Winning the Outer Game vs Winning the Inner Game

Within any competition, there are two games going on simultaneously: the outer game and the inner game. The outer game is the one that is more familiar with athletes. It is the scoreboard. It is the actual objective results of the game. The inner game is different from the outer game. You can lose the outer game but still win the inner game. You can win the outer game but still lose the inner game. This is because the inner game isn’t dependent on the scoreboard. The inner game involves a different set of criteria. These criteria includes things such as effort, peak performance, improvement, enjoyment, and sportsmanship. These criteria are arguably just as important as the scoreboard and winning/losing.

First of all, winning is a byproduct of effort and performance. If you focus on maximizing your effort and performance, you maximize your chances of winning. You can’t completely control winning, but you can control your effort and performance. Furthermore, losing a game to a superior opponent, but giving 100% effort and playing with peak performance is more rewarding than winning a game to an easy opponent but giving lazy effort and playing with poor performance. Effort and peak performance are rewards in themselves. They make you feel proud.

Another aspect of the inner game, improvement, is also highly valuable. You can win a game by playing very cautiously and taking no risks. However, by doing this, you don’t really improve. On the other hand, if you play very aggressively and take risks, you may lose because you make mistakes, but you will also improve. In the short term, you lose one game, but in the long term, the improvement will help you win in the future. Also, self-improvement is a reward in itself.

Enjoyment is another aspect of the inner game. Sports are meant to be fun. Even if you win a lot, why keep playing if you have no fun while playing or training? Many athletes keep playing sports despite losing streaks simply because they enjoy the sport. If you have fun every time you step on the court/field, you’ve already won part of the inner game.

Lastly, sportsmanship is another aspect of the inner game. Does winning really mean anything if you had to cheat to win? Is winning worth feeling guilty for cheating and having a bad reputation? Even when losing games, don’t you feel good about yourself for playing fairly, with honesty and sportsmanship?

As you can see, many aspects of the inner game are subjective. It is up to you whether you win or lose the inner game. However, it is important to have high standards when evaluating your inner game. Don’t tell yourself that every loss is a moral victory just to make yourself feel better. Strive to have a perfect inner game. Strive to play with 100% effort, peak performance, improvement, enjoyment, and sportsmanship. If you have high standards for your inner game, and make winning the inner game your main goal, you will maximize your chances of winning the outer game as well. However, be careful about caring too much about the inner game and having low standards. If you have low standards for your inner game and subjectively think any game results in a moral win, then you will probably start to lose the outer game more often.

Also, the outer game can be good feedback for your inner game. Usually, but not in all cases, if you win the outer game, you played a good inner game with good effort and performance. Let the outer game (scoreboard) help measure how well you play the inner game. Likewise, the inner game can be good feedback for the outer game. If you lose the outer game, ask yourself, did I play with good effort, peak performance, and enjoyment?


You should strive to win both the outer and inner game. But this takes careful balance. Sometimes if you prioritize one too much, you lose out on the rewards of the other. You need to equally value both the inner and outer game. In the best case scenario, you win both the inner and outer game. You win and become successful, while also playing your best, improving, having fun, and playing fairly. It is the ultimate goal: to be successful, happy, and ethical. Next week I will go into more detail about this topic.

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