Mental Edge: Why playing safe doesn’t help you win

Photo: Sean Logan/The Republic

Playing safe rarely works out for athletes. Yet many athletes adopt a cautious mindset when leading late in a competition.

For example, a football team has dominated the opposing team for three plus quarters and has a 14-point lead with four minutes remaining.

Instead of sticking to their offensive game plan, they start playing conservative. Instead of playing 60 minutes of aggressive defense, they play cautiously, allowing the opposing team to tie up the game. We call that taking the foot off the gas!  Trying to avoid mistakes and overthinking is a trap that many athletes fall into. Fear creates anxiety and trust in your skills, fills your head with worry and self-doubts, and often leads to making mistakes you are seeking to avoid.

Playing it safe opens the door for other competitors to erase the lead you built up. In fact, your opponents can sense that you are playing it safe and it gives them confidence and momentum to charge forward. They start to feel like they are in control and that winning is in their sights.. If you built a lead by “going for it” or playing aggressively, why would you change this mindset later in the competition? Keep doing what works.

The lesson is to maintain the same style of play that helped you get a lead. Now, that is not to say that you should play with recklessness, or play undisciplined. You have to be smart and aggressive.

The key is to not focus on the victory and continue to play the game — one play at a time.

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