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Dragon boat, Figure skating, Psychology, Sport

Who is responsible for success and failure?

Recently I was learning about attribution theory, and how it relates to sports. Attribution theory relates to how and why people explain events in the way they do. This becomes self-serving attribution theory when we look at people’s success and failure.

  • You are responsible for your own success – for example, athletes (particularly male athletes) will more often attribute their victory to their own abilities and performance.
  • Someone or something else is responsible if you fail – again, using athletes (male) as the example, they are more likely to indicate that there were other factors that affected your performance. These factors are external, and out of your control.

As a coach in a few different sports, I see this as a huge challenge. If an athlete always thinks that they lost because of something else, they may not be motivated to change and improve. “Oh, well, if the wind had been different, I would have done better”, the implied end to this statement is “therefore, I don’t need to change anything about what I do in order to win.

Studies on students and academic performance or researcher selected tasks had found Japanese participants did not typically show self-serving biases. However, the biases were consistently found in Western participants. Aldridge and Islam looked at sports stories from Japanese and Australian newspapers about elite Olympic athletes from each country. They found that male athletes from both backgrounds were more likely to attribute wins to internal and controllable factors, and typically attributed losses to external factors. Female athletes did not differ significantly in whether they attributed wins or losses to internal or external factors.

As a Canadian, I can think of a few heart-wrenching Olympic moments when top athletes have accepted an internal focus for what they deemed as failure:

  • Kurt Browning after the 1994 Olympics – apologized to Canada for his failure.
  • The 4×100 m men’s relay at the London Olympics took full responsibility for stepping outside their lane and we’re disqualified after placing third.

At the same time, there are a number of examples where athletes have blamed equipment, competitors, warm ups, transportation, even fans for their subsequent failure. To be honest, when Usain Bolt criticized André DeGrasse for pushing Bolt in the semi-final of the 200 m at the Rio Olympics it felt a little like Bolt was setting up an external excuse in case he didn’t perform as expected.

But there are other cases, where athletes have overcome actual external excuses that would never be questioned to find success.

  • Joannie Rochet at the 2010 Olympics performing her way to a bronze medal days after the sudden death of her mother.
  • Not quite the same level, but Mo Farah’s ability to get up and win the race after tripping and falling during the 10 000 m in the Rio Olympics.

No one would have questioned these athletes if they had lost. But instead they found a level of resolve that allowed them to find success. How do we develop that level of internal resolve so that we can view whatever we accomplish as an internal victory?

There are always factors that you can’t control. The Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival runs with three lanes that are noticeably unequal. During divisioning in many sports the fastest and slowest overall finishers may race side by side. Or weather in some locations supports longer and more consistent training seasons. Expanding beyond sports into schools or workplaces we are affected by so many factors (e.g., fire alarms during exams, getting sick before a big presentation, traffic or transit delays). No matter what, we need realize that external factors may affect the outcome, but only we can affect whether that outcome is a success or failure.

I believe is was the Canadian wrestler Tonya Verbeek who was asked in an interview if she ever wished that her competitor, who had beat her repeatedly, wasn’t in the competition; her response was what would the challenge be then. If all of the external factors were in our control, victory would not be as sweet. But, ultimately we need to recognize our own role in our wins and our losses.

Aldridge, L. J., & Islam, M. R. (2012). Cultural differences in athlete attributions for success and failure: The sports pages revisited. International Journal Of Psychology, 47(1), 67-75.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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