Playing to Win vs Playing Not to Lose

Peak performance requires a "playing to win" mentality, not a "playing not to lose" mentality. In pressure situations, athletes tend to become risk averse and start playing not to lose. Instead of playing in the most efficient way by trusting their skills and being aggressive, they become very cautious and try to avoid mistakes at all costs, but this is a mistake in itself. It happens most often when a team gains a lead and just tries to run the clock out and hope their opponent doesn't catch up in time. Often, because their opponent plays to win, their opponent comes back and wins the game.

When you take the lead and are tempted to start playing not to lose, you need to remember what got you the lead in the first place. Most likely, you got the lead by playing to win, by playing aggressively up to your limits. If you want to maintain your lead, you have to continue playing the same way. But in order to do this, you have to relieve yourself of the fear of choking your lead away and losing. You need to stay positive, confident, smart, and trust your abilities to perform under more pressure.

Here is an example:
Let's say your football team is up by 10 points with 10 minutes left in the game. You may be tempted to play not to lose and try to run the clock out. However, if you do this, there's a decent chance that your opponent will force easy three-and-outs and get the ball back with enough time. Then on defense, you may play cautiously to prevent your opponent from getting a quick score. But this increases the chances of your opponent marching down the field and scoring eventually. Because of all of this, your opponent has a decent chance of coming back and winning the game.

Now let's say you decide to play to win instead. You are now more likely to pass the ball to gain first downs and try to score. This is risky because there is the chance that you turn the ball over or keep more time on the clock (from incomplete passes). This puts a lot of pressure on you. Likewise, on defense, you can play more aggressive and try to force a punt or a turnover, but this is risky because your opponent may burn you for quick touchdown. If you are unable to handle this pressure well, you may choke, make costly mistakes, and end up losing the game.

In both of the above situations, you have a decent chance of losing. The best option is to play to win WHILE handling the pressure well and maintaining peak performance. In other words, you play aggressive while staying relaxed, confident, smart, motivated, and focused. If you do this, you give yourself your best chance of winning. However, to do this, you can't succumb to the fear of choking the game away. You can't become too risk averse and play not to lose. And you can't let the pressure get to you, and cause you to play tight, choke, and make costly mistakes. You have to be brave and you have to have the mental toughness in order to be clutch under pressure.

There are times when it's smart to play not to lose, but in most cases it's better to play to win! Keep practicing this mentality! Gradually, you'll improve your mental toughness and you'll win more games because of this.