topless man holding us a flag

Are You Playing To Win or To Avoid Losing?

Let me ask you a question. When you play a game, when you embark on a project, when you go to work, when you get up in the morning, when you sit down to write, when you make a presentation, when you have to do anything,

Are you playing to win or to avoid losing?

If you’re wondering what the difference is, when you play to win you’re focused on it. When you play to win, you back yourself to achieve, you back yourself to perform, you back yourself to get shit done

When youโ€™re playing to avoid losing, on the other hand, well, you’re not really playing. You’re simply trying to avoid making mistakes. Your focus is on the negative outcome. As a result, you’re always on guard for fear of failure or embarrassment.

Psychologists call this the difference between a performance approach and a performance avoidance mindset. Study after study has concluded that those with a performance approach mindset have a much easier time immersing themselves in the game and entering a flow-like state.

I’ve experienced both multiple times. 

When I didn’t really want to be at work – when I had to fly through the night or with a Captain I didn’t get along with, I fretted. Not only did this spoil the game, it affected my performance. Even if I did make it through unscathed, the feeling wasn’t one of confidence but relief.

The truth was, on those occasions, I wasn’t in it to win it. I was merely trying to avoid failure for fear of being found out.

Conversely, when I did show up to work with a willing attitude. When I backed myself to do well in a sim or pull off a landing in tricky conditions, it was rarely as bad a day at the office. Not only would I perform better and gain more confidence as a result, if I did make a mistake I was able to look at it objectively.

Instead of viewing them as confirmation that I wasn’t capable, I was able to take the lessons onboard. That same attitude then gave me the impetuous to get back on the horse and have another go.

The question is, how do we adopt such an attitude consistently? How do we take a performance approach to work and life every time we show up to play?

One technique that’s used by many top athletes is visualisation. Psychology Today notes that mental practices “enhance motivation, increase confidence and self-efficacy, improve motor performance, prime your brain for success, and increase states of flow.”

The idea is you mentally rehearse the performance in your head ahead of time. Not only that, you visualise the future after you’ve achieved your goal. You picture it in vivid detail. Imagine the scene – the time and place -the people you’re with – how it feels. The more detailed the meditation, the better. It helps to combine it with a positive affirmation.

But before you do that, there’s an important question you should ask yourself. Especially if you find yourself repeatedly playing to avoid losing. That’s why you’re playing the game that you are, because the reason you’re playing – your why – has got to be bigger than winning.

Success alone isn’t enough. Winning isn’t enough. Why do you want more followers on Twitter, or Instagram, or WordPress? Why do you want to become a published author? Why do you want to get that promotion? Why do you want to be a captain, or a lawyer, or a doctor? 

What is the reason for playing the game that you are? 

It’s worth stating that no child plays to win. A child plays because it wants to play. That’s because playing is an expression of joy. Playing is an expression of freedom. Playing, in its purest form, is an expression of love. 

The reason for playing at anything is for the love of that thing. 

You play to play. Similarly, you write to write. You don’t write to become a published author or get thousands of followers. You don’t write to win. You write because you love the craft. You fly aeroplanes because getting airborne gives you a rush that few other things can.

One of the problems we have in today’s results-obsessed culture is that we forget those reasons for playing in the first place. That desire to win, to be successful, to say we have achieved this, that or what-the-fuck ever (by the way, no-one else cares except you) takes over. We end up thinking that winning is the point.

This blinds us. 

If you’re not careful, ambition has a way of sucking the life out of everything in its wake. It has a way of sucking the fun out of play. Which misses the whole point. 

Winston Churchill once said, “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” That’s the point right there. To keep your spirit, to keep your love for the game going. So that no matter how many times you get knocked down, you get back up, over and over again. 

If you play enough times in this life, you will win. The most important thing is to make sure that you’re playing the game you want to play when you do. 

Otherwise, you really have lost.


You can find AP2โ€™s personal blog here at:

You can also find him on Medium at:

Or on Twitter at: @AnxiousPilot

26 thoughts on “Are You Playing To Win or To Avoid Losing?

    1. I suspect situational bias had a lot to do with it. Iโ€™ve certainly been guilty of blaming external circumstances on my performance before. Thank you for making me think ๐Ÿ™

  1. My “like” button is broken again, dagnabit, so I’ll comment instead. Love this post! So full of good wisdom, and so true. The joy is in the journey. The win can be anticlimactic! I found that out just yesterday, when I finally pushed the “publish” button on my new book, Voices: Who’s in Charge of the Committee in My head? Please forgive me for unabashedly giving it a little plug (it’s part of practicing the art of playing to win, right?). I just couldn’t help myselfโ€”I’m learning how to play to win. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for giving me a little push in the right direction! And thanks again for a great post.

    1. Suddenly I’m anonymous without my permission! Don’t know how that happened, but Julia Preston’s my name, and is my game. Just thought I’d mention . . . ๐Ÿ˜

      1. Hi Julia. Thank you for your kind words and congratulations on your book. I like the title! Itโ€™s in the chasing that we (should) have the most fun. Winning is simply the cherry on top. Wishing you well ๐Ÿ™๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Beautifully written, thought-provoking post. If I had to read into it, I’d say that you are writing and thinking about these profound topics because you love doing it — and all of us get to benefit from that.

    I love the sports analogy. It makes me think of how a gifted athlete makes what they do look so easy. Hopefully it’s because they not only have practiced the shot 10,000 times but because they also love what they are playing!

    1. If you’re going to practise something 10,000 times you better be sure you love doing it. Thank you Wynne. You know, I wrote this post while sitting out on a hotel balcony in Tel Aviv over looking the Mediterranean Sea with a beer in hand! If that isn’t playing I don’t know what is. Have a wonderful weekend Wynne ๐Ÿ™๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Everyone can’t win. Most people lose most of the time. Winning and losing are polar concepts regarding the results of a competition. If a prize is necessary in some way for the people involved or they become fixated on it along the way, competition brings out the worst in us. Even if the “prize” itself is meaningless, 3rd parties may manipulate us into thinking it’s critical to our well being for their purposes. We end up desperate to win and hating the competition. And then we have war, the ultimate competition.

    OTOH if the prize is merely nominal, competition can be fun. A game of chess, playing poker for toothpicks instead of money, a pickup game of basketball, as long as you don’t get you’re ego wrapped up in proving you’re the “best” they are true play. There are people who would claim that everyone “wins” in such play but symmetry demands that if there is a winner there has to be losers.

    I think it is more honest to say that ***everyone can come out ahead of where they were.*** The other team outscored you, so you lost the game. But you had fun, you did something you enjoyed, so losing didn’t matter, Maybe your skills improved. Maybe you gained some respect and admiration for the other players. Maybe you went out for beer after and laughed about your goof-ups. Bonds were strengthened.

    Sadly, most real-world competition is really about status and ego and material wealth. It is not very playful.

    The only person you need to compete with is yourself. In that respect be both a good winner and a good loser.

    1. I like your thoughts – especially the idea of learning to be a good loser and good winner. I think the best way to treat “success” or the goals we chase after is to think of them as “nominal prizes” as you say. Makes everything less serious. I’ll be sure to have a read of that article. Thank you for taking the time to read and for sharing your thoughts. ๐Ÿ™

  4. When I play I always do my best under the given circumstances. Winning or losing doesnโ€™t really matter. The important is being part of a game you like, as you said. But also if I donโ€™t like it, I do my best, maybe without a smile ๐Ÿ˜Š

    1. If you can managed a smile when your back is against the ropes youโ€™ve done well. โ€œTry your best, forget the restโ€ is a good motto to live by. Thank you Cristiana ๐Ÿ™

  5. Hi AP2. Another wonderfull and rich article–thank you! You nailed it. I love how you share your insights with us. “When your playing to avoid losing, on the other hand, well, youโ€™re not really playing.” I, too, could relate to the other way of “playing” life…and we both know it well,…sucks. The basic prayer I remember was…”please, Lord, just help me get through this day…and this day…and this day…without rocking the boat.” A totally joyless way of e x i s t i n g. Thanks for sharing your joy through your writing!

    1. Thank you Art. I always appreciate your kind words. Yes, I did the whole trying not to lose thing for a long time. Totally joyless as you say. Take care Art ๐Ÿ™

  6. Awesome question ๐Ÿ™Œ I look at it as playing the game is a metaphor for life and living your life. Playing to win is to abide by the laws and regimes that are in place, becoming a conglomerate that makes the rich richer, ala Zuckerberg et al. To avoid losing is to be silent. Now if you said playing to lose, then thatโ€™s a completely different way to play the game. In playing to lose, you can upset the ones that are playing to win and come out on top as the winner. It just needs that one person to break the status quo and change the way of life as we know it

    1. Playing a different game by refusing to abide by the laws/our conditioning. Winning at the game that you define really is the way to win. Thank you for sharing your thought. ๐Ÿ™

  7. Sadly I am someone who plays to try not to lose too badly. Let’s say, settle for second to last. It’s not a gratifying way of going about things. When I was more ambitious, I would visualize successful outcomes and imagine how I achieved the goal, and work backwards from there. Now I sort of anticipate a less than optimal outcome. Your post has given me a lot of food for thought about how I approach goal-setting and performance.

    1. I suffered a heavy defeat that caused me to try to avoid losing for a long time. Took me a while to win back my spirit. Some days I do better than others. Playing to win more consistently is a work in progress. Iโ€™m glad my post gave you some food for thought. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Wishing you well Hetty Eliot ๐Ÿ™

  8. AP, I enjoyed reading this relatable and thought-provoking post. As a teacher, I posted a sign that said, Learning is Fun! I always tried to have a good time learning along with students, and I tried to make learning fun for them. It’s when you turn play into work that the joy goes out of the activity! Now, when I see a pile of unanswered emails to tackle, I try to remember that I am blogging because it is fun!

    All the best to you and your family! Have a fabulous weekend! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Life is all about having fun. Of course we donโ€™t always get to do fun things/what we would like but we can always bring a playful attitude to those things. I do believe that makes a big difference. Have a fabulous weekend to you and yours too Cheryl ๐Ÿ™‚๐Ÿ™

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