average potetial. Faith (blind or otherwise), talen determination, preparation, and healthy body are the factors that enable one contestant to beat another.

Of these five determinants, the most important is talent. Some people a just plain better than others. In other words, some have higher relative pententials. They were born that was "All men are created equal" does not apply to athletes.

You may have noticed that I didn't mention luck as an ingredient in the winning formula. Luck is, for me, an aberration, a statistical anomaly that from time to time erroneously reinforces the blind faith of some fortunate competitor. But that's all it an anomaly. Don't count on it.

Luck surprises. Talent endures and overcomes.

Talent aside. Mother Nature take care of the rest. There is in everyone I believe, a genetically programmed will to survive. It takes only two shop steps to go from surviving to andurificant to reigning. It is natural order things.

One can't survive without companying. Enduring is only surviving over the long run. But reigning is the have mark of the great athlete. To reign is to "set myself apart from the rest as Jack Nicklaus says.

As a very young boy, I cried when I lost. Losing at the age of 8 or 9 somehow was equated with failing. But my optimism (blind faith) keep me going.

As I got older I no longer felt sense of failure. Embarrassment to its place.

Embarrassment eventually gave was to self-satisfaction in producing my best efforts. That's where I am now.

But a team of 10-year-olds who just lost a baseball game cannot take satisfaction from best efforts alone. The genes say, "If you keep this up yet won't survive -- you must do better. Is it any wonder that many of history's most famous figures are wariors? They all batted over.500. The won more than they lost.

But winning and losing are not opposites. After all, what's the opposition of finishing finishing? Flnishing last? Or second? Or 10th? Losing is too in definite. The real pleasure for me as for most athletes, is in the execution, or the playing, of sports. Even so, Billie Jean King once said, "tennis players are not paid to play they're paid to win."

But there's more to it than that to winners, sacrifice is just preparation, talent is assumed. Determination lends an edge, and singlemindedness is normal. The real joy, though is found in perfect execution, perfect play, under pressure -- an ace 30-40 in a game of tennis; sinking the foul shot in basketball with two seconds left on the clock; the seemingly flawless coordination between Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann during last year's Steeler-Oiler playoff game.