How to Make a Winner

Winning, a debut film by Jacqueline Joseph ’91, looks at the careers of iconic athletes and examines what makes them shine.

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Edwin Moses, in a still from the documentary Winning.

Courtesy JJ Unlimited Productions

All her life, Jacqueline Joseph has loved two things—sports and film. “When I was a junior in high school, I did an independent project for which I watched 30 films in 30 days and wrote movie reviews for all of them,” she recalls. “When I was an undergrad I curated a film-screening series, and when I was in business school, I wrote film reviews for the Columbia Business School newspaper.” Joseph was hired by Arthur Ashe to be the first executive director of his foundation, but for much of her career after business school, she worked as a consultant, helping Fortune 500 companies develop and execute their digital strategies. On the side, she made films, mostly shorts; she also worked on a full-length one. But then she came up with the idea for a documentary that would explore what makes certain athletes incredibly successful. She shared the concept with a friend, “an experienced filmmaker whose opinion I thought would be valuable, and he was very excited about the idea,” she says, “and that was what made me decide, okay, I'm going to devote the time to make the film.” The result is Winning, a documentary about tennis champion Martina Navratilova, golf great Jack Nicklaus, Olympic gymnast Nadia Comăneci, track and field star Edwin Moses, and Dutch Paralympian Esther Vergeer. The film, which has won praise at several prestigious film festivals, has its worldwide theatrical premiere in New York City in September. Columbia alumni are invited to a special screening in New York City on September 12. Here, Joseph talks about what makes athletes so interesting, and what success in sports can teach us about achieving success in business — and in life.

What gave you the idea to pursue this topic, and why did you focus on these particular athletes?
Like so many people, I'm a sports fan. I'd look at athletes who I think are unbelievably talented and wonder, why have they not won a single major? And then there are other athletes who had achieved a tremendous amount over a long period of time and I'd marvel at the fact that they were still practicing five hours a day. I thought it would be compelling to understand why they have been so successful. What makes a winner? I think the journeys of these athletes resonate with people who play sports, and they’re also relevant for experiences off the field of play. We knew we wanted between four to six athletes, so I spent a lot of time doing research and coming up with a target list. We were looking for athletes who had not just won one major title, but had won multiple titles over a long career. And we were looking for athletes who had not only transformed themselves, but had transformed their sports and who had also transcended sports. There are a lot of athletes who win one major title and there are a lot of athletes who win a gold medal at every Olympics. But if you think about it, decades later there are very few athletes that you remember by one name. But you can say “Nadia” and whether someone's a sports fan or not, pretty quickly they're like, Nadia Comăneci. And I think that's because not only of what she achieved at the Olympics but because of what her story was and how it transcended sports.

So what actually makes a winner?
Coming from a business background I naturally think of critical success factors. People talk about practicing 10,000 hours or having natural talent. But my hypothesis is that there are several things. Everybody wants this one little key they can hang their hat on. But I think there are a few things, and it starts at the very beginning with finding what you're really passionate about. That unbridled joy that you have as a kid where you could spend hours day after day doing something. And I feel like everybody has something like that. It doesn't have to be sports. But whatever it is, these athletes have found it through sports, and by retaining that kind of joy and constant learning and evolving which also translates outside of sports. In making the movie, we spent a lot of time trying to humanize these athletes. “A lot of people not only put them on a pedestal, they think, “They're just so incredibly talented. I'm nothing like them.” But in fact they’re just individuals, and they have fears and insecurities and have faced a lot of obstacles. One of the defining things that I hope comes through in the film is that everybody faces challenges and obstacles. Even these athletes who appear to have had dream lives. It's how they deal with them that’s one of the main reasons they’ve achieved what they've achieved. And that translates on the field of play and off the field of play.

Can you draw a correlation between what leads to success in athletics and what leads to success in business?
What leads to success in the business world and what leads to success in sports are incredibly similar. That’s part of what Winning is about, because in business, it starts with an idea or a vision or a dream. And in sports, when you're little you have a dream. You want to win a gold medal. You want to play whatever sport it is for hours and hours. And then you have to gain experience. You have to develop skills. You have to work really hard. You have to find the people who are going to support you. And there are going be challenges and obstacles and you have to figure out how to navigate them. If you look at the most successful businesses, they're continually reinventing themselves and evolving and adapting to what's happening in the marketplace and I think that that's true with the most successful athletes. That's why they have success over decades.

Were there skills you learned at Columbia Business School that you put to use in making Winning?
I'm a big fan of what I call transferrable skills. So before making the movie I worked with Fortune 500 companies on developing their digital strategy and very complex websites. I had to work with teams of people across different time zones and different continents—creative, business, strategy, and technology teams. The key was understanding the intersection of all of those in order to ultimately create something that achieved everybody's objectives and that was successful. That translates very much to film because there are a lot of creative choices in making movies, and there are business and strategic choices at every step of the process from pre-production to production to planning the distribution strategy and marketing for the film release. There are technical issues: what are we going to shoot with? What kind of system are we going to use to edit? So, the intersection of all of those things and understanding how to deal with them was definitely a big part. From a very practical standpoint, I had Bruce Greenwald's finance class at Columbia. He's an amazing professor and I learned so much that I used throughout my experience in the business world and then in film. Budgeting and cash flow are huge issues in making a movie. Having had that finance background and experience was invaluable. And what I studied about international business and learned about marketing has been critical in thinking about the branding and the positioning of the film and the actual development of the global marketing strategy, as well as the design of marketing materials.

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