Playing to Win

Posted on July 18, 2007 by Robert Ringer


I have often said that a football game is a microcosm of life.  There’s an ebb and flow to every game, with each team experiencing its share of adversity.  These adversities include such things as fumbles, interceptions, injuries, and bad calls by the officials.

In the National Football League, the teams are so evenly matched that the main determinant between winners and losers is how well players and coaches handle adversity.  Responding positively to adversity is a sign of character, a term talked about incessantly by coaches, players, sportscasters, and fans alike.

An adjunct to dealing effectively with adversity is how well players and coaches take advantage of opportunities.  The great teams throughout history have had a knack for converting opponents’ mistakes into scores, usually touchdowns.

But, most important of all, great teams play to win, while also-rans generally play not to lose.  You can almost feel the fear of a team that doesn’t really believe it can win in the clutch — when it has the lead and the clock is winding down.

The great coaches and quarterbacks throughout history have defied conventional wisdom, just as the most successful businesspeople defy conventional wisdom in the business world.  Those who go against the grain of conventional wisdom demonstrate that they are playing to win rather than not to lose.

The legendary Johnny Unitas, thought by many to be the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL, once said that he didn’t believe in the conventional wisdom that you have to establish the run in order to open up the passing game.  He believed you should establish the passing game first, which, in turn, opens up the running game.  Bill Belichick apparently believed him and turned Tom Brady loose on the world.  It’s enough to cause a conservative coach to develop shingles.

As I said, football is a microcosm of life.  If you approach the game of business — or the bigger game of life — with the mind-set of just trying not to lose, you probably are going to lose.  But if you play to win, the odds of your winning are greatly improved.  You may not win every time out, but your track record will be much better than if you simply play not to lose.

What happens if you take a bold approach to life and still end up losing?  You get hurt, of course.  But, hey … that’s life.  If there were no risks involved, everyone would be bold.  When you think big and bold, you’re telling the world that you believe in yourself so much that you’re not afraid to risk failing.

Fortunately, when you lose, there’s a marvelous antidote that’s been around for thousands of years:  Simply pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start over again.  It’s true in sports; it’s true in business; it’s true in every aspect of life.

Robert Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, put it well when he said, “Winners are not afraid of losing.  But losers are.  Failure is part of the process of success.  People who avoid failure also avoid success.”

The irony is that the more you play not to lose, the better your chances of losing.  That’s because playing not to lose — timidity — puts you on the defensive.  Playing not to lose is not much different than playing to lose.

I recall seeing film producer David Brown on a talk show many years ago, after he had produced some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters with his partner Richard Zanuck.  These included such films as The Sting, Jaws, Cocoon, The Verdict, Driving Miss Daisy, and The Sugarland Express.

But life wasn’t always so good for Brown.  He explained to the audience that he had been fired from his job at one of the studios when he was in his fifties, which left him at the bottom financially.

So what did he do?  The day he was fired, he went home and put on his finest suit, neatly placed an expensive silk handkerchief in his breast pocket, then dined at one of Hollywood’s power restaurants — with a beautiful woman, of course.

Brown’s point was to emphasize how important it is to be bold and take the offensive when you’re down.  At the time of this particular television interview, he was 75 years old and had already begun three new careers — including producing his first Broadway play.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that playing to win is the path to greatness, not love.  On the contrary, being proactive and taking risks is guaranteed to make a lot of people dislike you.  But if being loved is important to you than winning, you know what they say about getting a dog.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.