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The secrets of the 'science' of victories. Where does the winner differ from the loser?

The secrets of the 'science' of victories. Where does the winner

Neuroscientists, psychologists and other researchers are beginning to better understand the concept of "winning" and have discovered a series of surprising connections between brain chemistry, social theory and economics. Taken together, these connections provide us with clues as to why some people are winners and others are not

Andre Agassi was losing badly. After a lightning start to his career, during which he stood out for the best response to the opponent's serves and the fastest reflexes in the tennis circle, by the early nineties he had turned into the classic and eternal promise: collect losses and collapse systematically in the finals.

In March 1994, at Key Biscayne in Florida, Agassi lost to a Pete Samprasi devastated by food poisoning minutes before the match began. Bored at the top and without a direction, he agreed to go to dinner with a potential new coach, a former tennis player whose style he did not particularly admire. Brad Gilbert was the anti-Agassi: a humble player who often managed to win matches in which he didn't seem to have a chance.

Gilbert had just published a book: "Winning ugly". Over dinner in Key Biscayne, Agassi asked him for a balanced, uncharged judgment of his tennis style. Why did he keep losing against tennis players who were less skilled than him? Gilbert criticized him for his vain pursuit of perfection. Instead of trying for a winning shot at every point, he had to limit himself to returning the ball to the court and waiting for the opponent to make a mistake. In his autobiography, "Open", Agassi recalls Gilbert's words: "My friend, everything is in the head. With your talent, if physically you are only 50 percent fit but mentally you are 95 percent fit, you win for sure. If physically you are at 95 percent of your form and mentally you are at 50 percent, then you will lose,

Agassi immediately chose him as a coach and Gilbert began to work on his game. At first, the losses continued, but slowly came the first victories in matches that the older Agassi would have missed. Thus, five months later, the tennis player won the first US Open, relentlessly taking on opponents. "I fell to my knees", writes Agassi in his autobiography as he remembers those moments. "My eyes filled with tears. I saw from my angle… everything you want to know about someone you understand when you see their face in the moment of your greatest triumph. I had believed in Brad's abilities from the beginning, but now, seeing his pure and unconditional joy for me, I believe in him unconditionally."

Finally, his mind was freed. Agassi shook off the legendary ban and defeated Sampras in four sets in the final of his second Grand Slam victory, the 1995 Australian Open, when he also climbed to the world number one ranking for the first time. There would be many more losses in his long career. But Andre Agassi had learned to win.

What separates a winner from a loser? The most obvious answer is that, at least in sports, the one who wins has a gift that ordinary mortals do not.

But physical condition does not explain everything. "There are more talented players in the world than there are winning players," insists Timothy Gellwey, author of many books on the mental component of tennis, golf and other sports. "From one point of view, the winners are those who don't put sticks in their wheels. Interfere as little as possible with the pure expression of their talent. To succeed, they must first win the war with fear, with doubt, with uncertainty. And these are not small victories at all".

According to this definition, victory is a concept that is not limited to physical sports competition: it can be extended to chess, spelling competitions, the world of work and even wars. Of course, it cannot be extended to everything. The size of our definition of "winning" shows that there is no single winning gene capable of covering all fields, nor even a cerebral phenomenon capable of transforming anyone into a champion. However, neuroscientists, psychologists and other researchers are beginning to better understand the concept of "winning" and have discovered a series of surprising connections between brain chemistry, social theory and economics. Taken together, these connections provide us with clues as to why some people are winners and others are not.

Great strides have been made in the study of dominance, an accurate scientific substitute for the concept of victory. For years, scientists have thought that dominance is largely determined by testosterone: the more you have, the more likely you are to dominate, and not just in sports. A high level of testosterone is also desirable in an administrative council, in a court of law and in all competitions that value risk and courage. 25 years ago, scientists demonstrated that hormones play a role in winning cycles. Each victory gives an injection of testosterone, which in turn gives an advantage in the next encounter, where testosterone will be produced again.

However, some researchers at the University of Texas and Columbia have found that testosterone is only useful when it is regulated by small amounts of another hormone, cortisol. For those with too much cortisol in their blood, on the other hand, a high testosterone level can be an obstacle to victory. Still at Columbia, a group of researchers is putting the new science of dominance to the test, taking saliva samples from master's students in economics to measure testosterone and cortisol levels. Each student receives instructions to keep both hormones in balance: eat whole grains and eliminate coffee to lower cortisol; should go to the gym and take B vitamins to increase testosterone. The ideal leader, explains Professor Paul Ingram, is "calm, but it is distinguished by a strong drive towards dominance". This applies to both men and women and, in theory, it applies to "winning" in various situations, for example a contract, a promotion, etc.

This new science helps us shed light on the great winners of the past. Let's examine the case of the one who has been perhaps the most adept of all at destroying opponents in reasoning challenges: chess champion Bobby Fischer. "He was consumed by an overwhelming desire to destroy his opponent," says Liz Garbus, director of the Bobby Fischer vs. the World documentary. "Bobby enjoyed making those around him miserable. There was something sadistic in his behavior."

Before the legendary challenge against Russia's Boris Spassky in 1972 in Iceland, Fischer underwent intensive training in the gym. You had told his trainer that when he shook Spassky's hand, he would shake it completely. The closer the match got, the more Fischer zig-zagged, making increasingly absurd demands and wearing down his opponent before the match even started. "I don't believe in psychology," Fischer said when talking about mind games. "I believe in the right moves."

In front of the eyes of the whole world, Fischer finally appeared in Reykjavík, and with the score tied at 2½ to 2½, he made with admirable coolness a move that left Spassky speechless: the pawn on c4. Fischer always opened regardless of the king, and this was the only game setup Spassky had studied. So, he was unprepared for this new situation. From a ruthless fighting type, Fischer had chosen a subtle move, which he then followed up with another attack. Spassky was no longer able to recover: he managed to win only one of the next 15 sets. Thanks to mental strength and the testosterone-cortisol cocktail, Fischer was number 1 in the world.

What's better than winning? To win while another loses. An experiment by an economist at the University of Bonn in Germany has shown that when you receive an award for achieving a goal there is much more satisfaction if someone else does not achieve the goal or does worse. The result is contrary to traditional economic theories, according to which absolute reward is the central motivation of every individual.

This is one of neuroeconomics' many forays into the social dynamics of winning. Neuroeconomic studies, a new field that blends elements of neuroscience, economics, and psychology to pinpoint the motivations behind individual choices, often pertains to the posterior cingulate system, an area of ​​the brain associated with reward and the expectation of reward.

Of course, everyone likes to win. But the US, born winning on the battlefield, has a special relationship with victory. "When all of you were children, you admired the best at the ball game, the fastest in the race, the strongest boxer, the baseball champions, the best football players," General George S. Patton once told a group of US soldiers in England. "Americans love winners," Patton said. "They would never tolerate losers." A day later it was June 6, 1944, D-Day, and the soldiers were the ones to invade Normandy. We all know where to place that day in the win and loss column.

But why do we admire the winners? Because we risk our happiness when we see them compete? At a certain level of our mental activity we imagine as if we are in their place. On November 4, 2008, the night of the penultimate presidential election, several Duke University and University of Michigan neuroscientists gave out chewing gum to a group of voters. They took some champions at 8 o'clock in the evening, the closing time of the boxes, and then at 11.30 p.m., when Barack Obama's victory was announced. Normally, at that hour, the level of testosterone decreases, but among Obama supporters, the opposite happened. Meanwhile, the hormone had declined among voters who had voted for McCain.

Yes, this reflects what goes on in the minds of those who compete. The same goes for people who follow football, basketball, and every kind of sport, from Andre Agassi's big games to Bobby Fischer's challenge to the Russians. Why do we "die" to win? Because it makes us love ourselves.

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