Playing to Win vs Playing Not To Lose: The Difference and Why It Matters

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Estimated Reading Time: 4 mins

There’s a big difference in the way athletes play when they are playing to win vs playing not to lose.

As a coach or parent, it’s probably easy to spot the difference when watching a competition.

When teams are playing not to lose, it’s often when big leads are lost or teams start to back down when the score gets tight. It looks like hesitation and second-guessing. It can be so frustrating to watch!

When teams and athletes are playing to win, however, often we’ll see aggressiveness, risk-taking, and overall more confident play.

So how do we get our athletes to play to WIN, rather than not to lose?

Here are a few ways to shift the mindset and help athletes show up confident and aggressive, no matter the score or opponent. 

First, what’s the big difference?

Here’s what the difference looks like on the court/field:

Playing Not To Lose

  • Hesitating
  • Avoiding plays
  • Giving the ball away instead of taking the shot
  • Playing it safe
  • Playing rushed/frantic

Playing to win looks a little different.

Playing to Win

  • Aggressive play
  • “Going for it”
  • Taking risks
  • Talking/communicating
  • Playing calm and in control

Reasons why athletes “Play not to lose”

Athletes who are playing to avoid losing are usually struggling with some underlying confidence issues.

Here are some common reasons that athletes resort to the “playing not to lose” mindset:

Fear of failure
Fear of letting others down 

Shifting to Playing to Win

Reframing perfectionism and overcoming fear of failure and letting others down take awareness, strategies, and time. However, here are some tips to shift athletes to playing to win.

#1: Change the Focus

 When athletes are playing to lose, they are focusing on what NOT to do. Often this means they are concerned about not making mistakes or not doing something wrong.

What we focus on expands, so typically this results in athletes doing what they are trying to avoid. This happens because when athletes hold back, hesitate, or “play it safe” they can actually be prone to more errors. This can quickly result in a negative spiral!

The key is for athletes to shift the focus to what they WANT to do instead.

For example, this would mean instead of an athlete focusing on not missing her serve, she instead would focus on where she wants her serve to go.

Another example: Instead of focusing on not turning the ball over, the athlete would instead focus on making a v-cut to create space between her and her defender.

This helps the athlete focus on specifics related to what is in their control, rather than worrying about the outcome.

#2: Upgrade Self-Talk

Typically when athletes are playing not to lose, they are saying things like:

“Don’t mess up”
“Don’t pass the ball to me”
“I need to score now”
“If I don’t _____ (score, do this skill, etc), we will lose” 

Athlete’s self-talk is directly linked to their confidence and how they play on the court/field. 

Similar to shifting their focus to what they WANT to do, upgrading self-talk could involve repeating an established reset word that invokes positive emotions, or repeating affirmations.


“Serve goes in. You got this”
“One rep at a time”
“Breathe, focus on your platform”
“You are a fast, aggressive defender”
“You are a strong, explosive hitter” 

Or, words such as: 


#3: Visualize Success

One of the most powerful ways to help athletes show up as the most confident versions of themselves is to visualize BEFORE getting into competition.

To do this, athletes decide how they want to play, compete, or perform. If they know that they tend to get more timid, hesitant, or rushed in certain situations like when the game gets tight or when the opponent is tough, they’ll want to specifically visualize those situations and determine how they want to play instead.

Once they have a situation in mind, they will spend 2-3 minutes visualizing how they want to play/compete. With as much detail as possible, athletes will bring that situation to mind and have it play out. Instead of seeing themselves rushed, timid, or focusing on not making mistakes, they will see themselves playing confidently, aggressively, and taking risks.

The more they can repeat this visualization, the better! They will slowly allow their mind and body to be prepared for these moments so they can play to win, rather than not to lose.


There you have it! If your athlete tends to focus on not losing, shifting the focus to playing to WIN can be a literal game-changer.

If you’re looking for more ways to help your athlete daughter show up as the most confident version of herself on and off the court/field, be sure to join our free Facebook community for female athletes, moms, and coaches! You’ll learn tips, strategies, and resources as well as weekly trainings to help your athlete cultivate confidence and unlock her potential. Join here:

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