During Tournament Season, Don’t Show up to Win. Show up to Compete!

Written By: John O’Sullivan, Founder of the Changing the Game Project

stock photo of team with gloves

As tournament season progresses, the pressure and stress can ramp up on our young players. Once All-Stars are selected, players competing for state, regional, and even a Little League World Series Championship all want to win their games and advance. Come tournament season, we all find ourselves talking, a lot, about winning. And sadly, talking about winning is one of the best ways to win LESS games! Let me explain.

If you survey the best coaches and best athletes across a variety of sports, you will find men and women that rarely talk about winning, even though they win most of their games. They are outcome aware (they want to win), but purpose and process driven. They stay connected to why they play, and to all the little things they need to do every day to give themselves the best chance of winning. But they don’t show up to win; they show up to compete. And when you show up to compete, the winning often takes care of itself.

You will find many coaches and teams who show up to win, but here is the problem with that: when you show up to win, you are completely outcome focused. You take shortcuts to get that outcome, which is not healthy nor the purpose of developmental-level baseball or softball. Outcomes are also often heavily influenced by factors out of a player’s control, such as the opponent, the weather, the umpires, and even a lucky (or unlucky) bounce or two. No matter what you do, if you come up against a pitcher at the top of his or her game, you will likely lose. Focusing on uncontrollables takes the focus off what athletes can influence. It can make them tight, tense and tentative, often thinking “I better not miss this fly ball, or we will lose.” That is a surefire way to drop it! A show-up-to-win mentality often leads to a decrease in confidence, because there are so many uncontrollables it feels like your fate is out of your hands. In a nutshell, those who show up to win usually see a decline in performance.

On the other hand, the more successful mindset is one that shows up to compete. Players who show up to compete focus on the things they control. Did I eat well and sleep well? Do I know my roles and responsibilities? I have practiced and prepared for this moment. I am ready for whatever happens. The feeling that you have prepared well and worked hard leads to confidence, and allows a player to be more calm and relaxed. He or she knows that funny bounces and missed opportunities will happen, and has prepared for those moments. Athletes who show up to compete perform better simply by not talking about winning, but by focusing completely on themselves and the things they can control. This is the high-performing mindset.

With the high-performing teams I work with, all we talk about are the things within our control. We talk about not whether bad events will happen, but how our RESPONSE to those events has a far greater influence on the outcome than the events themselves. We also focus on what we call the “never, nevers,” meaning:

  • We never give up, no matter what the score
  • We never lose confidence, because we have practiced and prepared for this
  • We never fail to own our response to events
  • We are never afraid of mistakes or losing, as they are great teachers
  • We are never defeated. We may just run out of time.

The second thing we do to keep the “show up to compete” mindset is that after every game, regardless of result, we always ask ourselves three questions:

  • What went well today?
  • What still needs work?
  • What did we learn today that we can improve upon in practice so we can perform better next time we play?

These three questions help frame every win AND every loss as a teachable moment. Some things always go well, even when we lose, and we tend to forget them. Some things always need work, yet when we win we tend to gloss over them. And every time we play, we can always learn something that will make us better next time we play.

Tournament season can be tough on players, parents, and coaches. The stress will increase the further our teams advance. And with each subsequent win, the tendency to focus on “just win” becomes greater. So, take a lesson from the best coaches and players around. Don’t show up to win. Show up to compete, focus on the controllables, and never give up. That is a winning mindset during tournament season. And that is a winning mindset for life!

This article is part of a content partnership with John O’Sullivan, Founder of the Changing the Game Project, to provide its parents and volunteer coaches with educational resources and guidance to create a better Little League experience for all children.