(Note: many of the ideas and statistics from this post come from Top Dog: The science of winning and losing, by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman. If you nerd out on psychology, performance and research, it’s a must-read)
Consider a familiar scenario: A team dominates the early stages of a competition, jumping out to a big lead - only to watch that lead gradually shrink as the other team makes their comeback. The leaders start to falter and make mistakes while the opponent seizes the momentum and can do no wrong.
What is happening in this scenario? Why does it happen? And why is it so common?
If you’ve ever wondered why it’s easier to play from behind and more difficult to play in the lead, then today is your day.
You won’t be surprised to find out that there is a big difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. But how about some research to give this idea some legs? From Bronson and Merryman:
“A study of every single pitch thrown during the 2005/6 Major League season - some 1,374,923 pitches - showed that most MLB pitchers are secretly prevention-focused. As they get closer to finishing out innings, their pitch locations become more conservative.”
“A study of over 2 million PGA tour putts showed that pro golfers tend to leave it short as the stakes and pressure rise.”
"When missing a penalty kick in soccer will cause the kicker's team to lose, professional players succeed on those shots only 62% of the time. When converting will result in a win, kickers go for it - and they find the net 92% of the time."
So it turns out playing not to lose is a real thing. And it leads to more losing. Playing to win and playing not to lose are more than just coachspeak, as the research shows. In fact, they utilize two totally different systems in the brain. Bronson and Merryman again:
"In the last decade, neuroscience and physiological science have put 70 years of theory to the test...The brain does indeed have separate systems, electrically and chemically distinct. One neural system is waiting for something to get excited about, at which point it cranks up and drives you to action. The other system is monitoring everything you do like a hovering parent. It's ready to jump in and stop you from taking a risk or making a careless mistake."
And it’s not just what’s going on in your brain that is different when you are playing to win versus playing not to lose - there are physiological effects as well. When you are trying to avoid failure your heart rate increases, your blood pressure spikes, and you have less oxygen flowing through your body. Playing to win reverses these negative responses and prepares the body to perform optimally.
As it turns out, Herm Edwards was right.
So how do we take this research and use it to gain a competitive advantage? How do we play to win? Believe it or not, there is one small adjustment you can make that will greatly increase your chances of performing in the “play to win” mindset. It all hinges on your answer to one question: Challenge or threat?
Is the situation you are facing an opportunity to test yourself, or is it worthy of fear? If outside expectations are high, you feel you’re being judged, and you feel that you can’t make any mistakes, you are going to perform in a state of threat.
If you know you don’t need to be perfect, are willing to take risks and make mistakes, and feel the freedom to just let it rip, then you have a chance to perform in a state of challenge.
A simple perspective shift from threat to challenge can make all the difference. We now know that you will be using different areas of the brain, and your body will be prepared to perform at its best.
Pursue success, don’t avoid failure.
Play to win.