Plenty of practice and empty heads – Part 6: Winning the race to lose.


6…winning the race to lose


Sometimes the victor in competition succeeds because they knuckled down and delivered the killer blow but in my experience, that’s uncommon.  More often than not, teams lose because they self-destruct.  This is not to say losing is deliberate, more that, self-destruction is an unconscious process – an automatic free-fall of error, fear and failure if you will.


In seven of the first eight seasons of my professional career (I include my three seasons at Boston University because, although it was unpaid, the competitive demands and expectations were professional-grade), I was on spectacularly under-performing teams.  In this period, I collected three wooden spoons (at three different clubs) and made the finals only once.  In this phase, I became adept at losing and sub-optimal performance.


In my remaining ten seasons, fortunes reversed and I played in two championships at three different clubs (6 titles), and made the finals every year.  In this phase, I became an expert at observing opponents lose and perform sub-optimally.


And my conclusion from experiencing this dyad of outcome is that more often than not, the loser won the race to self-destruction – the unknowns being when, how, and at what rate, the self-destruction occurred.  It can happen in the first minute, the middle of the competition, or in the dying seconds.  Rare is the contest when the victor wins by truly defeating their opponent.


In light of this, my rule of thumb for competition can be summed as:


  1. You (as a team or an individual) can play awesome but your opponent can play awesomer – you lose.
  2. You can play horrible but your opponent can be horribler – you win.


To me, the imperative for a professional athlete is not to win (refer to point 1 above), it is to be at your best as consistently as possible – thus maximizing your chances to succeed.  Being at ones’ best is usually achieved through diligent commitment to elite standards of preparation and practice, coupled with the highest degree of consistency of effort.  This combination of precision and effort is why I find great athletes and teams so admirable and compelling to watch.


The 2018 AFL Grand Final is an example of the finest type of performance one can observe in a sporting contest.  Both competitors had an opportunity to win, and the result was profoundly directed by a series of sublimely skillful acts – ending in a courageous and precise shot on goal.  West Coast won the game – Collingwood didn’t lose it.


This is not to say that errors did not occur but that the majority of errors each team made effectively cancelled each other out.  With the game poised within one goal, with little time remaining, it was a successful play that decided the outcome (not an overt error).


Plenty may take to argue this perspective by citing controversial umpiring decisions (or non-decisions) or that Collingwood players weren’t in the correct position to stifle the final Eagles’ push, but this is to miss the point.  The last Eagles play phase, which led to their match-winning goal, carried the same force of momentum that the Eagles’ players couldn’t break in the stunning first quarter effort by the Magpies.  Momentum is difficult to break.


The 2018 Grand Final was one for the ages because the shifts and swings of momentum were shared by each combatant.  Both had their turn but unfortunately, for Collingwood, the music stopped before they had a chance to counter.  It was a game of aspirational effort and skill.


So congratulations to West Coast for their win.  And to Collingwood, I offer the consolation that if you cannot be the champion, the next best thing is to make a champion be a champion to beat you.


Read Parts 1-5 of David Stiff’s series HERE.















About David Stiff

retrenched athlete, retired catholic, amateur philosopher and cynical optimist :)


  1. Thanks David
    My observation on winning/losing by narrow margins is that game-day sequences which require precision to accomplish successfully are often rated lower, when unsuccessful, than those which rely on overcoming an oppositions’ structure followed by an ad hoc score.
    This may be because the latter offers several chances to capitalise while the former needs the coalescence of skill and will to purpose. When these things are taught and learnt and they can be, the likelihood of a set of exact actions is increased dramatically.
    With the Eagles’ winning play, there were four winning marks and four winning kicks,all in contests.
    You won’t get a better play than that no matter how much you might argue for “forward at all costs”, “numbers to the ball”,”kick to space” or any of the other mantras that 17 other clubs lived and died by during the season and the finals.
    Does indeed practice make perfect?

  2. David
    I watched a series of disappointingly one-sided Grand Finals through the 80s and 90s. Many losing teams during that era seemed to find the occasion overwhelming and played accordingly. Often it appeared that every mistake they could make they did.
    There have been far fewer of these blowout results since 2000. Players/teams seem to be far more composed and level-headed on the big stage even when faced with an early deficit. West Coast this year was a prime example. I wonder if the greater levels of professionalism are a factor here? I think your point “being at ones’ best is usually achieved through diligent commitment to elite standards of preparation and practice, coupled with the highest degree of consistency of effort” sums it up well.

  3. david stiff says

    Thanks for your comments Gregor and Stainless.

    Gregor, I love the phrase coalescence of skill and will to purpose. To me, coalescence perfectly captures the nature of the Eagles’ winning play because it was a series of distinct actions that fell within a broader narrative. It’s rare because there are so many elements required, none of which can be consciously compelled or organised – only the unconscious process of intuition is up to the task. If it’s ok, I’d like to write more deeply about it in the next post because it touches on topics I’d I think may be of interest (namely intuition and the german notion of Gestalt).

    Stainless, I’m not certain on the stats about the blowout factor, though anecdotally it does seem that few finals are ever really close (and certainly rarely aligned with the anticipation and expectations of the hyperbolic media). I do believe professionalism has more evenly distributed the baseline competence of the competitors, so that would certainly have an impact on relative closeness. I would assume that the relative skill and physical conditioning difference between teams would be narrower now than in the semi-professional era too – perhaps that’s why the “mental edge” can be so impactful.

    Perhaps a stats guru would know (and share) the winning margin differential pre and post the year 2000. No doubt the margin difference will present only a slice of the picture but it would be an interesting comparison nonetheless.

  4. I’ve always believed that intuition is reason sped up a dozen times and some recent studies have borne out this premise in that ‘best guesses’ as carried out by expert practitioners across sport, forecasting, trend-spotting and demographics to name a few areas, provide much better than chance results.
    For this reason, we should distinguish between choice based on statistics and the past,perhaps called strategy and operational decisions without undue cogitation which exploit the time and space available in a optimised tactical way.
    The Tigers and Bulldogs both depended on this capacity to exploit their opponents defensive inadequacies. The Dutch boy with his finger in the dike only had one hole to plug

  5. david stiff says


    I agree with your view of intuition, and believe that the strength of the Tigers and the Bulldogs premiership form was largely due to their commitment to playing with their intuition.
    But I don’t think they used the intuition strategy to exploit the weakness of their opponents. To me, the strength of an intuitive strategy of play depends upon the competence and commitment of the performer(s) – the game is merely a test to reveal which of the opponents has the deepest combination.
    Overthinking is the antidote (but a seemingly safer approach) to intuition so many competitors try (or are coached to) apply conscious control as well as playing intuitively – they’re in effect hedging their bets. This may appear to provide the best of both worlds but more often than not, dooms one into doing two things poorly.

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