The Secretions of a Winner

Posted by Scott Christensen

It has been jokingly said that 83% of statistics are made up on the spot in conversation.  Coaches do this all the time, as they say such things as: “give me 110% effort today” (huh?), “slow the second lap down to 95%” (again, huh?), or the classic line; “sports is 90% psychological and 10% physical”.  In reality, training and competing in sports is 100% physiological because the psychological “portion” of effort is controlled by physiological secretions of hormones and proteins such as adrenaline, cortisol, dopamine, tryptophan, and testosterone among others. 

The psychological feeling that a trained confident athlete such as a cross country runner gains because of the secreted bio-chemical endocrine brew is often times described as a feeling of “dominance over one’s body and/or the competition”. Once the developing athlete arrives at this point, they are ready to tackle the concept of athletic success and its less desirable counterparts. 

Success is most often measured as a qualitative analysis, while winning is a quantitative measurement.  Success or failure is generally applied to effort, while winning or losing is measured in the outcome of the contest.  In a cross country race there can only be one true winner, but many of the runners will find a certain amount of success in their effort.  There is no denying in sport that we put a high social value on winning, and success can be correlated with that outcome in many situations. 


However, in any cross country program the coach is constantly trying to balance the concepts of winning, losing, success, and failure among all members of the team.  The balancing act of a reward-motivated system and the role of brain physiology in the process is what makes competing in sports so valuable and exciting in our modern society.  The key for the coach is to serve as a leader and create a culture of honest analysis between these four conceptual terms in order to maintain motivation among all skill levels of runners on the team. 

What are the characteristics that separate frequent winners from athletes that seldom win?  The typical answer in athletics is that winners simply have more physical talent.  But fitness in a specific sport does not tell the whole story. 

“There are more athletes that have the talent to be the best at something than there are winners,” says author Timothy Gallwey who has written several books about the mental side of competing in athletics.  “One way of looking at it is that successful athletes get in their own way less often.  They interfere with the raw expression of talent less often as well.  To do that, they first win the war against fear, against doubt, and against insecurity, which are no minor victories.” 

Defined that way, winning becomes translatable into areas beyond the cross country team into such things as playing chess, spelling bees, the corporate world, and even military action.  There is the concept of a “winner” present in our society in many areas and neuroscientists, psychologists, and other researchers are beginning to better understand the highly interdisciplinary concept of winning.  These people are finding surprising links between brain chemistry, social theory, and even economics, which together give new insight into why some people come out on top again and again in competition.

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Winning and a high personal view of success has been shown to be correlated with a higher than normal presence of the hormone testosterone in an individual.  Elevated testosterone levels has been shown to invoke a feeling of “confidence in strength” among humans tested in the lab.  Simply put: the greater the testosterone secretion that occurs (above ones homeostasis), especially at the start of the contest, the more likely that the athlete will prevail.  Recent studies also indicate that the greater the presence of the hormone cortisol that is present, then the greater the “feeling of dominance” that the athlete reportedly feels.  Physiologists conclude that an individually unique ratio of cortisol/testosterone is ultimately what causes this “can’t lose” attitude found in successful people of all disciplines from the cross country course to the boardroom.

A correlated attitude expectation management mechanism occurs in post-competition hormonal secretions as well.  Those secretions that control happiness, satisfaction, or failure, says Scott Huettel, the director of Duke University’s Center for Neuroeconomic Studies.  If you ranked an Olympic event’s three medalists by happiness and satisfaction of success, the athlete winning gold obviously comes first.  What’s fascinating, Huettel says, is that the bronze medalist is second-most delighted, and the silver medalist feels most like a failure.  “People’s brains are constantly comparing what happened with what could have happened,” he says.  “A bronze medalist might say, ‘wow I almost didn’t get a medal.  It’s great to be on the stand!’  And the silver medalist is just dwelling on all the mistakes he made that prevented him from winning the gold and the thoughts of failing and losing.”  The presence of a greater than normal amount of the hormone dopamine seems to be directly related to these feelings.

Winning, losing, success, and failure are all part of the sport of cross country running as they are part of life.  Many of the hormones that are secreted in the human endocrine system are stress related.  Stress can be defined as having both a physical and a psychological component.  It has been shown that strength training of any type from weight room activities to jogging invokes a testosterone release.  The coach would have good control over that type of stimulation.  Cortisol can be secreted as a physical response to inflammation or as a psychological response to problems at home.  Tryptophan is a response to a well rested organism. 

Coaching Resource: The Training Model for High School Cross Country with Scott Christensen

All of the hormones of the body must work together in harmony, and especially so in a championship runner.  It takes the actions of the coach and the athlete to provide the proper athletic environment to excel.  When done right, the physiological response to hormones can provide the right frame of mind to produce athletic success in all athletes and will allow the best to be the winners. 




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Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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