I once read a football t-shirt that said "Football is 80% physical, 30% mental". The point of the shirt was to show that Football has a mental aspect as well as making you think, because the math was more that 100%.....
This is one of the great things about sport, that there is more to it than just pure brute strength. Even a sport like power lifting has a huge mental aspect to it. You will often hear elite athletes talking about their mental preparation for an upcoming competition. Most of the time you will hear them say they feel no pressure. But on the other side most of these guys, when it is time to step up, are the ones that want the "ball". They have no problem dealing with pressure. So what is it that allows great athletes to feel no pressure and win when it is all on the line? I think it is because they were first allowed to fail.
Sure there are going to be guys that from the word go win all the time. You can read about how Lance Armstrong was winning races against grown men while he was a 13 year old. But even Michael Jordan failed when he tried to make the varsity team as a sophomore. For me it was key that I had a chance to try things out in real competition. If I was given a few shots to show my stuff, and didn't have to worry about earning my spot each time out, I excelled. I had some really good coaches in my life that somehow saw that in me. There were a couple that didn't though, and I never made it far with them. That is another tale however.
From my experience an athlete that can figure out the difference between good failure, and bad, is the one that is going to get the the next level. It is the job of the coach to help that athlete figure that out. I have been working with one of my athletes all year with this. She is a very talented kid who has had a lot of problems with injuries. This year we got her started late, but have kept her healthy. This has been tough on her though as she has not been able to train skills or routines as much as she should have or even could have. So she has struggled during competition. Not because she has not trained hard, but just because of time. It takes time to peak, it takes time to gain that feeling of self assured-ness it takes to be a great competitor and athlete. One day when she was having a particularly tough day and she was getting really down on herself, I told her "just don't care so much". WHAT!!!??? Did that just come out of my mouth? Yeah, and I meant it.
So here is the thinking on what I said. This kid, and 99% of the kids that I work with care, a lot. Just like I did, or any other elite athlete does. So telling her not to care wasn't going to be a complete 180. No one is going to make a great athlete that really wants it, let go of their dream. But what I was telling her was that it was ok to not be perfect all the time. In turn I am hoping that this takes the pressure off her a bit. Then while the pressure is off, I am hoping that things start to turn around. The only problem is that there really isn't a lot of time left in this gymnastics season. She has one more year with me, so maybe I can make some headway with the time left there.
So I guess what I am saying is at first, some people just don't care if they win or lose. Then when it becomes second nature it doesn't bother you that people expect you to win. I think this is a very simplified generalization though, and I know all people are different. I have known athletes who only did well under horrible situations, like not hitting a skill in weeks, or being injured, or sick. These people used it to fuel their competitive "fire".
Winning is a state of mind and a belief in yourself, and team. If you doubt for a second that what you are doing wont lead you to the promised land, then you wont get there. Vince Lombardi said "Winning is not a sometime thing, it's an all the time thing. You don't win once in a while, you don't do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing." This sounds quite different from what I am saying, but he isn't talking about never making mistakes. Only an idiot could think that people don't make mistakes. And Mr. Lombardi was no idiot. What I think he is saying is that you have to know you are going to win, and you have to live your life expecting that what you are doing is going to lead to victory. Just because you missed turning the double play at practice doesn't mean you weren't thinking of winning, you made a mistake, learned from that mistake, and next weekend will turn a double play to win the game. If you get so down on yourself for every mistake, you will never do anything right. And then you can never win. And in every real athlete's world, winning is everything.