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2006: Issue 3

Playing to Win or ...

Playing not to lose. Which would you do? Which do you do?

My bet is that your immediate mental answer was, “of course, I play to win.” If you’re a fan of Stephen Covey, you might even say you actively seek out win-win situations, and yes, I’m all for that, but will elect to save that topic for another day.

This time of year, I spend many evenings watching basketball games – my favorite being those I’m actually in the stands cheering for my son’s team. I have learned a lot about coaching strategies from watching, and lately, the recurring one is the clear distinction between playing to win and playing not to lose. Truth is that either strategy can be effective in securing a win, and each has its place. However, what is most notable to me is the significant difference in mental and emotional energy exhibited by both the players and the fans, and will contend that playing not to lose takes considerably more energy, and has greater risk than playing to win. Yet, we see it happen all the time….

A team’s up by 20 points, three minutes left in the game, and the players go into playing not to lose mode. The pace slows down; the rhythm shifts; the fans sit back down, their voices silenced; everyone starts noticing the clock, thinking it’s just a matter of time – some leaving early to avoid the rush. Then the inevitable happens: the “opponent” makes a key play, seizes the opportunity to take hold of the stagnated momentum, and before long, which team will win is anybody’s guess. The energy in the crowd is full of static – those for the team leading the come back are fired up, positively cheering their team on; and those for the team playing not to lose are yelling out in frustration and anger, watching their lead slip away, and hoping their team can hold on until the buzzer sounds.

Truth is, this doesn’t just happen on the basketball court. Somewhere on our life journey, many of us abandon our strategy of playing to win, and adopt the strategy of playing not to lose, believing this is safer, easier, and less risky. We do so with little, if any, awareness that we are. We merely get comfortable with our lead and our station in life, and our comfort zone takes hold. Chances are this will work for awhile, but as in a basketball game, with time, an “opponent” will come in with a strategy of playing to win, and we soon find ourselves struggling to hold on, fighting to keep the “opponent” at bay and hoping the buzzer will sound before it’s too late.

Playing to win requires conscious intention. It involves having a positive mental attitude and about executing your “game” strategy until the “game” is declared over. Often by default, human nature will lead us to the strategy of playing not to lose as at first, it is often the path of least resistance. But only at first.

Playing to win is about living life to its fullest. It allows you to leverage the momentum, build on each success, and embrace personal growth and development. It’s giving your all to win the “game,” and even if the final score shows differently, you have a feeling of satisfaction, knowing you have done your best and “left it all on the court”, as the saying goes.

1. Reflect on your life’s strategy: your overall life and all of its components – work; marriage; friendships; family.
2. If you are playing not to lose, change to playing to win.
3. Consciously decide what it means to play to win in all of life, and create habits that support doing it.
4. See what other life metaphors are played out in the sport venues, and share them with me.


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David Scheiderer, MD, MBA
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Janet Crawford, MHA, MBA
Executive Coach

Tiberius Rx ... written for physicians and those who love them, work with them, or befriend them, and want to explore, experience and excel in all aspects of their life.

“" The real winners in life are the people who look at every situation with an expectation that they can make it work or make it better."
– Barbara Hetcher
"Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
– Special Olympics motto