Does success actually breed success?

posted in: Performance, Uncategorised | 0

I have always believed that success breeds success, in all walks of life. I thought I would seriously look at the evidence for and against the idea of ‘success breeding success‘.

In sport you literally see this all the time.  This can be on a major scale, like the state of British sport at the moment after the high of the Olympics, where many sports are achieving great success at the very pinnacle on the World stage.  The summer of 2012 has lead to us as a nation riding high on the Olympic wave.  We are definitely more patriotic as a result.  We have all gained an enormous sense of pride from the Olympics, which has transferred from sport into our business starting to boom again, people seem happier and even the Royal family are popular again.  My goodness, even the weather has improved!

On a smaller scale, success leading to more success is seen every second all over the World.  It doesn’t always have to be on such a massive scale as Andy Murray winning Olympic Gold, then going on to win the US Open, then going one better again by winning Wimbledon.  It could be down from this, like a football striker scoring at seemingly every opportunity he gets, to having a goal drought the next season for no particular reason, his skill levels haven‘t all of a sudden changed.  Then it can go as small as particular moments in a particular game, giving ups and downs during individual sporting performances, almost minute to minute.

This latter one I see day in day out. If you take squash for example.  Often if an individual wins a point through an excellent interchange of play, combining excellent shot selections, executing each shot well and culminating in a satisfying shot to finish off the rally, you will tend to see this player win the next point as well, still riding high on the rally beforehand.  But, it can go even smaller than this – hitting a particular shot well once, will normally lead to hitting that same shot well next time.  If you were to examine a squash player hitting straight drive targets, I’m sure you would see runs of very consistent target hitting, and runs of target missing.  The “famine or feast” effect.

Success leading to success is also definitely true in business.  Money breeds money.  Success in business provides you with more opportunities which you can grow, so growth can almost be exponential.  It is also true in life, from something as ridiculous as popularity with the opposite sex!  The amount of times I have witnessed “famine or feast” periods in my friends’ lives when it comes to attracting the opposite sex when going out in our younger days, irrespective of their good looks, humour or charm.

This last example certainly would suggest confidence is worth looking in to.

What is confidence and how can it make such a difference to learned behaviours?

Surely learned behaviours should in theory be able to be produced in the same way with the same results every single time?

Is there biochemical evidence in the body which can explain this?

Are confidence and good decisions linked, or maybe just confidence and risk taking?

Confidence is the belief that a certain hypothesis will happen.  This can be a positive or negative outcome.  Confidence is a state of mind.  Because it is a state of mind does this mean that people are programmed to be confident people by their genetics?  I actually think sport can be different compared to a person’s day to day life and general personalities when it comes to self-confidence.  I think even a self-doubting person by nature can have confidence in their skills in sport, leading them to live as almost a different person in their little sporting bubble for small periods.

Confidence can also be described as “courage in conviction”, which definitely would help in decision making.  In sport fast decisions have to be made almost second to second.  If you have courage in your thoughts and past decisions, you will make a quick decision again and feel good that it is the correct one.  Even if it is not necessarily the right one, you will be happy to make another instantaneous decision to self-correct.  Decision speed in sport is vital and can often take precedence over whether it is actually the right decision or not, as it can be corrected with another confident, quick decision.

A lack of confidence can lead to dithering on decisions.  Time which, in most sports, is too precious to afford to waste.  A slight hesitation in sport will lead to the moment passing you by and you’ve lost out to your opponent who was willing to make the decision.  A loss of confidence will not only lead to dithering, but also half-heartedness, or holding back, or a slight lack of application in your decisions just in case you made the wrong decision.  In life maybe it is best not to rush into things too much if you have any doubt whatsoever in your decision.  In sport however, I think maybe you need to be wholehearted and give everything, even if there could be some doubt.  Speed of decisions, application of skills and moment-to-moment corrections are perhaps what makes someone successful.

Doubt, hesitation and holding-back could affect technique – the specific motor processes you’ve grooved over the years.  Perfect technique needs to be automatic, thoughtless and flowing.  Dithering or a lack of conviction makes you doubt what you know is right.  The second a World class performer doubts his or her technique, and the thoughtless rhythm becomes too thoughtful, broken down and stuttering, skill execution will deteriorate.  Courage in your convictions is essential.

Learned behaviours in theory should be able to be reproduced time after time.  Yes, but sport is an open environment, with external stimulation happening all around you.  This can be the cheering of the crowd, the moving ball you’re about to hit, your opponent close to you, the referee, the weather, the score……this list could go on.  Learned motor skills have to be adapted and applied to the environment, constantly leading to the exact same situation never happening twice, ie. Every shot you will ever play will always be slightly different.  Decisions have to be made.  Confidence in yourself, confidence in your decisions – courage in your convictions – will ultimately lead to a high performance levels because of these constant thought processes that have to be made, split second to split second.

There are two important hormones involved in these processes, whether you’re a tennis player or a high-stake financial trader wearing a suit: testosterone and cortisol.  In athletes – as also in traders, and the rest of us just mere mortals when faced with analogous circumstances –  testosterone rises sharply during a good sporting play for the athlete or financial boom for the trader, inducing a state of risk seeking euphoria providing a positive feedback loop in which success itself provides a competitive advantage.  By contrast, the stress hormone cortisol, spikes during sporting failure (no matter how big or small) or in financial downturns.  Sportsmen and traders with sustained high levels of cortisol become more risk averse and timid, ultimately being less competitive.

To actually briefly explain this.  Testosterone levels rise during pressure situations, ie. Sport.  This testosterone produces anabolic effects on muscle mass and haemoglobin, quickening reactions, improving visual acuity and increases persistence and fearlessness.  Then, once over, the winner emerges with even higher levels of testosterone, and the loser, lower ones.  So life for the winner is glorious, entering their next performance with already elevated levels of testosterone, so increases their chances of winning yet again….. and so on.  Success leads to success!

One last thing worth mentioning.  Success is defined as “the accomplishment of one’s goal”, ie.Success is getting what you want.  So therefore failure is not getting what you want.  Maybe the way in which we view success and failure is what can ultimately lead to more success.  Good sportsmen and businessmen learn from losses and failures, so instead of reinforcing the fact that they failed, it gives them motivation to improve, and a focus of what they need to work on.

I think what we can conclude is success does lead to success, but is not guaranteed.  As we saw, success often reinforces risk taking which is not always a good thing.  The economic downturn started a decade ago with head bankers taking risks that either didn’t pay off or had only short term benefits in order for them to get paid massive bonuses.  Success leads to confidence which in turn leads to courage in convictions, so therefore quick decision making.  Performance should be continually reassessed to continue to thrive and improve.

In the same way I don’t feel failure must lead to failure.  I think it often does due to a lack of confidence but using failure can lead to great success.  Great champions must experience failure in order to succeed.