I’ve just been catching up with reading some of my favorite blogs, and among those is Didier Marlier’s one – and not only because he also uses analogies from sports in explaining management theories from time to time. In particular I enjoyed reading his post “Fear of loosing or fear of winning?”, which he wrote a couple of weeks ago and in which he explains the fear of winning – not only in sports: Even though people accept the advice from a coach or boss and know that it would improve their performance, they don’t try hard to be successful with the new approach as it would prove they were wrong with their own “winning formula” before. Stubbornness perfectly explained!
I enjoyed this great post a lot, yet while reading it I had the feeling that I would have associated “the fear of winning” with something different, so I hope that Didier excuses me robbing his title and interpreting “the fear of winning” into another direction:
First, I thought about the great UEFA Champions League final in 2005, in which Liverpool FC came back from being down 0-3 by half-time to finally win on penalties. Then, I thought about the great comebacks of NFL quarterbacks like John Elway or Dan Marino (the experts are still trying to figure out who of the two had more game-winning fourth quarter drives). I thought of all the matches in any sports, in which a team that looked like completely finished came back to tie or win the game.
In all those situations where great comeback winners were born, there has also been a loser who blew a lead. Who came close to winning but couldn’t finish. Who just couldn’t close down after a great performance. Those teams that played great for 90% of the match and then became nervous, stopped performing the way they did before, tried to play it safe, were defensive instead of offensive, watched the clock and the opponents instead of themselves.
This is also the fear of winning. To be more exact, it is the fear of not winning despite having had the lead – which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why does it happen so often?
Before finding the reason why they blow the lead, let’s find the reason why they got the lead first: Most probably because they played better than their opponents. Because they had a better game plan (strategy) and a better execution (tactics).
In sports as in business, strategy and tactics take the opponent into account (in most cases). What are their strengths and weaknesses, where can they become a threat for us and where are opportunities for us to threaten them. The leading team obviously did a good job at this so far. The trailing team didn’t. With the pressure rising (in sports due to the fact that game time expires, in business e.g. due to emptying bank accounts), the trailing team is forced to change something. In football this may be starting the “two-minute-offense” with a different, faster rhythm and high risk passes. In soccer it may be moving the tall defender up front and chipping in the high crosses, hoping that he will somehow touch it. In business it may be lowering prices, buying more TV adverts, etc.
That’s where a very special dynamic develops: The winning team realizes that the behavior of the other team changes and tries to adapt. They move more defenders backwards or they also lower their prices – in brief they start some short term activities that are not in line with their initial overall game plan, they use tactics that are not in line with their strategy.
That’s interesting: The leading teams quit their winning first-choice approach and force themselves into purely reactive activities, just because their competitors went from their first choice approach to a second choice out of pure desperation. What sounds ridiculous when looking at it from a distance is everyday life on pitches and on markets: We quit a successful game plan just because a competitor starts doing something differently.
It’s not allowed in soccer, but it is in football and in your business: Take a time out!
Take a step back and before jumping into an uncoordinated, spontaneous activity, reflect on whether the new approach of your competition really threatens you success or not. In most cases you will find that you general game plan, your strategy, is still the right one, as it matches the strengths and weaknesses of your competition, not only their short term behavior.
Next, look at your tactics. Would it make sense to change some things in the way you execute the game plan to better match the new behavior of the other team? If so, make sure your new tactics are still in line with your strategy. The strategy always has priority, or as Seth Godin once brilliantly put it: “The right strategy makes any tactic work better. The right strategy puts less pressure on executing your tactics perfectly”.
And when you finally slightly adjust your tactics, don’t let the fear of winning take over. Desperate moves of your competition typically create more new chances for you than risks. If the tall defender is moved up front, he is missing at the back. If the quarterback is going for an aggressive pass offense, you know what to expect in the next play and can e.g. blitz more instead of covering short runs. If your competitors suddenly lower their prices, you can better position your product as the best quality and the best value on the market.
Play to win!