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Am I Playing To Win, Or Playing Not To Lose?

By Dr. Paul Dennis

Montreal Canadiens v New York Islanders


Every athlete wants to win because it’s fun. But sometimes, there are pressure situations that take the fun out of competing. When that happens, athletes assume a defensive posture and are more worried about making mistakes. As a result, they begin to play hoping that they don’t lose.


Playing not to lose

Approaching the game with the mindset that “I don’t want to lose” is a clear indicator that the stress of the game is too much to handle. They view most situations as a threat. They become considerably more anxious, they have less energy to help them navigate through tough situations, and they are a step behind in making decisions on the ice.

When athletes are consumed with uncertainty, their attention is fixated on the unknown. They have a great deal of difficulty focusing on their strengths. They have adopted a negative expectancy effect in their mind, that is, “I hope I don’t make more mistakes”. Ironically, playing to avoid mistakes often leads to more mistakes during the game because the athlete is not mentally or physically relaxed. They might squeeze the stick too tight, or get rid of the puck prematurely resulting in an unforced error. Such behaviours often lead to a downward spiral of emotions and a great deal of uncertainty.


Playing to win

On the other hand, playing to win means that an athlete has adopted a completely different mindset. They are still stressed because of the nature of competition, but they view the stress as a motivator. They find it easier to stay focused in the moment, and are more willing to take the necessary risks that lead to a positive outcome. Even if they fail, they know there will be another opportunity. These athletes look for the silver lining in every failed attempt. As the great Muhammad Ali once said, “Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win”.

Choosing to adopt the “playing to win” mindset does not guarantee winning. It guarantees a chance to win, and that’s all that one can ask for. Acquiring the “playing not to lose” perspective almost guarantees a performance full of costly errors.

Pre-game preparation is the time to assume the right mindset. So next time you’re gearing up for a game, take a few breaths and visualize yourself being successful and it will help you do just that.


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