Are you playing to win or just not lose?

Many years ago, I trained with a grappler whose plan seemed to be stalling in every position (and I mean every position), turtling up at all costs. He kept his arms glued to his side and his head tucked down at all times and worked hard to squash every movement, though not to any great success. Even when he slowly grinded his way to a good position, he wouldn’t take advantage of it, instead remaining defensive, almost paranoid of what could happen if he dared try.

If his goal was to tap fewer times per round, I suppose he accomplished that by making everything as slow as molasses, but he wasn’t racking up many points on the invisible scoreboard in the sky either. Eventually, he would fall behind, and not being willing to risk anything, he’d never catch up and end up tapping despite his efforts.

I asked him why he didn’t try to open up, to flow more, to not worry about things so much. I thought his mind was blank because he couldn’t think fast enough to keep up and just held on to stall the match; but his answer revealed a different problem. He explained: “If I do this, then they’ll counter with that, so I don’t do it. And if I do that, they’ll counter with this, so I don’t try it. And if I….” and so on. He was fighting virtual matches a dozen times more complex than the actual ones he was having! His mind was racing to consider all the outcomes and consequences. But his analysis always ended with him being countered or swept or submitted, and so he never bothered trying.

I asked him if any of his “if this, then that” equations ended with him succeeding. Why not just go for the move anyway? If he knows the potential counters, then just be ready to counter that and keep going until he wins. “If I do this, then they will do that, so I will do this next!”

He didn’t seem too keen on the idea. He preferred to play it safe, or at least what he considered safe, keeping the number of times he tapped to a minimum but never scoring any big wins for himself. That wasn’t the best mindset, but it wasn’t my job to play jiu-jitsu psychologist, so I let him go on his merry turtling way.

Bruce Lee has a famous saying about “analysis paralysis,” and this is the clearest example of it I’ve encountered in BJJ. A popular misconception, often expressed by lower belts, is that black belts think 100 moves ahead, like a computer playing a chess game. But that’s not how any human black belts or chess masters play their games, as far as I know. The mindset is more like this:

I know what I want. I know what you want. I will execute my gameplan and deny yours as much as I can. I will re-evaluate the situation at each critical moment as the match progresses. I will go for whatever gives me the highest odds of winning, but I won’t take stupid risks.

Across many fields, you’ll find the concepts of “playing to win” versus “playing to not lose”. I first learned these ideas playing Magic: The Gathering, but it is common in athletics and even the business world. My turtling friend above is a prime example of “playing to not lose” and where that can go wrong. Let’s get into how these two mindsets can apply to grappling.

Read these lists and see which better describes your grappling style:

Playing to Win

  • Willing to take risks
  • Excited by the potential for the best outcome
  • Don’t mind playing fast and loose
  • Eager to attack and go on the offensive
  • Characterized by optimism

Playing to Not Lose

  • Reluctant to take risks
  • Worried about the worst outcome
  • Prefer to go slower and be careful
  • Focused on defense and reaction
  • Tends towards realism

You may see yourself in some of those traits, maybe even split between the two lists.

Picking Your Strategy

When deciding which side of the “win” or “not lose” fence you fall on, consider these factors:

  • Your experience level. A white belt will be forced to “play not to lose” simply because that’s all they can do against most people. That’s as it should be, because the foundation is built on survival and defense. But by blue belt or higher, you should have enough tools under your belt to “play to win” against people near your level or below.
  • Your opponent’s experience level. It’s overly optimistic for me to say “just get out there and go for it!” in every situation against every opponent. When you’re outclassed, you do what you’ve got to do, but I will say that the lower belts who give me the most trouble are the ones who don’t care about my rank and go for their techniques with confidence.
  • What does “winning” really mean to you right now? Context matters. How you measure success when you’re up for gold at Worlds or just rolling with a friend on another Tuesday night is very different. You see this philosophy expressed in the “keep it playful / keep it real” movement. Sometimes just not getting injured so you can train again tomorrow is the real “win” at the end of a tough night.
  • Realize that neither strategy is “better” than the other all the time. My opening story may have biased you against playing to not lose, but that was an extreme case. Play it safe if that’s your nature, but still have a plan for winning in there somewhere. A grappler with a slow, deliberate style can build their game around wearing their opponent down, running them out of options, and draining their energy until a win is inevitable. Ricardo Arona is a classic example of a successful “play not to lose” grappler. On the flip side, Marcelo Garcia is likely the greatest “play to win” competitor in history. After losing to Drysdale in ADCC by getting caught in a brabo choke as he went for a single leg takedown, he was asked if he would still go for that takedown if he had another chance. His answer was “Yes, but faster.”

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