Playing to win vs. playing not to lose

Alexis at Coaches Corner had a post where he talked about sometimes it makes sense to not actually play to win, per se. His main point was that we often think only in terms of winning. In many circumstances, however, it makes more sense not to actually take the kinds of chances required to do so. That’s because the probabilities simply don’t work in your favor.

Think about a gymnast or an ice skater. If they do a super hard trick they could win, but their chances of actually pulling it off are low. If they don’t do the trick they won’t win. They would have a much better final standing than if they tried and failed, though. In volleyball this equates to the serving aggressiveness decision or going for it attacking a ball.

I confess, I didn’t actually think of that when I first read the post. I only just thought of it as I wrote this one! Instead, I was thinking about how volleyball teams can play to win or play to not lose in a couple of different senses of that, and how we as coaches factor into it.

Playing not to lose

If you’ve coached enough matches you will have seen examples of teams playing not to lose. They get ahead or are the clear favorites, but rather than just playing normally, they get conservative. They look to avoid mistakes. The problem is, that can lead to the opposition making things tight, at which time the team really can start freaking out and go into full panic mode.

I’ll share a personal example. At the end of the 2012-13 NVL season the Devon Ladies team was playing their final match away at the newly crowned league champs, Team South Wales. We were up 2-1 and ahead in the fourth when the wheels came off. The team got tight, TSW came back, and we panicked. I didn’t read the signs properly, and we ended up losing in 5. A few weeks later a similar situation developed at the South West Championships in the finals against the same team. We had been up, but let them come back. This time I recognized what was happening and got the team settled down in a timeout. We went on to score 9 of the next 10 points to win the match and the title.

Playing conservatively to win

There are times in volleyball where going for it makes sense. There are also times when that’s a poor percentage play. The most obvious example of this is in hitting. When a hitter gets a good set in an advantageous position then it makes total sense to be aggressive. When hitter gets a poor set, has no approach, and is facing a monster triple block, smashing the ball is not the brightest idea. Better to take something off and play a smart shot.

The difference between playing the smart shot in this case and not hitting aggressively when playing not to lose is one of intent. The smart hitter realizes their chances of scoring when in a bad hitting position are low and the chances of losing the point are high, so they opt for the course that gives the team better odds. The tentative playing-not-to-lose player is just scared and not thinking at all about what is more likely to lead to a point.

Coaching the difference

Ensuring your players fall into the to-win rather than the not-to-lose category often comes down to you. Are you training them from the perspective of doing what is most likely to produce a successful outcome? Are you encouraging them to take appropriate risks? If so, your teams will tend to have the right mentality. If, however, you have a gym environment where mistakes are punished then you’re more likely to see your team tighten up and play with fear when it’s crunch time.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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