Do you find the headline intriguing? It’s true: the biggest mental issue for losing teams is that they’re obsessed with winning.
Seems not to make much sense, but hear me out — I have firsthand experience.
In over 25 years of baseball (and four years of football) playing and coaching, I’ve been a member of dozens of teams — most ordinary, a few extraordinary, and a few too many that were hopeless, hapless losers. The extraordinary teams had a full squad of players who understood how to win. Every other team had perhaps a selection of players who knew the “secret” to winning, but were mixed in with a bunch who had no clue. As a result of my experiences, I usually know after one or two games whether a team is doomed for a losing season.
Generally speaking, losers spend most of a game obsessing over the outcome — whether or not they’ll win. They know the score, and are fearful of it, at every moment in every inning (I’m referring to the players; it’s the manager’s job to worry about the score). They might openly ridicule a teammate who has just made an error, particularly if that error led to a run. Losers will beat themselves up for striking out in the previous inning, when they’re back on the field and need to be thinking about defense. They’ll often explain that they “can’t stand losing”, or “will do anything to win.” However, they don’t really understand what winning is.
Winning was defined most succinctly and accurately by the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi:
“Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all-time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time.”
Lombardi also spoke these gems:
“Success demands singleness of purpose.”
“We didn’t lose the game, we just ran out of time.”
Read through these three quotes several times, until you “get it”. Winning is not something that you turn off and turn on — it’s something that you always do, it’s a habit. You don’t let your mind wander all game and then suddenly concentrate when it’s the last inning; rather, you are intensely riveted on every pitch, and only that pitch, until the pitch / play is complete.
What winners know, and losers don’t, is that executing the tasks necessary to win cannot be complicated by a preoccupation with the final score of a particular game. It’s about focus; if you are thinking about whether or not your team will win the game, then your mind cannot be completely focused on the task at hand — whether it’s throwing a pitch, fielding a grounder, or laying down a bunt. Baseball is difficult enough with a clear mind; cluttering it with concerns that are out of your control makes effective execution next to impossible.
Don’t read this wrong — it’s not that you shouldn’t want to win, or that you can’t think about winning. The point is, you need to have 100% concentration on the current task in order to succeed. Your small success in execution, followed by a teammate’s success in their execution, and so on, will give your team the best chance to win the game. If your team ultimately wins a game, it is usually because your teammates converted most of their opportunities — a series of small successes or “wins”. Bobby Cox led his Atlanta Braves to 14 consecutive NL East Division Championships using this exact principle. Cox’s teams rarely relied on colorful stars or dramatic individual achievements to win games; rather, they wore teams down by throwing strikes, fielding impeccably, and executing a team hitting strategy (taking pitches, moving runners, placing bunts, hit and runs, etc.). It’s a boring recipe, but it’s successful, because each player focuses on his specific task.
To give an example of a winner’s, versus a loser’s, mindset, imagine a pitcher on the mound in the ninth inning of a 2-1 game with the bases loaded, two outs, and the opposing team’s best hitter at the plate. The “loser” will be focused on “winning the game”, or “protecting the lead”. He may also be thinking about the opposing hitter’s strengths and weaknesses, and the fact that a base hit would mean a loss. The idea “I have to strike this guy out” may go through his mind. He might also think that a wild pitch will bring home the tying run — as would a walk. The loser has so many thoughts in his mind, and so much self-inflicted tension, that he forgets to focus on executing.
On the other hand, the winner toes the rubber with the same approach regardless of the situation: get the sign from the catcher, focus on the target, throw the pitch. Of course, the winner is well aware that the bases are loaded, that it’s a one-run game, and the other team’s slugger is up. However, the “pressure” of the situation motivates him to think more clearly, and execute his next pitches with more intense concentration. Rather than worrying about the score or what a wild pitch may do, he’s thinking “my catcher has called a fastball, he wants it down and away. I’m going to keep my head on the target and release the ball with my fingers on top and follow through the catcher’s glove. If it’s hit back to me, I will have plenty of time to throw to first base.” … etc.
It’s the same way for the hitter. The “loser” batter in this situation is thinking “I want to win this game so bad, I’ve got to get a hit”. The “winner” thinks, “bases loaded, there’s a lot of ways to keep this game going. I’ll take this one pitch at a time. I’m looking for a good pitch to hit, something I can hit off the sweet spot. I’ll look for ball, get my hands back, keep my head down and watch the bat hit the ball. Otherwise, I’ll let the pitch go.”
For the winner — whether it’s the pitcher or the batter — the focus is on executing. The loser is focused on the outcome of the game.
Winners understand that a series of successful executions give their team the best chance of winning, and that thinking about the final score only hampers the ability to execute. Losers are so wrapped up in whether they win the game, they may not even be aware of what is necessary to be victorious.
So remember, if you want to win, you have to win “all the time”. To win all the time, you need singleness of purpose — in other words, you need to be completely focused, and fixed on, the specific task at hand. And if, at the end of the game, your team has been outscored, remember: you’re not a loser — you just ran out of time.