Play To Win

When I was new to the plumbing industry and working on the sales counter in a supply house I wasn’t particularly good at my job. Half the time I didn’t know what the plumber was asking for and the other half the time I couldn’t figure out how to pull it up in the system to put it on the sales order. This was quite a challenge but with each passing week I got more comfortable and got better at taking care of the customers; most customers anyway.

A few customers had very little patience for my mistakes and it didn’t take me long to realize who these guys were. When one of them walked through the door I’d try so hard to not make a mistake but that’s exactly what happened every time. That’s the paradox isn’t it? The harder we try not to make a mistake the more mistakes we make.

iStock_000033417172MediumIn their book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing authors Po Branson and Ashley Merryman tackle this topic. They use a penalty shoot-out situation in soccer to illustrate and it really has me thinking about my language in the dugout.

In soccer they use kicks from the penalty mark to decide who wins in the event of a tie. If you find yourself in a shoot-out situation you could be kicking in one of the following scenarios:

  1. Your team is down by one and you are kicking to keep your team’s chances alive. You have to make it to tie the game back up but if you miss it your team loses. You can’t win but you can lose; essentially you’re kicking not to lose.
  2. Your team is tied and the other team just took their kick and missed. If you don’t make it your team doesn’t lose but if you do make it your team wins. You can’t lose but you can win; essentially you’re kicking to win.

The authors assert that overall penalty kicks are made 85% of the time; however, in the two above scenarios results vary drastically. The player kicking in a tie game with no chance to lose but a chance to win it makes it 92% of the time. On the contrary, the player behind by one goal with no chance to win but the chance to lose if he misses succeeds only 62% of the time. In either case it is the same kick, the same 12 yard distance, the same 24’ x 8’ goal, but the success rate is 30% different.

11887852_806728912774345_2443043567878191865_nThe authors go on to explain in the kicking to win scenario the athlete has a gain orientation and views the situation in a challenge state of mind. The player kicking not to lose has a prevention orientation and views their circumstance as a threat. Many times I’ve heard the term “playing not to lose” but this book really helped bring to light the magnitude of the mindset.

I say all that to say this; be conscious of your language. When you’re going into a big game or a big situation make sure you’re conscious of your language and that your pregame communication is putting your player into a challenge mindset as opposed to a threat mindset. Tell them what to do as opposed to telling them what “not” to do. Continually using negative phrases such as “don’t walk him” or “don’t swing at anything out of the zone” could cause a player to slip into a prevention mindset. If they start playing not to lose, or playing not to make mistake then, just as I did with my plumbing customers, they will make more mistakes. Consider these alternatives for the all too common phrases above. When the pitcher has fell behind in the count tell him to “battle back” or “go right after him.” You don’t want your hitter chasing pitches out of the zone, tell him to “be picky and if he throws a strike hit it.”

Remember words are powerful, use them responsibly.




  1. Alojamiento web

    But players who play to win is one thing, and has nothing to do with coaches who only coach to win, and organizations who create environments focused on winning and not development. Their approach actually robs kids of their athletic education, and sets them up for failure later in life.

    1. Marshall Lehr

      I agree with you Alojamiento. You want your kids to go out there are play hard, play fearless, and play to win. However, an over emphasis on the almighty win can, and does, diminish their experience and robs them of development both on the field and off. One big key here is teaching kids a healthy perception of and response to failure. That is one of the greatest takeaways from youth sports. Learning not only how to deal with the disappointment of a loss and to learn from it, but also learning that failure is part of the process to achievement. To reach an unusual level of success you must continually push yourself beyond your current boundaries and if you’re always reaching beyond your current level you are going to have failure, and that’s a good thing.

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