Playing Not to Lose has Merit

They’re leaving it all on the field.  That player is giving 110% effort.  It’s gut-check time.  The ball’s in your court.

One thing sport has provided over the last century is an endless vocabulary of cliches.  Whether a sports enthusiast or not, you may have used an expression rooted in athletics forgetting you were doing so.  The American sports culture has found its way into our everyday lexicon.  Make a mistake in business or forget to make that follow-up call, you may have “dropped the ball”.  Presented a great seminar or closed that deal, you probably “knocked it out of the park”.

Many espoused truisms related to sport are widely accepted without stopping to ponder their validity.  Some statements have become so ingrained in our collective psyches we blindly accept without question.  For instance, the term ‘role player’ has become an overused expression devoid of purpose.  What exactly is a role player, anyway?  Doesn’t everyone on a team have a role?  We’ve also likely heard numerous times the age old saying:  “Play to win, don’t play not to lose”.

Those who have uttered this adage assuredly have done so with the noblest of intentions.  Playing to win evokes a positive, aggressive mindset.  However, if you have watched sports for any considerable length of time, you realize more games are lost rather than won.  This is the treatise put forth in Coach Bob Knight’s latest book The Power of Negative Thinking.  

The book was written in stark contrast to the 1952 bestseller composed by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale entitled The Power of Positive Thinking.  Coach Knight is not advocating to plod through this existence with a fatalistic, dour, Chicken Little the sky is falling outlook.  Rather than approaching life, and on a smaller level the game of basketball, with a Pollyanna everything is coming up roses mindset, to be aware of obstacles to success and to successfully plan for them.

As teams prepare for success, the question shouldn’t be so much “what must we do to win this game” but more so “what must we do not to lose.”  While scouting and preparing for the opposition is critical, identifying and correcting those areas which can cause one to lose is more crucial.

So what are the primary areas in which games are lost?  From an offensive standpoint two areas that stand out are poor shot selection and turnovers.  Now, I’m not suggesting for teams to play a perfect game.  That’s simply impossible and unrealistic to expect.  Passes are going to be errant, shots will be missed, players will clumsily dribble off their own feet.  What I’m about to refer to are areas which can be corrected by simple focus and discipline.

What constitutes a good shot?  Each program needs to define that for themselves.  What is a good shot for one player may not be so for their teammate based on ability.  Time and score also play a factor when determining shot selection.  That open three early in the game, which was a good shot at the time, probably isn’t so with the lead in the final two minutes of the contest.  A quality try for goal should be on balance and be an attempt the player can and should be able to make with regularity.  The goal on offense should be to force the opposition to have to play defense.  If a team consistently jacks up a perimeter shot on zero to two passes, the defense doesn’t have to work very hard.

A certain number of turnovers are bound to happen during the course of the game.  To reduce the amount of miscues, establish some non-negotiable rules for your players to follow.  I had a couple of rules which over the years seemed to work well offensively.  First, we did not allow our players to pass off the dribble.  If the defensive player guarding the receiver is solid, they will read the passer’s elbow and more times than not the ensuing pass results in a turnover.  Not passing off the dribble opens up other options if the defense takes away the pass, setting up other players, or a possible shot attempt.

Secondly, we did not allow players to leave their feet on offense unless they were shooting the basketball.  Again, the game needs to be played on balance.  How many times have you seen a player leave their feet to make a pass only to have the potential target turn to the offensive board, resulting in a turnover?

Defensively, our first rule was to force the player catching the basketball to put the ball on the floor, driving them to their weak hand.  The only exception to this was in order to prevent a baseline drive.  Off the ball, we wanted our players to be in a position to play the ball and see their man.  On the shot, we expected a solid box out and to get the defensive rebound.  If we noticed an opponent not attacking the offensive board hard and they were collectively slow getting back we may send a player long on the shot.

Whatever your coaching philosophy, make sure you establish boundaries which greatly reduce elements that lose games.  It is paramount to clearly define those rules.  It’s not enough to yell “Take good shots” or “Take care of the ball” if you have not enunciated what those things mean.  Players shouldn’t have to guess what is and is not acceptable in your eyes.

Once you have established what is and is not acceptable, the key is to hold everyone accountable.  Remember, the bench can be your best friend as a coach.  Create a practice culture of accountability and it will likely carry over to games.  I’ve found it amazing during a lackluster practice how increasing accountability raised the focus level.  On a squad of twelve or thirteen, during our scrimmage time, if a player broke one of our established rules, the offending party would run a lap then sit out until another rule was broken.

By not holding players accountable, the tidal wave of a lack of discipline can sweep over the program.  If one player takes a poor shot and is not sat down then others will follow suit.

While we want to foster skills that players are strong at, of greater importance is to help the athletes acknowledge their shortcomings.  Practice is the time to work on weaknesses.  You probably don’t want your ten percent three-point shooter firing wildly away in the most important game of the season.

Keep in mind, these concepts truly come into play provided teams are fairly even in talent and skill level.  If a team is clearly over-matched in those areas, I don’t care who is coaching, the more talented, skilled team is likely to win.  Take a game though, in which the two teams are about 10-12 points apart, which is basically 5-6 possessions.  Eliminate a couple of poor shots and turnovers which result from a  lack of focus, then the game becomes more even.  If you are on the short end of the talent measurement, it becomes vital to be exceptional in areas that require little to no athletic ability.

The concept of playing not to lose is not a negative mindset.  It is a philosophy based on the reality that basketball games for the most part are not decided by which team makes the most spectacular plays.  It is a belief the team with the fewest mistakes will likely come out ahead.  By playing not to lose, you are in fact playing to win.


Bob Beatham

About Bob Beatham

Bob, a lifelong Bangor resident, has just completed his 21st season as the Public Address Announcer at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor. Bob is also the public address voice for John Bapst Crusader football. He also currently serves as the scorekeeper for John Bapst basketball. Bob is an avid follower of Maine high school athletics, particularly football and basketball. The University of Maine at Farmington graduate is the service coordinator at Aging Excellence, which provides in-home care for seniors..