The New Science of Triumph

Serbia's Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon on June 25. Tony O'Brien / Action Images-ZUMA

Andre Agassi Was losing. A lot. After a meteoric start to his professional tennis career, with the best return and fastest reflexes in the game, Agassi had become a chronic underachiever by the early 1990s, dropping early matches and choking in finals alike. And in Key Biscayne, Fla., in March 1994, he was set to lose again—badly—this time to a Pete Sampras who had been nearly incapacitated by food poisoning just moments before the match was to begin.

Frustrated and rudderless, Agassi agreed to have dinner with a prospective new coach, a man whose tennis he didn’t much admire. Brad Gilbert was the anti-Agassi, a moderately talented junker who in his own career had eked out matches he had no right to win. His book about tactics, just published, was titled Winning Ugly. At dinner in Key Biscayne, Agassi wanted an honest assessment of his game. Why did he keep losing to less skilled players?

Gilbert excoriated him for trying to play with perfection. Instead of risking a killer shot on every point, why not keep the ball in play and give the other guy a chance to lose? “It’s all about your head, man,” Gilbert said, as Agassi recalls in his memoir, Open. “With your talent, if you’re fifty percent game-wise, but ninety-five percent head-wise, you’re going to win. But if you’re ninety-five percent game-wise and fifty percent head-wise, you’re going to lose, lose, lose.”

Agassi hired him on the spot. An immediate losing streak ensued, as Gilbert razed and rebuilt his game. But gradually Agassi began to pull out wins in matches that the old Agassi would have lost, and five months later he bulldozed his way to his first U.S. Open championship. “I fall to my knees,” Agassi writes of the moment in Open. “My eyes fill with tears. I look to my box ... You know everything you need to know about people when you see their faces at the moments of your greatest triumph. I’ve believed in Brad’s talent from the beginning, but now, seeing his pure and unrestrained happiness for me, I believe unrestrainedly in him.” At last his head was clear. Symbolically, and seismically, Agassi shaved his iconic glam locks—and punked Sampras in four sets to win his second straight Grand Slam, the 1995 Australian Open, en route to his first career No. 1 ranking. There would be more losses, many more, in his long career. But Andre Agassi had learned how to win.

What is it that separates winners from losers? The pat answer is that, in sports at least, winners simply have certain things that mortals don’t—as one might conclude from watching the suddenly indefatigable Novak Djokovic, the Wimbledon and Australian Open champion, who has lost exactly once in his first 49 matches this year. But fitness doesn’t tell the full story. “There are more players that have the talent to be the best in the world than there are winners,” says Timothy Gallwey, the author of several books about the mental side of tennis, golf, and other pursuits. “One way of looking at it is that winners get in their own way less. They interfere with the raw expression of talent less. And to do that, first they win the war against fear, against doubt, against insecurity—which are no minor victories.”


winning-brain-sidebar Illustration by Bryan Christie for Newsweek

Defined that way, winning becomes translatable into areas beyond the physical: chess, spelling bees, the corporate world, even combat. You can’t go forever down that road, of course. The breadth of our colloquial definition for winning—the fact that we use the same word for being handed an Oscar as for successfully prosecuting a war—means that there is no single gene for victory across all fields, no cerebral on-off switch that turns also-rans into champions. But neuroscientists, psychologists, and other researchers are beginning to better understand the highly interdisciplinary concept of winning, finding surprising links between brain chemistry, social theory, and even economics, which together give new insight into why some people come out on top again and again.

One area being disrupted relates to dominance, a decent laboratory stand-in for winning. Scientists have long thought that dominance is largely determined by testosterone: the more you have, the more likely you are to prevail, and not just on the playing field. Testosterone is desirable in the boardroom, in the courthouse, and in other scenarios that reward risk and bold action. Twenty-five years ago, scientists proved the hormone’s role in winning streaks: a win gives you a jolt of T, which gives you an edge in your next competition, which gives you more T, and so on, in a virtuous sex-hormone feedback loop.

winners-fe02-secondary-vl Brazil battles Australia in the Group D match of the FIFA Women's World Cup on June 29 in Germany. Laurence Griffiths / FIFA-Getty Images

Last August, though, researchers at the University of Texas and Columbia found that testosterone is helpful only when regulated by small amounts of another hormone called cortisol. What’s more, for those with a lot of cortisol in their blood, high levels of testosterone may actually impede winning.

Across Columbia’s campus, professors at the business school are putting this dominance science into practice, swabbing saliva samples from M.B.A. students to measure both hormones. Each subject is then given a prescription to get the two steroids into ideal balance: eat whole grains and cut out coffee to lower the cortisol; hit the weight room and take vitamin B to raise testosterone. Just before a crucial confrontation, standing in a certain “power pose” can calibrate the hormones temporarily. The ideal leader, says Prof. Paul Ingram, is “calm, but with an urge towards dominance.” (Picture Apple CEO Steve Jobs onstage, unveiling a blockbuster product.) It’s true for both men and women, and in theory it all adds up to winning a contract, winning a promotion, winning the quarter.

New science like this illuminates winners of the past. It’s a peek inside the bloodstream of perhaps the most thrilling competitor to ever eviscerate his opponents at a pensive task: Bobby Fischer, the chess champion. “For Fischer, there was a relentless desire to decimate his opponent,” says Liz Garbus, the director of the new documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World. “Bobby took delight in how he made his opponent ill. There was something of a sadism to the way he approached it.” Before his legendary showdown with Russian archnemesis Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972, which would determine the world’s No. 1 player, Fischer underwent extensive weight and endurance training; he told a strength coach that he wanted to physically break Spassky’s hand the first time they shook. As the match approached, Fischer hemmed and hawed and would not show up, issuing increasingly bizarre demands and exasperating his foe before play had even begun. “I don’t believe in psychology,” Fischer said of the mind games. “I believe in good moves.”

With the world watching, he did eventually arrive in Reykjavik, and with the match tied 2½ to 2½, Fischer coolly uncorked a move that caught Spassky with his pants down: pawn to c4. Fischer always, always opened with his king’s pawn; it was the only configuration Spassky had prepared for, and in this uncharted territory the Russian was helpless. Fischer’s relentless belligerence had crescendoed to a sublime and understated play, which he followed with further aggression. Spassky never recovered. He managed just one win in the next 15 games, and Fischer and his mind and the testosterone-cortisol cocktail within were No. 1 in the world.

What's better than winning? Doing it while someone else loses. An economist at the University of Bonn has shown that test subjects who receive a given reward for a task enjoy it significantly more if other subjects fail or do worse—a finding that upends traditional economic theories that absolute reward is a person’s central motivation. It’s one of several new inroads into the social dynamics of winning yielded by neuroeconomics, a trendy new field that mixes elements of neuroscience, economics, and cognitive psychology to determine why people make the choices they do—even, or especially, the irrational ones.

Neuroeconomic studies often involve the dopamine system, a part of the brain that is highly involved with rewards and reward anticipation. Dopamine receptors seem to track possibilities—an arcing tennis ball that may land in or out—and how expected or unexpected they are. For fans, it helps to explain why a win by a No. 1 seed over an unranked challenger is no big deal, while underdog victors like the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team are so electrifying.

A similar kind of expectation management occurs in the minds of athletes themselves, says Scott Huettel, the director of Duke University’s Center for Neuroeconomic Studies. If you ranked an Olympic event’s three medalists by happiness, the athlete winning gold obviously comes first. What’s fascinating, Huettel says, is that the bronze medalist is second-most delighted, and the silver finisher is most distraught. “People’s brains are constantly comparing what happened with what could have happened,” he says. “A bronze medalist might say, ‘Wow, I almost didn’t get a medal. It’s great to be on the stand!’ And the silver medalist is just thinking about all the mistakes he made that prevented him from winning gold.”

All countries love winning, of course. But America, a nation born through victory on the battlefield, has a special relationship with the practice. “When you here, every one of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big-league ballplayers, and the All-American football players,” Gen. George S. Patton once told a gathering of U.S. Army troops in England. “Americans love a winner,” Patton thundered. “Americans will not tolerate a loser.” The next day was June 6, 1944, D-Day, and these were the men who would invade Normandy. We know where that one goes in the win-loss column.

But why do we admire winners—and put so much of our own happiness at stake when watching them compete? At some level of the brain, we think we are the guys in the fray. On Nov. 4, 2008, the night of the most recent presidential election, neuroscientists at Duke and the University of Michigan gave a group of voters some chewing gum. They collected samples at 8 p.m., as the polls closed, and again at 11:30, as Barack Obama was announced the winner. Testosterone levels normally drop around that time of night, but not among Obama supporters—while testosterone plummeted in gum taken from the men who had voted for John McCain.

Vicarious participation, the scientists concluded, mirrors what happens to the principal competitors themselves; the same thing happens in men who watch football and basketball—and, it follows, any other fiercely fought contest, from Andre Agassi’s greatest matches to Bobby Fischer’s run at the Russians. Why do Americans love a winner? Because it lets us love ourselves.

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