Top Dog

The Science of Winning and Losing


By Po Bronson

By Ashley Merryman

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New York Times Bestseller

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s work changes the national dialogue. Beyond their bestselling books, you know them from commentary and features in the New York Times, CNN, NPR, Time, Newsweek, Wired, New York, and more. E-mail, Facebook, and Twitter accounts are filled with demands to read their reporting (such as “How Not to Talk to Your Kids,” “Creativity Crisis,” and “Losing Is Good for You”).

In Top Dog, Bronson and Merryman again use their astonishing blend of science and storytelling to reveal what’s truly in the heart of a champion. The joy of victory and the character-building agony of defeat. Testosterone and the neuroscience of mistakes. Why rivals motivate. How home field advantage gets you a raise. What teamwork really requires. It’s baseball, the SAT, sales contests, and Linux. How before da Vinci and FedEx were innovators, first, they were great competitors.

Olympians carry Top Dog in their gym bags. It’s in briefcases of Wall Street traders and Madison Avenue madmen. Risk takers from Silicon Valley to Vegas race to implement its ideas, as educators debate it in halls of academia. Now see for yourself what this game-changing talk is all about.


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"A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace."



Introduction / Parachutists and Ballroom Dancers


Scholars didn't get away with these kinds of experiments in the United States. Why the University of Trier's Ethics Board approved of her experiment, we still don't completely understand.

What we do know is that, at some point, Renate Deinzer received her university's blessing. And there she stood—in the middle of a tiny airfield in the Mosel wine region of Germany—facing sixteen terrified people she had convinced to go skydiving for the very first time.

In a single day, each was going from "Total novice who had never done anything like this," to "Mastering advanced free fall."

Scaring people to death was exactly the point of Deinzer's experiment. She was trying to discover how the body responds to incredible stressors: she wanted to know if there was a biochemical expression of fear to match the frightened expressions she saw before her.

Before and after their jumps, Deinzer asked each person to chew a small gauzy sponge and then spit the sponge into a test tube. From these saliva samples, Deinzer could discern exactly how the acute stress of skydiving manifested itself, biologically: she could measure the telltale psychoendocrine cocktail of the skydiving rush.

Three to four people went up in the small plane each time—buckled into the floor. Their hearts felt as if they'd pound right out of their chests if not restrained by the straps of their chute packs.

In just five minutes, the plane reached 10,000 feet in altitude over the drop zone. As nervous as they were, for the greater good of science, none chickened out. As the plane slowed to a hundred miles per hour, one by one they climbed onto the rails and dropped off the trailing edge. They tumbled once, then stabilized in the arch position—their bellies and faces to the earth—free-falling at 120 miles per hour.

For a long minute, the newborn parachutists felt the extraordinary sensation of hurtling toward the vineyards below.

In a first free fall, people can get so scared that they forget to breathe—or they hyperventilate. Which is a particular concern because at a 10,000-foot altitude, people already start to feel the effects of the reduced oxygen supply, and the air pressure alters how arteries function. If severe enough, this can trigger hypoxia, a condition that results in temporary blindness and impairment in memory and reasoning. The moment of pulling the ripcord to save oneself is sometimes so intense that, for some, they faint just as their canopy opens and remain unconscious for part of the flight down.

None of Deinzer's subjects experienced complications, though. Hearing instructions via radio sets in their crash helmets, they were guided toward the landing strip, where most were able to glide in standing up.

However, this wasn't a "Do this once and check it off the bucket list" day. Instead, they had to do it again. Deinzer had asked each person to make three separate jumps that very day: after they'd landed, they chewed a sponge and waited their turn to go back up. For some, they did all three jumps within the span of a single hour.

Why did they have to jump three times?

Deinzer was also interested in whether people habituate to the rush of skydiving—do you get used to it, such that it doesn't trigger the same degree of blast?

Analyzing the jumpers' saliva samples, Deinzer wasn't surprised to learn that they had a huge rush response to the first jump. But with each subsequent jump, the rush was reduced by about a quarter. By just the third jump, there was still a pronounced rush of stress, but (on average) it was now only half the first jump's intensity. It was more akin to the stress you get from driving in slow traffic that's making you late.

Apparently, hurtling to the earth in a free fall is something you can get acclimated to, rather quickly.

Now, there are many people who go skydiving frequently and love it. But if repeated skydiving doesn't reliably trigger a massive surge in natural hormones—then what's the ongoing appeal? Stephen Lyng is a scholar who studies edgework, a term borrowed from Hunter S. Thompson's description of anarchic human experiences. During the 1980s, Lyng was a jump-pilot at a local skydiving center. He contrasted what he learned there from skydivers with what he learned later by studying car racers, downhill skiers, combat soldiers, and business entrepreneurs. Lyng eventually concluded that the true "high" of skydiving, and other edgework, stems from the way skilled performance brings control to a situation most people would regard as uncontrollable. All of the safety rituals used to minimize the danger (in situations of extreme risk) engender this sense of control, but edgeworkers' fundamental skills are the ability to avoid being paralyzed by fear and the capacity to focus their attention on the actions necessary for survival. The feeling of self-determination they get from conquering the risks is the real payoff. It's not pure thrill they seek, but the ability to control the environment within a thrilling context.

Now let's compare parachuting against… ballroom dancing.


Hunter S. Thompson would never have described ballroom dancing as edgework. There's nothing anarchic about it. It's not an "uncontrollable" situation. Death is not a potential outcome.

About 280 miles northwest of the previous study, this time near Dortmund, Germany, there was another scholar also interested in the psychoendocrine cocktail induced by vigorous experience. Nicolas Rohleder was himself equipped with sponges to chew. In much the same way as in the skydiving study, he also analyzed results of subjects, comparing practice days and rest days to contest days. But his subjects were ballroom dancers—for the most part, couples who'd been doing this for years. They were competing in the Nordrhein-Westfalen Regional Ballroom Dance Competition.

There was no money at stake whatsoever, just bragging rights. Dancers had flown in from all over Europe for the fun. Held on a Saturday, the contest stretched for hours and ran continuously—with only minor breaks for the winners of each preliminary heat to be announced. In the Modern category, the men wore white tie and tails, with their hair gelled back; the women were attired in silk and sequined ball gowns, with stage makeup. When they heard their number called, each couple joined the others on the dance floor, performed a slow waltz for about 90 seconds, then rushed off for a drink of water and waited to be called again. Next was a tango, then a Viennese waltz, a slow foxtrot, and a quickstep.

During the competition, the couples were referred to only by their number—their names were not used until the final winners were announced at the end of the day. But this anonymity provided little safety; the sense that any mistake in their posture or floorcraft would be seen by the five judges was palpable. Every gesture counted: the smoothness with which they stroked their feet across the floor during the foxtrot; the staccato action of their tango; the extension of their ankles and pointing of their toes to enhance their line; the rise and fall of their waltzes.

During each round, as well as in the hours prior and after, the couples chewed a sponge. By the end of the night, Rohleder's refrigerator was filled with almost 900 saliva samples.

Back at his lab, Rohleder froze and then thawed the saliva samples, to prevent mold growth. He spun the saliva samples in a centrifuge at 3,000 rpm, and then, with a pipette, transferred 25 microliters from each dancer's sample onto an assay plate that had been coated with goat antirabbit antibodies. He added enzymatic peroxide and antiserum to each sample, then rinsed away all the free-floating molecules with a phosphate bath. Transformed by the chemicals, the assay plate now glowed, eerily. Finally, a luminometer measured the glow strength from each sample, which gave Rohleder a precise account of the chemical messengers of stress he was looking for.

Just how much stress had the dancers been under?

The pressure of ballroom dancing induced a stress rush just as strong as someone's second parachute jump. Many of the ballroom dancers' stress response was every bit as high as a first parachute jump.

Don't forget—this was not the dancers' first competition, or second. On average, the competitors had been in 131 competitions, and they had been going to dance contests for eight years. Yet even with all that experience competing, plus thousands of hours of practice, ballroom dancing was still enormously stressful.

Rohleder ran the data, specifically looking for experience effects. He broke the dancers into three groups, sorted by their level of experience. The first group were the dancers who'd attended fewer than 80 competitions; most had just a couple years of experience. The second group had competed more than 80 times, and they had been dancing for a number of years.

The third group had been to more than 173 competitions: they were the masters who'd practiced and performed repeatedly for over ten years. One dancer had been in over 400 competitions. In theory, these were the true experts. According to what science tells us, dancing at that point in their lives should have required very little cognitive control. All the muscle memory should have been driven down into the cerebellum region of their brains, where it was automated. There should have been no worry over forgetting to vary the inside and outside of their feet to create style and line.

But that wasn't the case. The intense stress reaction was no different between the three groups. The psychoendocrine cocktail didn't lie. The cutthroat world of the ballroom remained terrifying no matter how long they'd been at it. The contestants did not habituate.

Even ballroom dancers with over ten years of continuous experience might as well have spent that Saturday in northwestern Germany jumping out of an airplane.

Why might that be the case? How is it that someone can immediately get used to skydiving but can never get used to ballroom dancing?

Because the real difference between skydiving and dancing isn't defined by the physical environment of the activities. It's not even about the actual jeopardy to life and limb.

The real difference was the psychological environment. The expert dancers were in a competition, and the novice parachutists were not. To be more precise, it wasn't the dancing that was stress-inducing. It was being judged. It was winning and losing.

Competition is special. It has a danger and excitement all its own.

Let's think about what that means in the big picture.

The last few years, it has been argued that the secret to success in any activity is accumulating ten years' worth of deliberate, effortful practice. It's practice that makes you an expert. Stick at it, and you'll have a chance to succeed.

As that argument was spread far and wide, we felt that something was missing from the success formula. People aren't judged on how they practice.

Practicing is not the same as competing. You can rehearse a speech about how you deserve this job a thousand times—but how do you respond when you see 30 other people in a waiting room all vying for your same spot?

A broker can have a Ph.D. and ten years spent studying stock valuation—will that be enough when a portfolio's lost half its value overnight, and the client wants to know why he shouldn't move his account to the other trader down the street?

You can pitch a million baseballs to your child until he perfects his swing—but wait until he faces a pitcher who wants him to miss. Practicing the piano may develop finger dexterity, but that alone won't remedy the sick twisting feeling in your stomach the first time you are in front of an audience.

To be successful, you have to be able to perform when it counts. You have to be able to handle that pressure. You need to not wilt in the competition.

We wanted to know—what makes someone good at that?

What the ballroom dancing study tells us is that the stress of competition doesn't go away with experience. The inescapable conclusion is that years and years of practice are not, automatically, enough. In addition to the deliberate practice, success also depends on how well people compete. It hangs on how well they handle that psychoendocrine stress response, manage it, and even harness it. What we'll learn later in this book is that everyone has that stress response, but we can interpret it differently, which drastically affects our performance.

Ten years of practice may make you an expert. But even then, it just gets you in the door. You'll still have to dance against other experts—most of whom have put in their ten years, too. The winner is not the person who practiced more. It's who competes better. It's who lives up to the moment when the band is playing, the lights are bright, and judges are watching.

The same fundamental skills that matter in edgework turn out to matter in any competitive situation: the ability to avoid being paralyzed by fear, and the capacity to focus attention.

And the truth is, nobody puts in ten years of experience before he starts competing. The world doesn't work that way. We all are thrown into competitive situations, long before we've had enough practice. Our results are still judged; our fate is still determined by how we do. To survive these trials, we need more than practice. We need competitive fire.

This book is an investigation into competitive fire—what it is, and how to get it.


Competition makes the world go round. It is the engine of evolution and the foundation of democracy. It prompts innovation, drives global markets, and puts money in the pocket.

Still, there are those who have argued that competition is a source of evil. They see competition in terms of destructiveness: they don't believe it's a constructive activity. They assert that competition inherently kills off more prosocial behaviors, such as cooperation and respect.

First, we think that the assumption that competition is the opposite of cooperation is missing something crucial. To compete, both opponents have to cooperate on the rules: there's a mutual agreement of cooperation that governs the competition. As well, competitions are commonly among teams; each individual needs to cooperate with team members in order to compete effectively. Healthy competition can't happen without cooperation. In fact, the hormones that drive us to compete are the same hormones that drive us to collaborate.

Admittedly, competitions do occasionally bring out the worst in us. But bad behavior is not a long-term strategy for competitive success. Kids don't want to play with the kid who steals all their toys. You don't get repeat customers if you rip people off or make them sick. Bad behavior leads to isolation: no one wants to work with someone he can't trust. Furthermore, competitors who spend their time cheating their way into a victory don't develop the necessary skills to win on their merits. Again, cheating is a short-term strategy. It's not a winner over the long haul.

We also think that some of the anticompetition view can be pinned on a vocabulary problem. We don't hesitate to declare that countries have to remain competitive in business and in academics. A corporation that is not competitive is behind economically, but it is also failing in its duty to shareholders and employees alike. Season ticket holders of sports teams have an unquestioned right to complain when their local team isn't competitive. Their teams don't have to win every time, but they have to at least push their opponents and never fail to give their all.

It's when "competitive" is applied to individuals that the connotation gets murky. "Competitive" is a compliment when describing Magic Johnson on the basketball court and in his real estate empire—but it's probably a warning sign when depicting a girlfriend's behavior during a casual night of board games.

We need to make a distinction between adaptive competitiveness and maladaptive competitiveness. Adaptive competitiveness is characterized by perseverance and determination to rise to the challenge, but it's bounded by an abiding respect for the rules. It's the ability to feel genuine satisfaction at having put in a worthy effort, even if you lose. People with adaptive competitiveness don't have to be the best at everything—they only strive to be the best in the domain they train for. They might be perfectionists at work, but they don't care if they're the worst at tennis and shuffleboard. They are able to defer gratification, meaning they accept that it can take a long time to improve. Healthy competitiveness is marked by constant striving for excellence, but not desperate concerns over rank. It's adaptive competitiveness that leads to the great, heroic performances that inspire us all.

The maladaptive variety is what gives competitiveness its bad name. Maladaptive competitiveness is characterized by psychological insecurity and displaced urges. It's the individual who can't accept that losing is part of competing; it's the person who competes when others around him are not competing. He has to be the best at everything, and he can't stop comparing himself to others even when the competition is over. He doesn't stop when the whistle blows. He drags others into competitions they don't want to be in, by provoking them. And he will resort to cheating when he can't win.

It's this maladaptive type of competitiveness that people usually have in mind if they say, "I'm not competitive." They're picturing those who seem desperate to turn even the most innocuous event into blood sport—those who want to compete for no reason other than as an opportunity to humiliate the other guy. But hypercompetitiveness is the maladaptive aberration: adaptive competitiveness is that productive agent of change. When you pick and choose your battles, recognizing which are important and which are just a distraction. The adaptive form is our focus for most of this book.

But that left us tongue-tied.

In the English language, the distinction between the maladaptive and adaptive is ignored by the catch-all "competitiveness." The linguistic workaround is to turn to metaphor—an attempt to capture the valor of being a great competitor without the negative aftertaste. We say someone has "ice in his veins," "killer instinct," "nerves of steel," and the "heart of a champion." They have a "take no prisoners" attitude, or are "going for broke" or "taking the bull by the horns" or "giving 110 percent." They walk the talk, storm the gates, champ at the bit, and gird their loins. Top Dogs come out swinging, will it to happen, put their noses to the grindstone, and show up when it counts.

Our search for the right word eventually led us to the first culture that truly celebrated competition: the Ancient Greeks. The gymnasium, where men trained athletically, was the center of Greek life. Men came together and argued ideas; through contest and challenge, their ideas evolved. Ancient Greeks played dice, marbles, knucklebones, and checkers, all very seriously. The stage tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were entrants in government-created dramatic competitions. They held the Olympic Games, Isthmian Games, and Heraea Games for women.

The virtue of competing all the time was that it honed a person's mind and body. The ultimate goal was to achieve something the Greeks called aretas. (Its pronunciation rhymes with gravitas.)

Today, you may see English translations of aretas as "excellence." However, that is just a fraction of its true significance.

In the Homeric Age, to describe someone as having aretas was to say that he had competitive fire. According to historian J. E. Lendon, competition was the outlet for all other virtues—courage, loyalty, trustworthiness. In the heat of battle, someone with aretas had proven himself to be a fearless opponent and brilliant strategist. When tested, he was a leader, masterfully skilled, knowledgeable, and persuasive among his peers. He had metis—a cunning intelligence. He was physically strong, fast on his feet, and agile with a sword. He was brave and steadfast in character.

Thus aretas—attaining excellence through competition—became the supreme Grecian virtue. Aretas was something that the gods had and mere mortals sought to achieve.

Originally, the Olympic Games were a religious festival—a way to demonstrate one's aretas. Sports were not merely an entertainment, or a distraction, or a mimicry of war: all the events were said to have been contested first by the gods and heroes of Greek myths. The human competitors were hoping to demonstrate traits associated with the gods: through the events, the athletes were following the path of the gods to the divine. Competition brought out the best and taught athletes to be their absolute best. It was a chance to show honor and valor among rivals. It was during these contests that you earned kudos for all your glorious deeds.

In many ways, Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey are paeans to aretas. Both Achilles (in The Iliad) and Odysseus (in The Odyssey) are heroic figures who hone their aretas over the duration of the epic poems. In The Iliad, the questions of why we fight, whom we fight for, and how we maintain honor while fighting help define aretas. Through the endless trials of Odysseus on his route home, The Odyssey portrays sports prowess, endurance, self-control, cunning, and diplomacy as elements of aretas.

The Ancient Greeks did not fear that competition bred immoral behavior. They believed that competition taught moral behavior. Only by competing could people come to attain the full nobility of the human spirit. In simplest terms, they learned to fight fair, with honor and mutual respect for opponents. Aretas meant that competing had shaped you into a better person: competition challenged you to become the best you could be.


Some 2,900 years after Homer's time, the modern Olympics were being held in Beijing, China. It was August 11, 2008, at the Water Cube, China's National Aquatics Center. The French team was favored in the 4 × 100 meter men's freestyle finals. Going into the race, Alain Bernard had predicted his French team would "smash" the Americans. The two teams would be racing side by side, in lanes five and four. There was also a long history of rivalry between the Americans and Australians—who had made the finals and would be in lane three.

The Olympics are almost always the highest-profile, highest-pressure meets of an athlete's career—but in this case, the expectations were stratospheric. There would be a dozen world record holders in the pool including the entire American team of Michael Phelps, Cullen Jones, Garrett Weber-Gale, and Jason Lezak, as well as France's Bernard and Frédérick Bousquet. World record holder Eamon Sullivan would lead the Australians, while South Africa had reunited its entire freestyle team from the Athens Games—the team that had set a world-record time to win the 2004 gold. And the entire sports world was following the storyline of whether Phelps would win eight gold medals—breaking Mark Spitz's record haul of seven. For Phelps to get to eight, the Americans would have to win this race.

The Americans knew that every one of their swimmers would need a perfect race to win. By perfect race, that meant each swimmer would have to record a lifetime personal best during his leg.

As expected, the first leg was dominated by Australia's Sullivan, who finished in 47.24. (Two days later, he would establish a new world record in the solo 100-meter freestyle of 47.05 seconds.)

Phelps was 3/10 of a second behind, and the French team just behind Phelps. But over the second and third legs, the French overtook the USA and built a body-length lead.

The American anchorman was 32-year-old Lezak, the oldest male swimmer at the Olympics. On that final leg, he swam near the lane line, drafting on the wave created by Bernard, who was out in front. "For a 100-meter race, most swimmers will pace themselves somewhat," he told us. "They're still breathing. In the 50, they're not. Typically, when I go max for 100, I die in the last ten meters."

In the 2004 Olympic solo event in Athens, Lezak had ever-so-slightly conserved energy in the semifinals and didn't even qualify for the finals. That miscalculation had eaten at him for years. Four years later, trailing Bernard, "I had to go as hard as I could from the get-go."

When he flipped and turned, Lezak was still 3/4 of a body length behind. He peered to his right and saw Bernard ahead of him. Briefly, he abandoned hope. His muscles and lungs hurt intensely. He knew his speed was about to fade. "I told myself there was no way I could do this. He was the world record holder." It seemed the USA would be happy if it could even hold on to the silver medal. "I told myself just to swim my own race." But the fade he expected didn't happen. He felt strong and told himself so. "I got a little confidence back from getting up to his hip, little bit by little bit. And then I thought I actually had a chance." Right at the point where Lezak expected his body to die in the water, the recognition that he had a chance generated a supercharge in his body.

"I'd never felt it before."

Over the last 15 meters, Lezak caught Bernard and took the gold medal by an outstretched arm.

It was one of the most exciting relays in history and one of the closest. Fans around the world were stunned by Lezak's time: 46.06 seconds—a second faster than the world record and almost two seconds faster than he'd ever swum in a solo race. No matter how his race was dissected, it was still considered the swimming equivalent of a mom lifting up a car to save her trapped child.

How did he do it? What caused this phenomenal demonstration of competitive fire?

By the time you are done with this book, you will recognize that dozens of factors came together and contributed to that very special 46 seconds. Yes, dozens of factors, each one taking a few hundredths of a second off his time.


On Sale
Feb 19, 2013
Page Count
336 pages

Po Bronson

About the Author

Po Bronson is Managing Director of IndieBio. His science journalism has been honored with nine national awards, and cited in 185 academic journals and 503 books. He’s the author of seven bestselling books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller What Should I Do With My Life?

Learn more about this author