Playing to Win Instead of Playing to Not Lose

winPlaying to Not Lose

Sports commentators often discuss how teams need to decide to “play to win” instead of simply “playing to not lose.” In football, it’s the difference between going for a field goal or a touchdown. In a high school cross country race, it’s about racing the course and other competitors instead of focusing on running how you feel.

The difference between playing to win instead of playing to not lose? Usually, a mediocre and a winning record.

A playing-to-not-lose mindset involves being driven by fears and protecting what you have. It means reacting to others, essentially letting them decide your game plan, and not taking risks.

As Christians, playing to not lose looks like John’s description of the Laodicean church in Revelation as “lukewarm.” It’s the third worker in Matthew’s parable of the bags of gold. And it’s the person who refrains from the “don’ts” but neglects the “do’s” on Paul’s many lists in the New Testament.

Playing to not lose as a Christian involves just getting by. It strives to simply avoid any bad results. Eventually, the surrounding culture consumes such a person until no one can tell he is even a Christian.

winner

Playing to Win

Scripture directly addresses the idea of playing to win and connects it with our pursuit of righteousness.

“Do you not know that in a race all runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Many habits exist with the playing-to-win mindset. Three jump out as foundational.

Seize Opportunity

Over his high school cross country career, my oldest son learned to race smart. His coach taught him how to put himself in the best position to take advantage of opportunity. The result? My son reached most of his goals, including winning a race and receiving All County and All Region honors.

“Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16)

Christians put themselves in the best position to seize opportunity when they first make sure the opportunity is God-ordained. Similar to training for a runner, this comes through daily habits. Prayer, Scripture and being Spirit-led set us up to know when God-ordained opportunity approaches and allows us to make the most of them without hesitation.

Also, we need to make sure not to miss God-ordained opportunity because we’re so focused on the forest we don’t see the trees. In other words, we too often miss everyday, small opportunities because we only look for the monumental ones.

Take a look at your daily habits and at whether or not you’ve set your vision too broad. If opportunity seems to regularly miss you, adjust your vision and your habits accordingly.

Work Hard & Stay Humble

A significant aspect of working hard, which sets us up to take advantage of God-ordained opportunity, involves humility. Without both hard work and humility, we’re likely to either not be ready for opportunity or be too self-focused to see it.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:3-5)

Successful teams – the ones that win championships, not just games – consist of humble players. The victory is all that matters. Credit doesn’t. Who gets the ball doesn’t. At the same time, these humble players work hard to make sure the team as a whole wins. It’s the same as the “All In” mentality that won the New York Giants the 2012 Super Bowl.

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” (Colossians 3:23)

As Christians, working hard and staying humble means pleasing God over men. It means preferring others and pointing them to Christ. And it means rejoicing when others win victories over sin and Satan. That mentality involves whole-hearted service and valuing relationship.

Focus

Inherent within every element involved in playing to win is focus.

“Always remember, your focus determines your reality.” (Qui Gon-Jinn, The Phantom Menace)

In sports, commentators and analysts regularly talk about the importance of focus, whether because of its absence or its role in victory. In everyday life, focus plays an essential role as well, but we often don’t realize it until it’s absent. Simply consider The Toxic Impact of Multitasking to understand how significant loss of focus has become for most people.

The Old Testament as a whole gives us a poignant picture of focus too. It shows a steady and passionate God juxtaposed with wandering and fickle men. Story after story shows men losing focus and God drawing them back to Him.

As Christians, we are either God focused, or we’re not. There is no gray area. No other options.

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

Choosing simplicity helps us regain our focus. When we let go of the things of this life and focus on the eternal God, we gain a laser focus on that which lasts forever.

These three foundation habits – sizing opportunity, working hard and staying humble, and focusing – found in every person who plays to win, create A Higher Standard that sets a person apart.

The Best Lessons from a Track Meet

track 1Track meets provide a unique perspective on being the best. At one meet, a runner can get the best time and win a race only to find himself less than the best at the next meet even if he runs the same time as in the previous meet.

Then there’s the idea of a personal best. Regardless of time in comparison to other runners, running a personal record (PR) trumps overall place and time. Even the slowest runner at a meet relishes the idea of a personal best.

Also consider the idea that the best in one race, say a 400 meter (once around the track) may very well fail to be the best in a sprint (shorter than a 400 meter) or in a 3,200 meter (8 times around track). In other words, the best in one race usually won’t be the best in every race.

track 2We tell our son, “We’re happy when you do your best,” whatever that might be on any given day. We remind him that his best will vary from day to day too. If he gets a personal record, we need not remind him of this. But when he struggles, like all of us do, he needs reminded of how best fluctuates but always remains the goal of the day.

The best involves giving all you have to the task at hand. It doesn’t mean living for chance but combining chance with preparation. Weather can impact your best, other runners can impact your best, even the crowd may impact your best. But your preparation, good or bad and sufficient or not, exists as an element you can control, and it also significantly impacts your best.

Best also never means that better isn’t possible, first because best varies from day to day and second because the element of growth always leaves open the possibility of a new best. The key, then, lies in progress over perfection.

Strive for the best.

Be your best.

Prepare for the best.

Appreciate the best.

Push beyond the best.

Progress over perfection.

DISCUSSION: Do you always strive for your best, whatever that is on any given day? If not, what needs to change for this to happen?

Consistent Stretching & Strengthening

Stretching 2Foot and leg pain began when I started running at age 14 because a boy I liked ran cross country. (Incidentally, over 20 years later, not only do I still run, but I’m married to that boy who also still runs.) My first memory of these problems were shin splints. My cross country coach faithfully taped my feet before every practice & meet to help alleviate some of the pain.

My mom took me to the podiatrist who fitted me with orthodics, which I don’t recall really wearing much (okay, not at all). In college, I ran very little, so the pain subsided, and I all but forgot about it.

Then the pain started again after college because I started running again. I also started teaching college classes, which meant a lot of standing, and the pain in my feet and legs gradually increased and returned worse than ever.

Stretching 1After trying orthodics again, expensive shoes & lots of rest, I finally sought to revamp my running form as well as to incorporate cross training activities. Still, the pain increased to the point of not being able to walk without a limp.

Next, I endured the most painful event ever in my life, nerve testing of my feet (seriously, huge crochet needs stuck in the side of my feet). No problems found. Next came hours of physical therapy on pretty much every joint & ligament from the waste down. Painful.

The point? I’ve done a lot to find relief from this chronic feet, leg & hip pain. But only one route brought any consistent relief… stretching & strengthening.

Physical therapy taught me how to stretch the tight muscles in my legs and feet. About the same time, I began to strengthen my core too. When I do these regularly, my feet and leg pain – along with any back pain – almost disappears. Missing a day or two here and there isn’t a big deal, but chronically missing them gradually brings back the pain and tingling sensation.

My lifelong struggle with foot, leg and hip pain and finally finding the solution of stretching and strengthening remind me of the importance of consistent Bible study, prayer and fellowship. When I do these activities regularly, my focus remains steadily on Christ and my purposes set toward His desires. When I don’t, I lose focus easily and find myself lost and unbalanced in a chaotic world. These activities, when done consistently, do for my soul what stretching does for my muscles… prepare me to better handle the stress and strain of life.

So, why don’t I always keep with the habits of prayer, Bible study & fellowship?Probably for the same reason I neglect my stretching & strengthening routine at times. When the pain goes away, I forget what brought relief. Conversely, when I feel the pain, I’m motivated toward the habits that keep me flexible and strong.

The same holds true spiritually. Unfortunately, I’ve sort of trained God that I need to feel pain and/or discomfort in order to keep to the good habits that provide for my protection. He knows I need to be reminded of the basic habits needed to remain strong and flexible in this journey of life.

Does your life reflect this truth? Share your story in the comments.

You Play How You Practice

As my boys progress in sports (cross country, track, football, basketball & baseball), they increasingly learn the value of practice. Largely, that means the value of repetitiveness for learning and improving. But equally important involves realizing that games and meets simply exist as reflections of how they practice.

SlideIn baseball, how my youngest runs bases in practice comes through clearly in his game performance. Any goofing off or slacking in practice results in a flat at best and mistake ridden at worse, game. Same with hitting and catching.

My oldest runs, and this principle applies equally to even the more individually-oriented sports. (That’s not to say running isn’t a team sport, because it definitely is.) My son used to run with his friends during practice, but this often meant he wasn’t running to his potential. As a result, his race times were mediocre and inconsistent. When he realized that pushing himself in practice resulted in faster races, he practiced with more intention. Not only is every race now hard and fast, he is one of the most consistent runners on the team.

runnerI began wondering if this idea transferred to other areas of life too, say my walk as a follower of Christ. If so, when did I practice? And when were the games?

“And they will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.” (John 13:35)

While there are other ways, essentially our interactions with other Christians reflects on how we will interact with non-Christians. In other words, our “practice” takes place around other Christians. Below are my initial ideas on this, and hopefully you also see the hints of Scripture within them without me pointing them out:

  1. If we love each other, our love for Christ shows.
  2. If we don’t love each other, non-Christians question the validity of the faith we profess.
  3. Preferring others is one way to love each other.
  4. We can improve at loving others the more we practice doing so.
  5. We both provide and have examples to follow when we love each other.
  6. Regular interactions (practices) with a “coach” (pastor, mentor, teacher, etc.) are essential.
  7. Serving allows for exploration and exercising of gifts.
  8. When love for one another lacks unity, we lose valuable energy for loving outside the body (in the game).
  9. Loving others in the body means helping the body as a whole, including the “weaker” parts, to become stronger.
  10. Game time takes place on the mission field of life.

To help with application, consider the following questions. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

What happens when we look at time with other Christians as practice that prepares us for game time (time with non-Christians)? How does this change our attitude, actions & words?

Do we too often view loving other Christians as the game and then spend all of our time & energy there? Do we practice a lot & then forget to show up for the game?

Or, maybe our practices aren’t very good, maybe we’re not trying very hard. Maybe we’re not living love. How does a weak practice time impact game time?

What if we just aren’t playing as a unit? What if we’re trying to put an “I” in team?

While not a perfect analogy, how does the idea of “you practice how you play” fit into your view of how we should live as Christians?

How to… Run as if to Win the Race

Lessons from Jr. High Cross Country
My oldest son comes by running naturally. My husband and I have both been distance runners since we were about our son’s age. Our son has never not known us as runners. Somewhere along the line, he picked up our love for running.

Running for the past 25 years has certainly taught me a lot of life lessons that have contributed a great deal to who I am today. Yet even after all these many years of running, experiencing it through my son’s budding love for the sport has brought new perspective I failed to learn on my own.

Watching my son develop as a runner has taught me the following 5 lessons about how to run a successful race:

  1. Watch your form. Coordination is not the strongest ability for most junior high boys. Yet as they learn to run with good form and to stay relaxed at the same time, as they make good form a habit, their speed naturally increases. Watching this transformation illustrates the importance of fundamental habits, which really find application in every area of life.
  2. Make your move before it’s too late. Toward the end of the race, there’s often a point when a runner must take off to catch the runner in front of him. Too soon, and he’ll lose steam before catching him. Too late, and he’ll run out of time. This ability for timing comes with experience. As I watch these boys learn this ability, awareness of my own timing in many areas of my own life increases.
  3. Get off to a fast start. As the season progressed, my son learned that he usually finished about where he started. For this reason, he worked to get off to as fast a start as possible and to hold that place as best as he could to the finish line. This consistently worked well for him. Too many times in life, my hesitance and slow start in some area led to disappointment in my final result. My son’s example gives me inspiration to be a better starter so I can be a better finisher.
  4. Practice how you want to race. Only when my son began to increase his effort in practice did his race times begin to really improve. He learned a valuable lesson about focus and effort with daily habits and routines, much like his younger brother did this year in football. The overlapping Life Lessons Learned from Rocket Football and running a successful race contribute greatly to my own personal growth more than I ever expected them to.
  5. Realize that running is mostly mental. Sure, physical strength and ability matter too, but one’s mental strength often trumps another’s purely physical ability. This year, my son learned that he could be a top runner. When he realized this, he started runner faster and believing for even more success with running in the future. Watching him develop mental strength leads me to realize the importance of my own mental strength, especially its impact on my physical ability as well as how crucial continually growing mentally is in my own life.

A successful race does not necessary mean getting first place. But it does mean running your best. When one learns to do that consistently, he finds that running defines more than just his physical ability. And its lessons apply to more than just running, both for the runner himself and those watching his growth too.

DISCUSSION: What one point above can you immediately apply to your own life? How will you apply it?

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