The Winner Effect: A Nation of Losers



Biologically, when we win a game/contest/event, there is a release of testosterone and dopamine into our brains.  This is why we generally feel good when we win a game and why we generally are apt to cheat to avoid losing – as well as to avoid the release of cortisol – a stress hormone.  Interestingly, according to Ian Robertson in his book: The Winner Effect, over time these micro chemical injections change our macro brain structure and, often times, makes us more confident and able to take on larger challenges than we otherwise would have.

Anecdotally, I’ve coached over 300 games and almost all of the players and parents were generally happier on their walk to the car after a win.  However, I believe this “effect” combined with the modern youth sports industry has created significant negative consequences.  These consequences have handcuffed our kids from reaching their performance potential and more importantly, have promoted a culture in which competition is now secondary to self-esteem.


Because of the release of dopamine and cortisol, we are addicted to winning and averse to losing.  In youth sports today, this takes shape in the following forms:

  1. Kids play down a year to compete against younger, less developed kids
  2. Umpires and coaches become scapegoats for failure
  3. Coaches (all 5 of them in the dugout for a team of 10) manage every movement during the course of a game
  4. Middle School baseball players delay their graduation to an official baseball field (60-90)
  5. Parents spend an absurd amount on advanced technology to mask a kid’s mechanical and physical shortcomings
  6. Parents jump from team to team seeking endless games and obsessing over wins*
  7. Sports fans value themselves on the performance of “their” team and tirelessly degrade professional athletes that are in opposition 
  8. Students (and parents) demand “good” grades based on entitlement rather than actual work

*I’ve had hundreds of parents tell me – “We’re not about winning, we’re about development.”  Almost every time, the parent is virtue signaling and is unequivocally all about wins.

Social media has changed our lives dramatically.  Similar to the neuro-effects of winning, our brains release powerful hormones when we get likes/retweets/hearts/follows, etc.  So we spend our days and nights, stalking social media pages, uploading content that will win the approval of our contemporaries – and most importantly – make us feel good about our lives.  Because we are addicted to the positive feelings, we are in constant search of approval.  Therefore, we post content that is flattering and neglect to share information that would be viewed less favorably.  To athletes and sport parents, this results in posting trophies, wins, “dingers” (brutal word by the way), etc.  In sum, we misrepresent our daily lives through our social media – and we spend most of our lives valuing ourselves based on our social media feed.


In talking with most my age, my youth sports life was rather typical.  Informal games significantly outnumbered formal games.  I spent my weekends and summers playing pick up basketball, street/sandlot baseball, and backyard football.  These games did not have an umpire, a coach, or written rules.  Additionally, kids of all ages and levels competed in these games.   What this forced was a focus on competing – not winning.  It trained its participants to handle themselves in the arena of competition.  The goal wasn’t just to win – the goal was to dominate; to be the Alpha.  We didn’t avoid losing, rather, we went for it all.  We didn’t walk, we swung on 3-0, we threw Hail Mary’s and Go Routes when the score was in our favor or not.  We didn’t hesitate to take shots, we didn’t run out a clock.  When the game was over – we didn’t cry over an error, complain about a foul, or continue discussing a close call at first base.  We talked trash, we yelled at each other, we fought one another.  Informal games – competing to dominate the neighborhood – was the bedrock of our sports lives.

That has changed.

The bedrock of the modern youth athlete is formalized game-play.  Why?  Informal games can’t be posted on social media, informal games don’t come with expensive uniforms, expensive equipment, and youth athletes flying around the country to play in meaningless tournaments.  We are obsessed with the dopamine hit that comes with winning, looking good and sharing it.  It represents modern day peacocking; and we are obsessed with it.  But because of this, we are no longer obsessed with being the Alpha.


Because I was the youngest brother growing up, I was always one of the youngest, least physically developed players in our neighborhood games.  I was the Alpha – never.  In backyard football, my oldest brother was steady QB and it was me versus my other older brother.  I never won.  How could I?  I was physically over-matched.  In baseball, basketball, tag, chess, our home version of American Gladiators… I lost.  As a youth, I lost.  In terms of nominal numbers, I lost 100x more than I won.  Ironically, I don’t remember any of the losses though.  There was no car ride home, no parents yelling from the sidelines, no Gatorade from mom in the dugout.  It was a bunch of kids competing to exert their dominance over others.  But it was these losses against older, more physically dominant kids, losses against the Alphas in my life – that set the foundation for me (and others in my town) to win big in the future.

Unfortunately – or fortunately – kids today will never understand the emotions behind that paragraph.  And despite most modern parents growing up in a world of informal competition, I have had to respond to youth parents who want to “win” more; parents looking for that “winner effect” dopamine hit.  But fundamentally – all games are NOT created equal. Just like all days in our lives are not created equal. With regard to modern athletics, we are engaging in a fallacy that many have fallen prone to:

The NUMBER of wins does not matter.  It is the DEGREE of the win or loss that matters.  

This is why I don’t remember those backyard losses.  This is why my high school team won 75 games in 3 years but I can only really remember the state championship wins… and loss.  Our brains are degree-centric and therefore, so are the respective hormone releases.  We do not remember the random, the meaningless; rather, we are the sum of our own impactful moments.

This is why the first pillar of our training program here – is competition and failure.  Because competing in and winning important, impactful games will always be more important than the total number of meaningless wins.  And the process that the elite athlete embodies to compete in those impactful games is something that is significantly outside the scope of youth wins and minor dopamine hits.


The thing about winning at the elite levels – that most players, parents, coaches can not comprehend – is that winning is done on the margins. These margins are affected by YEARS of vicious competition. Today, it’s getting easy to expect LeBron James and Steph Curry to excel and win. But what is not seen is an entire lifetime of failure, of learning, of chasing the Alpha.  And when we inspect the processes of successful people further, we can see why winning isn’t something they do… it’s who they are.  They are still that kid competing to not get smoked in the school yard.  It’s why the greatest basketball player on the planet cleans up the team locker room.  It’s why – despite all his money and all his accomplishments – he shows up 10 hours early to prepare for a playoff game in his 15th year.

As Bastiat notes in the Parable of the Broken Window, every short term benefit comes at a long term consequence (and vice versa).  In order to win later, you must compete above your head now.  You must forgo the minor chemical hits that come from winning meaningless games, you must sacrifice the favorable social media life, and you must compete with people better than you.  You must lose, grow from losing, and learn to fail better.  You must constantly battle in the arena when nobody is watching and where no credit is bestowed.  For both athletes and parents, it’s an exceptionally – and biologically – hard principal to buy into… but those that do will be the ones that compete in and win meaningful, life impactful games in the future.




2 replies
  1. alex
    alex says:

    Designing for the winner effect seems like a natural add-on to gamification, since it comes along with the fun mechanics that we all love. Winner and loser effects are happening all the time, so gamification systems might leverage them to our advantage with proper design. Having fun will make you smarter, more confident and earn you higher profits. Of course, more research and experiments must be done to create working systems, but the future seems promising.


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