Fourth and inches

Chances are you’ve heard the saying, “Won the battle but lost the war.” While it is hard to willingly accept defeat or failure, sometimes your best strategy in a given situation is to not give it your all. To not try your absolute hardest to be successful. To not try to win at the specific task at hand. To lose a battle so you can win the war.

In baseball, a manager may have a batter sacrifice (bunt or fly) themselves to advance another runner. Or have a pitcher intentionally walk a good batter to get to a relatively weaker batter. In American football, most teams choose to kick – either a punt or field goal – on fourth down instead of going for it. In basketball, coaches may call for intentional fouls late in a game to prevent a sure two by the opponent and risk a 1-and-1 foul shot situation. In chess, a player will intentionally sacrifice pieces to improve board position. You get the idea.

What each of these situations have in common, of course, is that the goal is not to get an individual hit, or out, or touchdown. The goal is to win the game, and ultimately a tournament or season. You weigh the risk of doing what is typical against the potential benefit or cost in terms of that goal of winning. You may not “go for it” on fourth and inches early in the game deep in your own half of the field, but you probably will if it is late in the game deep in your opponent’s end and you’re down by four points. Context is key.

Of course, no one would ever intentionally lose an actual game. Or would they? Depends on the context.

During the 2012 Summer Olympics several teams were disqualified and removed from the Badminton competition for deliberately trying to lose a game. From the outside this seemed crazy, and the crowds at the games were rightfully angry at what they were seeing. Did I mention that these teams were playing against each other, both of them intentionally trying to lose.

But for the teams at the time the strategy made perfect sense in the context of their ultimate objective – Olympic gold. For various reasons, the rules for the badminton tournament were changed going into the Olympics. The teams who wanted to lose games on purpose were simply adjusting their strategy on the court to increase their chances to win gold based on these new rules.

I say “simply”, but the whole situation was anything but simple. The rule-makers had failed to consider this second order effect of changing the rules, and the athletes had failed to take into account the reactions of the fans and officials at their blatantly unsportsmanlike conduct. And so they were disqualified, even though they hadn’t technically broken any rules.

They won the battle, but lost the war.

Advertisements

The collaborative nature of true competition

I am reading Clay Shirky‘s book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age and will share my thoughts once I’ve completed it, but wanted to share this little tidbit now.

The idea of true competition is one that really resonates with me and is something I’ve been trying to make sense of in a work and business environment. Shirky has a great description of the collaborative nature of true competition (page 102):

The spread of these [skateboarding] techniques was driven by spirited competition. We often think of competition as pure conflict, the way firms compete in a market, happy to drive one another out of business. In groups of people who know one another and share the same interests, though, competition can take on a collaborative quality. the Z-Boys competed not to end the development of skating technique but to extend it. Instead of trying to come to some final or right way of skating, or to master some hidden and uncopyable technique, they developed new styles and tricks out in the open, challenging in order to invite a response.

They weren’t doing it to “win“, they were doing it to learn, and to create, because they loved it.

If you haven’t read the book, I can already tell you that I recommend it (even though I haven’t finished reading it). In the meantime, take a few minutes and check out his TED Talk on how cognitive surplus will change the world:

You should also take a few minutes and read Luis Suarez’s thoughts on the video.

If your purpose is to win…

…you have already lost.

Competing – and hopefully winning – can be a key part of any journey, but it shouldn’t be the destination. If reaching your destination is all you have to look forward to, what happens when you get there?

Or as I tell my sons: the goal of competition is, of course, to win, but your purpose – for training, for competing – should be to learn, to grow. To have fun.

Why we work better under pressure, and why we should encourage it (in moderation, of course)

Part of the reason for my time away from this blog has been my role in planning a trampoline and tumbling meet here in St. Louis. With just a couple of weeks to go until competition begins, things are really starting to cook. And, like with many projects, there is quite a bit of what could be (politely) called last-minute running around.

We all know the experience of doing (what we think is) our best work as a deadline approaches . Or the frustration of managing a team that works this way. And maybe it is something that we should – if not encourage – at least indulge, in moderation. For what is pressure if not competition. Granted, it is competition against the clock, but competition nonetheless.

And we all know that competition, in proper doses, is a very good thing.