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Playing To Win vs. Playing Not To Lose

Updated: Apr 11, 2019

Basketball is Psychology XVI

“I play to win- whether during practice or a real game, and I will not let anything get in the way of me and my competitive enthusiasm to win."

-Michael Jordan



Both teams want to win. Who wouldn’t?

There’s a reason why big upsets and 20 or 30 point comebacks are possible; it’s because at some point, instead of playing to win, a team got comfortable or scared and decided to play not to lose.

The psychological difference between playing to win and playing not to lose may seem trivial, but it’s the mind shift that separates the winners from the losers.

Practice is important, but the ability to win games is what you are judged on. The cliche is ‘practice makes perfect’ but to win, you have to be able to perform under pressure when the lights come on. While you might have practiced more hours, and prepared more meticulously, if you don’t play to win, practice won’t yield the results you want. Playing to win is a matter of perspective; It’s choosing to dream big instead of preparing for the worst

There’s a certain hunger that winning teams are characterized by. They aren’t scared to lose because their sole focus is what they do desire- to win. All they can imagine is winning, losing isn’t even considered. Their frame of mind is what allows them to play in such a way that maximizes their ability to perform.

When you’re playing to win, you understand mistakes are made in every game, it’s part of the process.

When you’re playing to not lose, you’re scared to make a mistake.

When you’re playing to win, you are willing to take risks.

When you’re playing to not lose, you play it safe.

When you’re playing to win, you play fearlessly and energized.

When you’re playing to not lose, you play stiff because you’re holding back.

When you’re playing to win, you play aggressive and proactive.

When you’re playing to not lose, you play reckless and reactive.

Winning is a challenge.

Not losing is a threat.

In the book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, a study was done on how different the results are based on viewing a test as a threat or challenge. “A study was done by Alter and Aronoson with Princeton undergrads. The researchers presented the students with a test of GRE questions. For half the students, the questions were presented in a threat context–they were a test of the students’ ability, a judgment on whether they truly belonged at Princeton. The other students got the same questions, but in a challenge context. That test was titled “Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire,” and the questions were construed as brainteasers. Nobody was expected to solve them all. In the threat context, the Princeton undergrads got 72% correct. In the challenge context, they got 90% correct.”

The tests were not different. The only thing that changed was their perspective.

Fear of losing is a threat- threats are intimidating and burdensome.

Winning is a challenge- it’s difficult but achievable.

The difference between playing to win and not to lose

Playing not to lose is a preventative mindset, it activates your sense of fear. It makes losing more powerful than winning in your mind. Playing to win is empowering-- it’s rooted in the belief that you can win, it gives you a fighting chance to rise to the occasion. When you play to win, you understand you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to do your job. That sense of familiarity quiets your amygdala (the emotional/fear part of the brain), which allows you to play fearlessly and instead be enticed by the reward.

By trying to avoid the negative outcome instead of moving toward the positive result, the rest of your thoughts will be destructive. Instead of thinking, “I hope I make this shot,” when you play not to lose you’ll be thinking, “I hope I don’t miss this shot”. Which brings missing to the center of your thoughts.

The simple science is whatever thought is prominent in your mind is most likely to occur. If you’re thinking about how much you don’t want to lose, the thought of losing is prominent. If you’re thinking about how much you want to win, winning is the prominent thought. Your actions will subconsciously follow your conscious thoughts.

The Burden of 'Afraid to Lose'

Two years ago, Geno Auriemma’s team went undefeated, until they lost to Mississippi State in the final four. Last year, Geno Auriemma’s team went undefeated until they lost in the final four to Notre Dame.

This year, for the first time since 2012-13, UConn went into the tournament with multiple regular season losses. This year’s team, as Geno put it, “Wasn’t burdened by afraid to lose and was playing to win.” In previous seasons, “Those teams were more afraid to lose a national championship than wanting to win a national championship.”

Although UConn lost again in the final four, they were able to take down the #1 seeded Louisville in the tournament because they played to win.

When you play not to lose, you never win.

Competitive fire can only be ignited when you’re consumed by the desire to win. The only thing on your mind should be winning.


Written by Julie Fournier

Founder & CEO




Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2014). Top dog: The science of winning and losing. London: Ebury Press.

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