Do You Play to Win, or Play for Mastery?


By Dr. Fran Pirozzolo, Chairman BGGA Scientific Advisory Board

Very few serious people would question the assumption that goal setting strongly influences whether desired endpoints are reached – whether you are attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open or to learn Spanish. Unfortunately, very few people apply strategies for goal setting that make it more likely that improvement in skills and the desired outcomes are achieved.

The Planning Fallacy popularized by Nobel Laureate Dr. Dan Kahneman, is our tendency to underestimate the time, costs and risks of future actions while at the same time overestimate the benefits of those same actions. It explains why we overrate our own capabilities and exaggerate our abilities to shape the future.

Typical inert efforts in this regard, that may seem helpful but aren’t, would be to set a deadline for achievement of the goal or its benchmarks.

Another serious mistake many people make is the assumption that champions succeed because they play to win, as opposed to playing for mastery. When players play to win, they are attuned to getting praise from others, establishing records and receiving material benefits from their performance. When players are exclusively focused on winning and the rewards that come from winning they become extrinsically motivated, that is, they depend upon what others think, how others play and the superficial factors of their performance.

Players who measure themselves by their mastery of the skills of their sport are intrinsically motivated and both successes and failures lead to further improvement for intrinsically motivated people. Players who play to win are much more likely to give up when their chance to win is diminished. Research strongly supports this pattern of performance. A player who plays to win and doesn’t is much more likely to have an inflexible fixed mindset. When the player loses, it is a debilitating experience causing him to wonder if he has the talent to succeed.

Players who play for mastery have a growth mindset and whether they win or lose, they use the game experiences as background for developing new or improved skills. Players who are largely motivated by extrinsic factors, by the rewards and attention they receive for winning, are more likely to fold under pressure or quit under the slightest resistance or smallest disappointment.

Players who set goals to improve the instrumental skills that their sport requires always have something important to sustain their efforts. Playing for mastery makes it easy for players to elevate their performance and come up with a positive plan to learn and exercise new skills. These players find it natural to double down on their efforts to master the competitive environment through training of the higher order mental mechanisms that sports and life require for high achievement.

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