Sunday, November 2, 2008

Stop Playing Not to Lose

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

Virtually every coach I ever played for as a kid talked about playing to win instead of "playing not to lose." College and professional coaches give it lip service every day. So why, why, why do so few college and professional coaches actually practice what they preach?

Maybe it's the money involved and maybe it's the pressure. Or maybe the money and pressure are so intertwined as to be perceived as one in the same. Whater the reason, more games are lost playing "not to lose" than are lost by "playing to win," and many times the coaching staff is the culprit.

The main offenders seem to be college and professional football coaches - apparently the inventers of the universally maligned (at least among football fans) prevent defense that so many have said actually prevents winning. The latest glaring example occurred yesterday in Texas Tech's thrilling, collosal upset of top-ranked Texas, which fell after finally pulling in front by one with 1:39 remaining in the fourth quarter. At that point Texas Tech had blown a 16-point third-quarter lead by sitting back and trying not to surrender the big play.

A logical person might think that Texas would have learned from its opponent's mistake, but upon further review, you couldn't expect a coach to learn something that hundreds of other college and pro coaches have failed to discover through the years. Instead, the Longhorns tried to avoid giving up the big play as well, allowing the Red Raiders to advance all the way to the end zone for the victory in just six plays and 1:38.

Prior to that fateful drive, Texas had held Texas Tech to just three points during the game's previous 20 minutes as opposed to the 29 the Longhors surrendered in the game's opening 37 minutes. Then, all of the sudden, the Red Raiders caught lightning in a bottle and sprinted all the way down the field field for the winning score? No. Apparently Texas Tech played "not to lose" for 20 minutes and found themselves down by a point with 1:39 left. Then Texas decided to play "not to lose" and found itself on the short end of an upset.

This is not an isolated situation. Every week in the NFL there are four or five games in which a team's defense is dominant for three quarters and then the coaches decide to call off the dogs with a 10-point or two-touchdown lead in the final stanza. They are trying to avoid giving up the big play, instead content to allow huge chunks of yards over the middle of the field and lightning-quick 80-yard scoring drives. Inevitably these teams end up losing or watching anxiously as their opponents line up for a potential game-tying field goal or drive deep into the red zone.

Wouldn't it be better to maintain your aggressive game plan and give up an 80-yard bomb that leaves enough time on the clock for you to cruise down the field against your opponent's prevent defense than to die a slower, excruciating death as the other team marches down the field to victory?

If I'm coaching a team that has been dominant for three quarters of a game and I continue with that plan and somehow get beaten in the end, I can stand and face the music knowing that I gave my team the best chance to win - that I didn't hand my opponent the opportunity to steal an undeserved victory. If the team beats me outright, the victory is earned, but if my counterparts come back because I left the door open and gave them hope, to me that's harder to justify.

Coaches are always going to address the media as a computer technician might talk to you or me about a technological malfunction that we have no hope of understanding. They'll discuss playing the percentages and the fact that the other team is a group of professionals that doesn't quit and that none of the reporters ever played the game at that level. Of course, there's no way that these non-athletes would understand.

Having never played or coached the game, I don't pretend to have any concept of the planning and scheming that goes into creating a pro or college football team's game plan. But I have been around sports long enough as an athlete, coach and member of college and professional organizations to understand the human element that is involved.

If my coach develops an attacking, aggressive game plan and we are dominant for three quarters of the game before suddenly shifting our philosophy 180 degrees, two things are going to happen to me as a player. First, I'm going to analyze the conservative nature of the coach's decsion and be so afraid to make a costly mistake that my ability to play with anywhere near the level of tenacity and aggression necessary to make even the most basic of plays will be diminished substantially. And second, if the other team does make the game close, it's going to be very hard for me to return to the same level - emotionally and physically - at which I played before the coach backed off.

Coaches often refer to teams or players who don't have that "killer instinct" to jump on opponents when they are down and squash their hopes of even making the game close. In fact, personnel decisions often are made with character traits such as those in mind. It seems to me, however, that these coaches might want to look in the mirror and analyze the message they send on a weekly basis before judging their players in that manner.

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