A Fear of Winning?

I’m a sucker for a good quote.

Athletes who’ve reached the pinnacle of their field have insights applicable beyond the confines of sports. A good quote offers a glimpse into the champion’s psyche, a peek at the steeliness that helped propel the athlete to the top.

But here’s a quote that kind of stumps me.

A champion is afraid of losing. Everyone else is afraid of winning.

–Billie Jean King

When I first read King’s words, I said, Yes! There’s so much to love about this quote. It’s terse. It’s memorable. It has wonderful symmetry. It has that unflinching tell-it-like-it-is quality that’s the hallmark of the greatest champions.

Then I started thinking about it. What does it mean? Why would someone be afraid of winning? Am I afraid of winning? I don’t think so–but maybe I’m so used to my fear that I can’t see it.

I know some really smart people read this blog, so I’m going to enlist your help. Is there validity to King’s assertion? What does a fear of winning look like? (And how do you get over it if you have it???)

11 thoughts on “A Fear of Winning?

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  1. I’ve read and re-read this quote and concluded that it’s BS. I don’t think anyone is afraid of winning. But then I thought maybe BJK has it backward: maybe it’s really the champion who’s afraid of winning because of the responsibilities and pressure of being #1 (there’s only down after that) and it’s the rest of us blokes who are all afraid of losing?

    1. You’re calling BS on Billie Jean King. Love it.

      I can see what you’re saying about champions being afraid of winning. Take the Angelique Kerber’s of the world. Or Ana Ivanovic. They won a GS tournament and immediately went into a tailspin, unable to handle the pressures of being #1. Clearly they have some hangups about winning.

      Maybe what Billie Jean would say is that they’re not champions. Only players like Fed and Serena are true champions. That’s a pretty high bar.

  2. I think she is spot on. The fear of losing is so deep that it draws out of the champion extra effort, focus and performance. The fire inside burns deep and won’t be quelled until victory is in hand.

    1. Then would you say “everyone else” is afraid of the COST of winning–of doing what it takes to actually win? I.e., it’s not that they’re afraid of winning so much as they’re afraid of the sacrifice? Not sure if I’m putting words in your mouth (fingers?). It’s a reasonable explanation of the quote.

  3. A few years ago I was contemplating the fear of failure, and realized I didn’t have a fear of failure, I had a fear of success and the added responsibilities that would mean. I love to travel for long trips and adventures, but there were aspects of “success” in business that would mean a change in how I live.

    Perhaps the quote has a similar meaning.

    Also, I think many of us want to win, but in some sense “winning” is the thing people desire, so I wonder if on a subconscious level some may fear winning because once attained, it means you have more to lose and expectations to live up to.

    1. Yes, I read something similar today about winning bringing with it a whole slew of life changes and pressures and attention–I can see how professional athletes might have subconscious second thoughts about it, even if they’ve strived for it their whole lives. I can see how you could be subconsciously sabotaging yourself.

      I still don’t see how it applies to a player at my level, though–there’s no newfound responsibilities or attention that would come with winning a match. And yet I lost one today after blowing four match points…and my coach told me I was afraid to win! (Hate when he uses my blog against me.)

  4. All of the thoughtful replies above have turned BJK’s quote around. We have to believe her when she says that “champions are afraid of losing” , and that’s why they are champions. That brings us to us (the lesser players). I wonder if our fear of winning could be tied into the “ let down” factor. For example, in the last match I played, our opponents were quite good, one in particular. We broke their serve early on, and I began to think about winning. Perhaps even surprised that we were ahead through much of the set. Sadly, we lost that set tiebreak quickly. Perhaps I was afraid we couldn’t keep up and thought too much about winning, setting up a fear that it wouldn’t continue.
    I know there are several other factors connected to a letdown, one being getting complacent or even overconfident.

    1. I think along with the “afraid we couldn’t keep up” feeling is the imposter syndrome. The nagging feeling that previous successes maybe were flukes. I do tend to dismiss many of my wins–it’s because the opponents weren’t very good, or because my partner was. I might think I played well in a match…but I’d secretly know that against better players I wouldn’t have won. (Which is crazy because unless you’re the number one player in the world, you can always find better players to beat you!)

      Conversely, I accept all losses as accurate assessments of my worth as a tennis player. I never think, “if I played against worse players, I’d have won!”

      It’s hard being me. 😂

      But I agree, thinking about winning when you get ahead is the worst thing to do. It’s always screws up your game!!!

  5. I’m obviously late to this thread, however, I’m surprised anyone who has watched much tennis, in particular the women’s game, has trouble understanding the quote. With the exception of the real champions, they nearly all lose their bottle when the winning line is within sight.

    1. Hey, better late than never! There’s definitely a lot of choking in tennis, especially (I hate to admit it) on the women’s side. I just don’t know if it’s a fear of winning rather than some other psychological phenomenon. Maybe it’s that seeing the finish line makes you hyper-conscious of the moment, which means you lose the “flow” of your game that got you to that moment. To be in the zone, you have to be flying a bit on autopilot. The best players, I think, are able to maintain that emotional distance in the big moments, letting their muscle memory and instincts continue to call the shots. That seems to me to be Djokovic’s biggest strength. Once you think too much, you second-guess yourself and your shots become more forced/less fluid. That describes me to a tee! (Or is it to a T?)

      I agree it can be tough to watch some of the women play. We seem to get tight more than the men do. The topic for another blog…

  6. Yes, Deb, I agree with all of that. When a lot of the players are behind, or even on the verge of losing, they suddenly become fearless and often manage to produce their best tennis. However, serving for a set, or one set up, or serving for the match, they panic and collapse. For me, that is what BJK’s quote encapsulates.

Let me know what you think!

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