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A Lesson From Tom: Be a Gracious Learner + Playing to Win Vs. Playing Not to Lose

May 3, 2018


Interesting Thought: Playing to Win vs. Playing Not to Lose


October 17, 2002. Birmingham, Michigan. A day I’ll never forget. My small-town public high school football team had made the state playoffs for the first time in over two decades. In a tournament with 32 teams, we were seeded dead last. Our first-round opponent was Birmingham Brother Rice, a large private school and perennial sports powerhouse. If I remember right, of the five newspapers covering the state playoffs, the Farmington Observer gave us the best odds: they had us as a 28-point underdog.


Our coach decided our best bet was to play aggressive, running all kinds of bizarre trick plays that we’d practiced but never tried in games before. It worked. We jumped out to a 14-0 lead. At halftime we were up 17-7.


A few notable things about halftime. First: we were completely amped up by what was unfolding. Second: we were a bit concerned when we saw one of Brother Rice’s many standout players, a linebacker and fullback with a scholarship to play at the University of Michigan, sawing off his plaster cast so he could play in the second half. Figuring they’d run us over, they had planned on giving his injury some extra rest. Third: we were relieved when our coaches shifted the strategy to something more conservative. We had a lead, so there was no use continuing to take crazy risks—at least that’s what we thought.


We lost 42-17. I don’t think we made one defensive stop or achieved a single first down the entire second half.

Our demise had nothing to do with the return of our opponent’s stud linebacker—though he was at the ready, they didn’t even end up needing him. We lost because we went from playing to win to playing not to lose. Our just-go-for-it mentality in the first half caught Brother Rice off guard. Our play-it-safe mentality in the second half got us steamrolled.


Psychologists call this the difference between a performance-approach and a performance-avoidance mindset. When you adopt a performance-approach mindset, you are playing to win, focusing on the potential rewards of success. Under a performance-avoidance mindset, however, your focus is on avoiding mistakes and circumventing danger.

According to talent and development researcher and author Ashley Merriman, we had fallen trap to the "goal looms closer effect, when you've come so far you just don't want to mess up now." 

The irony, of course, is that the very reason we’d come so far in the first place is because we were playing without concern for messing up.

For more on the difference between a performance-approach and performance avoidance-mindset, here's my latest column with Outside. The short of it: in most endeavors—from sports to writing to politics to corporate work—under most circumstances, you get more out of yourself when you play to win versus not to lose. If you start to fall into the same trap as my high school football team, ask yourself what you fear. If the answer is messing up or losing, remember that the best way to avoid those outcomes is by playing to win.


Coaching Corner: A Lesson from Tom- Be a Gracious Learner


I was sent to Tom’s office for a strength-training plan. I walked in knowing little about Tom beside the fact that he was dating Alyssa, an athlete on the post-collegiate team I was on.

I was 23-years-old and thought I knew everything.  He was 26 and full of passion.
He launched into how we were going to do exercises to push and pull, to gain strength, stability, coordination, and power. The enthusiasm flowed.

I took his program and didn’t do any of it. I just wanted to run and didn’t quite have the confidence to trust someone my own age whom I didn’t know to handle any part of my training. Like I said, I was young and not the brightest…
A few years later, Tom told me “Remember when you walked into my office and blew me off? That was a great day. I reevaluated why we were doing things. And it got an important conversation going. I’m a better coach for it. You had every right to do that. Thanks.”
That’s who Tom was.

He was a learner. A person always looking to better himself. A person willing to help.
As I got to know Tom over the two years that I lived in Virginia, I got to see what a desire to learn and grow looked like. Tom cared about coaching. He cared about his personal training business. And he cared about his friends and family. That same passion he showed me that first day in his office applied to all aspects of his life.
A few years later, Tom wrote on Facebook, “My half marathon Sub-90 [minutes] has been a goal of mine since the fall of 2010, so I definitely need to thank a few people for getting me prepared. I followed a great program (unbeknownst to him) from Steve Magness. It gave me a great mix of distances and types of workouts.”
Well, unbeknownst to you, Tom, you trained me as well. No, not with your strength and conditioning plan, but in understanding what it meant to be a student of your craft. Of always being open to learn and throwaway previous beliefs, if the new ones are better. Through your actions, you changed how I thought about coaching and life in general. I am eternally grateful.
Tom Abbey passed away this week from Brain Cancer. He was far too young. He leaves behind his amazing wife Alyssa, and their two young kids.
Writing is a way that I deal with grief, and I hope that in sharing this short story of Tom, you too can learn just a little bit from a man who gave so much to the world in such a short time.



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