World Cup Wisdom: Play To Win vs. To Not Lose

World Cup Wisdom: Play To Win vs. To Not Lose


Play to achieve what you want ahead of protecting against what you don’t.

My three sons set the alarm for 4.45 am this morning so they could watch the World Cup final. We were all gunning for Argentina, and waiting for Messi, their star player, to have his much anticipated Maradona moment.

Alas, it never came. When Germany finally scored the one and only game-winning goal with a few minutes to play of the extended time, we had to get out the tissues. And yes, it has to be said, ‘I cried for Argentina.’

While I’m not a particularly big soccer fan most the time, I’ve grown to love the World Cup. The spectacle, the emotion, the anticipation, the elation of victory and the bitter disappointment of defeat. There’s been plenty of it all.

Many times the commentators have expounded on whether a team is playing to win, or playing not to lose. It struck me how well these two approaches describe the mindset many people bring to their relationships, work and life.

When you are playing not to lose your focus isn’t on what you could gain but on protecting what you already have. Your energies are channeled into shoring up the status quo, and guarding against what you don’t want to happen. While sometimes that’s where your focus needs to be, it’s driven by what scares you – on what you don’t want – rather than by what inspires you – on what you do want.

Playing to lose can quickly become a vicious cycle.  As I wrote in Stop Playing Safe, “While playing safe may feel safe in the short term, while we’re busily protecting what we have, we can get left behind as the world around us marches steadily forward.”

  • Instead of speaking up to add value at work,  people stay quiet to avoid rocking the boat or endangering their position. But when their company starts making cutbacks, they are often less valued than those who’ve been willing to stick their neck out and can be counted on for a candid opinion.
  • Instead of pursuing a big passion, or seizing a bold opportunity, people stick with the comforting familiar. Then, ten years down the track, they find themselves treading water in a job that bores them, or living a life that is a shadow of the one they’d once imagined.

When you are playing to win your energy is channeled into creating new opportunities, breaking new ground, and going after what you want to make happen.  It requires putting what you already have at risk for the sake of something bigger, something better. It’s about trading the safety of the known for the uncertainty of a future that is yet to be created. It takes courage.

Research has found that when it comes to assessing risk, potential losses always loom larger than gains. In fact, we are neurologically wired to overestimate the size of risks, underestimate our ability to handle them and to discount the cost of inaction.  Which is why, as you move through life you must regular call yourself a “Time Out” to reflect on where you may be approaching your challenges, your career and your life in general with the wrong strategy. (Hint: If you aren’t happy about where you are now, or inspired by where you’re headed, then it’s a sign you’re current strategy needs reworking!)

Playing to win is driven by inspiration and ambition. Playing not to lose is driven by fear and insecurity.

Yes, Messi missed his Maradona moment today but none of that takes away from the supreme effort of Messi and the Argentinian team who played hard to win right up until that whistle blew.

Likewise, when you play to win in the bigger game of life you won’t always kick the game winning goal. Sometimes you will fall short of the mark, and sometimes your risks won’t pay off as you’d hoped. But you have to ask yourself what bigger prize you put at risk when you go through life focused only on protecting what have, avoiding any risk of failing and any chance of losing face?

If you only ever work to protect what you’ve already have, you miss out on accomplishing what still waiting to be done.  To quote Helen Keller once said, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”  So play to win. Not to not lose. In the bigger game of life, playing safe is often the riskiest path of all.