Outcome vs. Process Oriented Athletes

Winning is not only everything, it’s the only thing. Or is it?

Athletes that are outcome oriented, value winning above all else because the key value to be gained from the contest is to come in first place.  Winning is the ultimate goal.  What adds to the allure of outcome-orientation in competition is that the greater the win-loss ratio, the more likely it is that the athlete will receive playoff eligibility, a higher national ranking, scholarships to college, and sponsorship deals from sports apparel manufacturers.  However, the outcome-orientation in contemporary sports has not come without a price, as Spencer (2004) notes:

There is a growing belief that sport [in America], rather than encouraging moral virtue and spiritual values, promotes just the antithesis: man’s inevitable fall from grace through egotism, cynicism, nihilism, an obsessive focus on money, and win at all costs [outcome-orientation] mentality that fosters disrespect for competitors and society. There are frequent news reports about athletes who violate both civil and moral behavioral codes through alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, theft, promiscuity, violence, and even murder. (p. 143)

The Christian athlete, then, is hard-pressed since the Christian worldview is “based on an absolute, immutable, justice-loving God [and] the worldview of sports is based on material success [and winning at all cost]” (Hoffman, 2010, p. 11).

According to Watson and White (2007), the root cause of an outcome-oriented view of sports is pride.  “Considering that the postmodern consciousness is characteristically self-centered and self-sufficient and the world of sport is a naturally competitive environment, the potential for pride to corrupt and alienate is ever present” (p. 68).  From a theological perspective pride, according to Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963),

“…is essentially competitive by its very nature…Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man” (Lewis, 2001, p. 122).

While the temptation for pride exists in competitive sports, there is no need for the Christian athlete to reject competitive sports altogether.  In fact, from a biblical perspective the depravity of our world is a result of sin (Genesis 3) and the Christian is called to work out their salvation in the context of a fallen world, because God is at work in the Christian’s life “to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV).  The competitive athletic context, then, becomes a context where the Christian athlete, in the humility of Christ, can shine the light of Christ before others, so that even the athletic world “may see [the athlete’s] good deeds and glorify [their] Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16, NIV).

When it comes to the process-orientated approach to competition, it is important to realize that it does not eliminate the desire to win, but rather it offers a more multidimensional approach to competition.  Shields and Bredemeier (2009) emphasize that competition provides the context and opportunity to “develop mastery and cultivate excellence.  Success is measured according to the effort exerted and the personal goals achieved” (p. 40).  This approach to competition and success is reminiscent of Coach Wooden’s (1910-2010) philosophy.  Wooden, the ten-time NCAA championship coach, states

“…losing is not the end of the world, nor does victory put me on top of it – not even a national championship.  There is something beyond, something even greater than winning the race…I believe that success is found in running the race.  How you run – your planning, preparation, and performance – counts for everything. Winning or losing is a by-product, an aftereffect, of that effort” (pp. 7-8).

Wooden understood that winning wasn’t everything, but rather that the process of “striving together” with his team toward a goal was the measure of success, and perhaps even the nature of true competition.  Wooden’s famous definition of success captures the heart of process-oriented competition:

“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable” (p. 8).

In conclusion, process-oriented athletes “recognize that the value of the desire to win resides largely in its capacity to drive the competitive partnership” (p. 44). This approach facilitates an upward spiraling movement in which both competitors push each other to be their best. “Competitors appreciate the mutuality inherent in their partnership with an opponent.  They recognize that all talent is fundamentally shared talent” (p. 101).  Contextually speaking the process-oriented approach to competition is perhaps best displayed in the modern-day rivalry of professional Swiss tennis player Roger Federer and Spaniard, Rafael Nadal.  The two have met in numerous Grand Slam tournaments and have pushed each other to the limits of competition.  Yet, on and off the court, a mutual respect and admiration exist between the two.  In a recent interview, Federer was asked to comment on his friendship with Nadal.  The twenty-time Grand Slam winner responded,

“He will forever be my ultimate opponent. He was the one who helped me to improve the most and to be a better player…Rafa’s presence was an extra motivation” (Luigi, 2017).

Federer’s answer is revealing. It confirms that the process-oriented approach to competition keeps victories in the right perspective and allows the athlete to gain a more holistic view of the nature of competition.


Lewis, C. S. (2001). Mere christianity. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins Publishers.

Luigi, G. (2017, September). Roger federer: ‘My relationship with Nadal changed.’ Tennis World Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.tennisworldusa.org/tennis/news/Roger_Federer/47760/roger-federer-my-relationship-with-nadal-changed-/

Hoffman, S. J. (2010). Good game: Christianity and the culture of sport. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Shields, D. L., & Bredemeier, B. L. (2009). True competition: A guide to pursuing excellence in sport and society. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Spencer, A. F. (2000). Ethics, faith and sport. Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 12(1/2), 143-158.

Watson, N. J. & White, J. (2007). ‘Winning at all costs’ in modern sport: Reflections on pride and humility in the writings of c.s. lewis. In J. Parry, S. Robinson, N. J. Watson, & M. Nesti (Eds.), Sport and spirituality: An introduction (pp. 61-79). New York, NY: Routledge.

Wooden, J., & Jamison, S. (2005). Wooden on leadership. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Featured Image Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images


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