Giving up: The Key to Success

What we admire most in top athletes like Andy Murray is their tenacity in pursuing their goals. Sports' superstars pursue extreme goals demanding the highest level of performance. And yet only a handful ever reach that pinnacle of success. Because truly successful athletes have an advantage over their less successful rivals: They can detect unreachable goals on time and redefine their goals.


Andy Murray



What is the secret behind the success of a top athlete of the caliber of Andy Murray? How does the British tennis player - currently ranked second in the world - deal with crises and setbacks to his aims and dreams? To learn more about the perfect mix of goals, motivation and performance, British researchers interviewed over 180 athletes - among them Andy Murray. The results were published in the Journal of Personality under the title When The Going Gets Tough.

Their study showed that all these athletes shared their ambitious goals. But really successful athletes had a very special added ability: They were able to give up their goals and in consequence became more successful because of that. The body is not always able to do what the head wants it to do. A dip in form, injuries or conflicts with or within the support team might suddenly move long term goals into the far undefined future. Andy Murray said it most revealingly in his interview with the BBC: After Wimbledon 2012, he had to come to terms with the thought that he might never win a grand slam.

In such a situation, ambitious goals may become insurmountable obstacles and block the whole career. Successful athletes had the necessary sensibility to detect such risks at an early stage. They then needed the necessary courage to give their goals up. And finally they found the power and will to invest in and aim for new goals. In the case of Andy Murray, the new goal was the Olympic Games. But there was a second important gain in his redefining his goals: It took pressure off him during the US Open. Because make no mistake, the pressure athletes put on themselves to win is markedly higher than any pressure from the public can ever be.

The ability to handle flexible goals must be learned by many athletes in a  laborious development of trial and error. It is often a difficult process in personality development. Athletes identify very strongly with their goals and feel a huge obligation to fulfill their aims. If they have to give up long-held goals and dreams - even if only temporarily, for example due to an injury - then that hurts their ego very quickly.

Key to getting over such set-backs are emotions. Athletes are usually strong types used to holding on to their aims over long periods of time. In a crisis, a good coach is able to relate to their emotions and to mold them to the athlete's advantage. Primarily, the athlete should not be allowed to think about the cost of the demolition of his goals but about the benefits to be reaped in the future. It may be bitter to be absent from a competition or, worse, an entire season. But long term it will help the athlete to recover and continue a successful career.

Sporting science only starts to evaluate the positive influence of relinquishing goals on later success. In organizational and motivational psychology, the phenomenon has been researched longer. People able to detach themselves from unattainable goals are less likely to be depressed, more likely to be happy, reduce stress hormones, and show less inflammation markers in the body.

But human nature is struggling with the insights gained. After all, we know only too well from personal experience: The more we have invested in a goal, the less we are willing to give it up.

Further reading
Jerzy Janowicz and Andy Murray
Tennis With Gay Appeal
Monica Seles




Andy Murray

Andy Murray

Andy Murray

Andy Murray

Andy Murray

Andy Murray

Andy Murray