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.
Research out of the University of Kent in England shows that when athletes compete with a performance-approach mindset, they tend to perform above and beyond their expectations and perceived talent level. A performance-avoidance mindset, on the other hand, tends to be detrimental. A 2006 study published in the journal Sport and Exercise Science found that performance-avoidance goals “led to worse performance and evoked higher levels of self-handicapping when compared to performance-approach goals.” The same theme applies to practice and training. If you are scared of failing and making mistakes, it’s only natural that you’ll hold yourself back.
“Generally speaking, a performance-approach mindset makes sense,” says Ashley Merryman, a researcher and author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. “It gives you more flexibility to do whatever it takes to win and is conducive to breakthrough performances.”
When I told Merryman the story of my high school football team, she laughed and said: “You guys were suffering from the ‘goal looms closer' effect, when you’ve come so far that 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.
Once our mindset switched, however, we became tight, rigid, and worried—and it’s tough to play well under those conditions. Merryman said that transitioning to a performance-avoidance mindset can be a wise move toward the very end of a competition or event. But, like my football team, many athletes make the switch far to soon and ultimately end up sabotaging what would have been their best day.
If you start to fall into this trap, 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.
On a more meta-level, Merryman believes that developing a performance-approach mindset comes down to “having confidence in your knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as a belief in your ability to succeed and a constant hunger for improvement and growth.”
Training hard isn’t enough; you’ve got to be willing to really go for it when it matters most.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) writes Outside’s Do It Better column and is author of the book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.