What makes some people thrive in the heat of competition, and others drop the ball? How important are genes in predicting success? Those are among the questions explored by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in their new book “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.” Bronson joins us to discuss the book, which challenges many commonly held assumptions about success and failure.

Interview Highlights

Po Bronson, co-author of "Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing" and founding member of the Grotto, a San Francisco writers group

  • Gracchus

    Competition does not often make people better, but usually it makes them lesser people, caught in a hollow life dedicated to a petty, reckless, shallow pursuit of arguably worthless goals like putting a ball in a hoop and buying 2nd and 3rd homes. Sometimes these wannabe winners pursue goals that are disastrous to others, as when an executive initiates the outsourcing of jobs so she can get a bonus, or when manufacturers in China put melamine in milk to save a few yuan, or when fracking companies knowingly destroy water supplies by pumping carcinogens into the ground, just so they can make a buck. When unethical competitors run amok, they may or may not win, but society usually becomes the loser.

    Study: Rich people less ethical than poor:

    • Lenora Hightower

      I do think it is funny that we always hear that team sports build character — sadly, for many kids that are athletically skilled, their “character” often becomes quite selfish, egotistic, and bullying.

  • Lenora Hightower

    From a very young age, certain of the Viking teams focus only on their “best” players, playing those players for entire games and allowing the other players onto the field only when there aren’t enough “best” players present, or when the team is far enough ahead in goals that letting a lesser skilled player on the field won’t hurt the outcome of the game. My child – considered one of the better players – has been on teams where this has happened, and it is terrible both for him, to have that pressure on him to win win win, and for the players who never really get to play. When these incidents are reported, Viking — Po — looks the other way. Under Po’s leadership Viking also introduced competitive play at a much younger age – the under 9s – which results in some kids who are not as mature physically basically being thrown under the “not athletic” bus when for many of them they simply need time and good coaching. For Po to say that the incidents of out-of-control coaches or parents are dealt with immediately and are not repeated is, I think, self-serving and disingenuous.

    • exemplary1

      I coach in this same league. This is not a league issue as much as it is a coach and parent issue. These are independent teams and coaches, mostly hired by parents, who play as part of the league. Their team culture or philosophy are independent of and not controlled by it. It’s like blaming the NFL for who the 49ers chose to play at quarterback in the Superbowl. How to avoid this in your case? It sounds like you need a new team that emphasizes development. Look up Toby Rappolt at Sunset Soccer. He’s a delightful coach.

      I also think you miss some important points of U9 “competitive” play. This was not only to align San Francisco with other leagues throughout the country, who have U9 and even U8 competitive play, but the term is misleading. For the most part the competitive division simply provides structure for teams for parents and kids who like to play year around soccer as their designated sport. And many children at this age begin to decide what sport they enjoy most. For my team, a comeptitve division meant we also got better practice and game fields, which is huge in San Francisco.

  • anastay007

    How much of winning is
    internal dialogue and/or confidence?

    • anastay007

      UCLA Softball coach Sue Enquist: “It’s all about the conversation you’re having with yourself.”

    • chrisnfolsom

      That depends on your competition – the best performance has all the needed preparations and mind set. In many sports they actually work towards a peak time which can only be sustained for a short time until you drop to a lower level. It is nice to talk about empathy and such which matter in long term survival and such, but generally in any given competition those with the most drive and dogged determination and ego win – and are lauded by those watching.

  • fchurch66

    Give me a break? There are many different theories in science, some universal, some just theories. The science on human nature is really vast and mostly unknown. We know more about ants than we do humans, because our makeup is just too complex. There have also been several studies that show competition is a bad ideal and immoral.

  • Selostaja

    How do you help those who have a problem with competition and are no longer children? There seems to be alot of help and direction for kids, but what about the lost generation of 20+ year olds?

  • Michelle

    My dad tells a story of how competitiveness was in my blood from a very young age. At 3 in a three legged race with Dad who was asked to lose. We had won all the other races prior. He started slowing down. I rebelled when I realized what he was doing and tried to push him away from me so I could go without him. Of course we ended up falling down. Still not ready to give up, I clawed at the grass to try to keep progressing even given the tight tie on our legs. Can you speak about nature / nurture in competitiveness.

    • Niketana

      I don’t know how old you are, Michelle, but I wonder if you are competitive now. Has the quality persisted?

  • Lenora Hightower

    Po is correct that there are rules about players playing 50% of the game, but the coaches don’t abide by those rules. My son is on a Prep league team and there are still better players who get played much much more than the other players. I guarantee you he hasn’t dealt with these coaches.

    • Lenora Hightower

      Po, I am surprised that you didn’t simply say that you’d handled a situation just like this and if there is another situation you welcomed my contacting you directly. I guarantee you don’t know who I am and have not dealt with these particular coaches.

    • chrisnfolsom

      We all know this is a tough situation and some coaches “stack” their teams. locally we mix teams pretty well and have pretty competitive games. We also have created a limit of a 5 goal lead per game (I am mixed on this) and will add a girl to the loosing team. I am for limiting stacked teams and players playing beyond their level by hitting them where it hurts – reduce the number of players on lopsided teams. Playing time is important to good players and if they are limited due to team imbalances it will hopefully limit players from being on stacked teams. The first thing to remember is it is never even – even when everyone is trying their hardest although some rules and regulations can contribute to a better experience for all.

  • chrisnfolsom

    In many sports the luck of the draw is the indicator of winning a “team” sport yet we will attach (some more than other) some inherent skill by individuals to the win. We had to mix comp and recreation teams one year for an indoor session and it was amazing how many of the rec parents were expecting a competition not realizing how much extra training, skill and physical training were involved in the comp teams. While I don’t want people to expect less then they can do they also have to be realistic. A few of the comp teams were mean and some worked with the girls to have some competition and fun – many of the girls knew each other. Being “real” is important and while “having fun” is not always the most important thing it has to be high on the list.

  • Niketana

    I still don’t hear the author explaining the value of competition and winning. There seems to be an assumption that it is inherently good to compete and win, whether as an individual or as part of a team. As an identical twin, I know what it is like to compete and be compared by others. Yes, I think it did aid our development in some ways, but we also grew tired of the comparisons and didn’t relate well to the “we gotta beat these guys” mentality of team sports; it seemed part of another species. I do like to do well in my creative and athletic endeavors, but I think the stronger reward is not “winning” so much as learning. Chess player Josh Waitzkin says that he lost his love of chess when the winning became more important than the process of learning.

    Bronson doesn’t seem to address the toxic aspects of competition–the narcissism, etc. Yes, being part of a good team can be a very rewarding experience, but always having to be the best or top dog is an alienating quality.

  • Wining and Losing is the nature theory! So there is no other way to run from this we have to understand the truth.

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