Our Toxic Relationship With "Success"

Our Toxic Relationship With "Success"

I’ve been a competitive athlete all my life. I’ve won more hockey championships than I can keep track of, set records in distance running, won climbing comps, jiu jitsu comps, and I too have a box of medals and plastic trophies in a basement somewhere. 

For the last decade I have been dedicated to coaching performance climbing. And during that time my athletes have won numerous local, Provincial, Regional, Divisional, National and International Championships all over the world. But for all that winning, I have seen and experienced way more loss. I have felt how crushing it can be, and too many times I have seen how discouraging it can be for young athletes in the hours and days that follow.

Within this context of competitive sports, I’ve had a lifetime of understanding “success” according to a very specific definition:

Success means winning. Period.

The dictionary's definition of success is simply achieving the results hoped for. But that's NOT the prevailing message out there. The message out there is that the athletes who are winning get the most money, the most sponsors, the most followers, and the most attention. We live in a hyper-competitive climate that cultivates this, and only this definition of success.

With this in mind, I just googled: “most successful athletes in the world" and here are the top results:

  • ESPN World Fame 100
  • The 15 Most Famous Athletes in the World Right Now
  • The World’s Highest Paid Athletes 2023
  • The World’s Most Followed Athletes on Social Media.

Success is sold to us as “fame,” “highest paid,” and “most popular.” And this is what our young people are seeing every hour of every day in sports, in business, in social media, and even in school. It's constant. And it's persuasive. Which means regardless of any contrasting positive messaging parents, teachers and coaches are telling kids, the overwhelming ethos dictates that you are either winning, or you are losing.

In other words, "results" are what matters. The highest test scores, the most goals, the most followers, the most medals, and the most money are the markers of success that our society praises, in every industry.

How is this messaging affecting young athletes today?

Well I get to see first hand how a 14 year old decides she wants to dedicate herself to a sport. I see the sacrifices she makes, the extra hours she puts in week after week, to improve weaknesses, stretch, review video, journal and meditate, and push herself physically, mentally and emotionally in pursuit of her goals. I get to see the incredible improvements, the burgeoning resiliency, the toughness, the self awareness, and the pursuit of becoming excellent at something. It's inspiring. The growth. The strength. The focus.

But then competition day comes around. Test day. And things don't go her way. Not for any particular reason; things just don't go her way. And now I see the discouragement, wondering if all that work was a "waste," and questions like "what's wrong with me?"

As a coach I am confronted with the toxicity of our relationship with success, and how this relationship tears at our confidence and diminishes our ability to freely grow and explore our potential. I see, in our hyper-competitive culture, in an environment that praises a skewed definition of "victory," how a young individual's value is placed not on the quality of the process, but on the outcome.

So where does this leave us?

Because I have athletes on my team right now who are not winning comps. They never have, in fact. Nor do they have sponsors, or a thousand followers on social media. But these same athletes are some of the most “successful” athletes I’ve ever worked with. And that's the word I use very purposely – SUCCESSFUL. So what’s up with that? Why would I say that? What markers am I using to define this other version of success?

If you are aware of our Performance Climbing Program, you would see a group of very strong young athletes who often produce winning results. If you follow me on social media, you may also see an intensity in our training that promotes various reputations that I can't control. But the only info I would want you to know is that I ask only two things from my athletes:

  1. Set intentional and strategic goals.
  2. And work your ass off in pursuit of those goals.
I never talk about results as defined by our competitive culture. I talk about the process of becoming.

I’m stressing the importance of hard work in a particular direction. Pick a point in the future, and start grinding out the work required to get there.

Hard work in a particular direction is a demanding undertaking. It requires dedication, focus, resiliency, and commitment to consistency. It means being coachable. It means identifying and working on your weaknesses. It means learning to stay in discomfort, embracing failure, and overcoming the environmental, thus the mental and emotional obstacles that try to sabotage your progress.

The value of the process of becoming is what young athletes need to know and experience. Which means learning to value the work, learning to value the suffering required for real human growth, and learning to value the pursuit of becoming stronger, harder, more confident, more capable, and more durable. If you can stay consistent in this, ticking one small accomplishment at a time, and facing your demons head on, you are the very best definition of success.

Winning and losing is how sports are presented to us. But both of these things are just entertainment. Nothing more. The real benefit of competitive sport, for the athletes, is learning to work hard and to make sacrifices in a particular direction. My life in competitive sports, as an athlete and as a coach, with a pile of wins and a pile of losses, has taught me the essential thing: The process of preparing for competition is where the lasting value is found. The results are just entertainment.

My best memories in a career in athletics have nothing to do with medals. What I will always remember is

hitting the wall on long runs. My legs filled with lactic acid, the muscles failing, lungs burning, my body desperate for oxygen, and the mental anguish of knowing I’m only halfway to the finish line. Keep going. I remember my athletes crying through workouts, and teammates putting arms around each other, encouraging and cheering one another on. I remember the stitches, the broken bones, the tears, and laughing about it a week later. Fighting through hard times, suffering together, but enduring when everything in you wants to quit, and encouraging your team to do the same, getting knocked down and getting up again, over and over, with no loss of enthusiasm. If that’s not success, then nothing is.

All the value — ALL THE VALUE — is to be found in the process.

Success is setting ambitious goals and getting after them with all your heart and all your strength, until they are realized, or until new goals need to be set. 

Success is not allowing yourself to be defeated by repeated loss and disappointment. 

Success is facing giants and not backing down.

Forget the other crap. Winning and losing and medals and applause. That’s just entertainment. 

Share on Facebook | Twitter | Email