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Advice From the Batman: Play to Win

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Last weekend my two sons Adam and Eric came over to the house for a big event: to watch “Zach Snyder’s Justice League.

First off let me say that while the movie is more than four hours long it was time well-spent. Not only because I got to spend that kind of time with two of my favorite people in the world but also because the movie is everything the fans who pushed for it to be released hoped it would be.

If you like epic comic book movies where the characters have real motivations, and lots of action, and you have access to HBO Max (or know someone who does) be sure to check it out. You won’t be disappointed. Here’s a little taste:

Ok, on to softball.

After battling the villain Steppenwolf (and losing), the heroes (sans Superman) are all in the Batcave talking about what their next move is. One of them (can’t remember who, did I say it was a four hour long movie?) makes a suggestion for a strategy. Then the Batman says something profound – something to the effect of:

“That’s just playing not to lose. All that does is delay how long it takes you to lose. We need to play to win.”

What a great concept. Playing not to lose just delays how long it takes you to lose.

Think about that in a softball context, especially now that nearly every travel softball game has a time limit. How many times have you seen coaches call time out for an unnecessary mound conference, or had their hitters go to the plate and slowly tie their shoes, or do some other stall tactic to try to get the “drop dead” alert to go off before they have to do anything?

Plenty, I’m sure.

They may think they’re playing to win, but really they’re playing not to lose. The message they’re sending to their team is either “I don’t think we can beat this team straight up but we’re ahead right now so let’s take it” or “I’m afraid you guys will do something to screw up this victory so I’m not going to give you the chance.”

And yes, the result might be that they win that game. But all it really did was delay how long it will take them to get knocked out.

Winners play to win.

Let’s look at another situation – the coach who doesn’t want her team taking any chances. Don’t throw down to first to try to pick off the runner because you might throw the ball into right field. Don’t try to hit the ball hard with two strikes, just make contact. Don’t throw a drop ball with two strikes because the catcher might miss it.

Those are all things great players do. But this coach isn’t looking for great. She’s looking to not lose because of a mistake.

Now, there are definitely times to be conservative in your approach. But not all the time. That’s playing not to lose instead of playing to win.

The problem with playing not to lose is you put your fate into someone else’s hands. Yes, you’ve minimized your mistakes, but you’ve also minimized your ability to rise above your current level of play to become something greater.

And if every player on the team is afraid to make a mistake, maybe because the coach will scream at her or yank her out of the game in the middle of an inning, the team will never come close to fulfilling its potential. Instead, it will just be trying to hold on for as long as it can until a team that wants it more comes and takes it away from them.

It’s like they say in the grossly underrated comedy “Fired Up!” – you’ve gotta risk it to get the biscuit.

Sure, it’s riskier to play to win than to play not to lose. But what’s the point of playing if you’re not playing to win?

Coaches, teach your players to be confident in their abilities even when it might be easier to just lay back and tie their shoes for five minutes. It’s better for them, and in the long run it will be better for you as well.

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Yes, there can be such a thing as winning too much

Let’s face it. Whether your activity of choice is fastpitch softball, soccer, basketball, auto racing, marching band competitions, tiddlywinks or something else, everyone loves winning. As Nuke LaLoosh says in Bull Durham, “I love winning. It’s so much better than losing.” (Warning: the full quote is NSFW so turn down the volume.)Winning is fun, but there can be a thing as winning too often

Yet there can be a thing as winning too much. This is something a lot of parents (and some coaches) don’t seem to understand.

In America in particular, we tend to measure success in terms of wins and losses. The more you win, the better you are, right?

Not necessarily, because there’s another factor that comes into play – the level of competition. Think about it this way: how much satisfaction do you get out of winning a game of tic-tac-toe? Probably not much, because once you learn a few basic moves is only possible if your opponent makes a really, really stupid mistake.

Or if you are an adult, how much satisfaction would you get out of beating a 6 year old at one-on-one basketball, or chess, or ping pong, or pretty much anything else? Not much, because there’s no challenge.

And that’s the key to what I’m saying. If your team wins every tournament it goes to, especially if it goes undefeated every weekend (or even worse dominates every game) it’s not that the team is so great. It’s that you’re not playing the right level of competition.

You don’t get better if you’re not challenged. Winning a tournament shouldn’t be easy. It should be really hard. If you’re winning more than 60% of your games, 75% at most, you’re playing the wrong teams.

Sure, it’s fun to get those shiny plastic trophies, or medals, or t-shirts, or whatever they’re handing out these days as prizes. You have the big ceremony at the end, everyone takes pictures and maybe goes out for dinner afterward. But how special is it if it happens every weekend? Not very.

Keep in mind that iron is forged in fire. That’s what shapes it into something useful. Fastpitch softball players are the same way.

In order for them to get better, they need to play competition that is either at their skill level or better. It’s what will challenge them and force them to go beyond their current skill level. It’s also what keeps it interesting and makes the wins when they come extra satisfying.

Because you’ll know you didn’t just beat up on some lesser team. Instead, you put something on the line – the very real possibility of losing – and came out the other side on top. Your players probably learned a little something along the way, too.

The same goes for making it to every championship game, by the way, even if you don’t win. That just means one other team was probably in the wrong tournament too.

It can be tough to lose. Another of my favorite baseball movie quotes comes from Moneyball: “I hate losing. I hate losing even more than I wanna win.”

But that’s a good thing. If you’re concerned about losing, you will work harder to make sure it doesn’t happen. And you will get better. If losing isn’t a real concern, however, you’ll probably let up and your skills won’t develop. And that will catch up with you one day.

Parents, especially today’s parents, like to see their children succeed. But that doesn’t mean they should shelter them from losing, which is what you’re doing when winning becomes so important that failure to win every game at every tournament means you start looking for a new team that will.

Again, shoot for that 60-75% winning percentage and you can be pretty sure your favorite player is being challenged and growing as player. It will also mean that the fruits of victory will taste ever so much sweeter.

Winning isn’t always the goal

Ask any fastpitch player, coach or parent what the team’s goal is and the easy answer will be “to win.” But when you look at things a bit deeper winning may not always be the primary goal.

Take a 10U or 12U team making the jump from rec ball to travel ball. It can be quite an eye-opener for the girls and the parents. The rules change, the game gets faster, the teams get more aggressive, and the overall caliber of play is generally higher than they’re used to seeing.

In that first year wins may be tough to come by. But that’s ok. The real priority should be getting the players acclimated to the level of competition and helping them understand what it’s going to take to perform their best long-term. That may mean sacrificing a few opportunities to win in favor of player development.

That could mean letting a hitter who isn’t producing bat, even though a better hitter is available. It may mean suffering through more walks to give a pitcher with good long-term potential the opportunity to get reps in facing batters. It might mean putting a fielder into a position she hasn’t quite learned yet in order to give her the experience to play it later.

Winning is nice, no question about it. Me personally, I subscribe to the statement from Moneyball that I hate losing more than I like winning. But if your goal is to develop a team, and its individual players, to be the best they can be, you need to have a plan and stick to it – even if it means you lose more games than you would have otherwise today.

It’s all about your goals, which is why it’s important to set them before the season, when you can be unemotional about it, rather than during the season when you may be willing to do anything required just to get the W.

Know where you’re headed long-term and you’ll be in great shape. And when those wins do start coming, they will be all the sweeter.

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