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Sports Psychology - Only Losers Play it Safe

Only Losers Play it Safe

By Tim Wendel / USA Today Feb. 2005

That's become the mantra of sports. But as we hunker down to watch the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles in Sunday's Super Bowl, the upsetting truth is, that in a society that puts a premium on risk-taking and competitive gusto, coaches often take just the opposite approach.

Time and again, an entire season can ride on a field-goal attempt often beyond the 45-yard line. I know. I grew up a Buffalo Bills fan. I can still see kicker Scott Norwood's 47-yarder in Super Bowl XXV sail inches wide of the right upright.

That's why it's difficult not to pick the Patriots Sunday. Not only do they have one of the clutch kickers in the game in Adam Vinatieri, but he's backed up by Bill Belichick, a coach who rarely plays it safe.

Vinatieri's kick may have won the Super Bowl three years ago, but what's often forgotten is that bold play-calling gave his foot a chance.

At Belichick's urging, with time running out in regulation, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady passed the ball downfield. Such daring put Vinatieri in position for glory.

Beyond the sports world

Playing it safe gets you some wins, but rarely does it get you the win. Examples aren't confined to the world of sports:

While President Bush didn't have a mandate after the 2000 election, he ran the country as though he did. He tackled education reform (a traditionally Democratic issue), reformed Medicare (a sacred cow of Washington) and pursued a bold foreign-policy agenda. And he won re-election.

Thanks to the phenomenal success of iPod, Apple owns 65% of the burgeoning MP3 market. But CEO Steve Jobs isn't about to tell his players to drop back into a prevent defense (which sports fans know prevents one thing: winning). Apple recently came out with a low-cost model of the iPod and is also rolling out an inexpensive desktop computer, the Mac Mini.%

China is turning heads by taking chances. Not only will it host the 2008 Summer Olympics, but the communist country is roaring in business and recently put a man in space a watershed moment for a country that at one point in its history walled out the world (the ultimate prevent defense). It is now intent on literally giving the rest of the planet a run for its money.

After Martha Stewart was found guilty of lying about a stock sale, she vowed to appeal her five-month sentence. But she soon realized that to win, she needed to make tough choices. Stewart decided to serve her time and forge ahead, tackling her opponent instead of waiting to be tackled. Her decisive actions and optimistic voice said one thing: winner. Her company's value, which had dropped to $489 million at the end of last year, soared to $1.3 billion.

The what-if game

Coaches readily draw parallels between sports and business, even sports and life. The winning ones will rush out with a tome about how Average Joes should adopt their philosophy or aggressive management style. Yet so few follow their beliefs when it counts. They play it safe and lose.

That's what San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, New York Jets coach Herman Edwards and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher did at crucial moments this postseason. Each will now be able to play the what-if game this Sunday either in front of the TV or from the bleachers in Jacksonville.

The playoffs are one thing, but even the NFL's biggest stage the Super Bowl abounds with coaching miscues and blunders.

Which brings me back to 1991: Norwood's kick went wide by about 18 inches. If he'd been a few yards closer, the Bills probably would've won a championship instead of being remembered as the only team to reach the Super Bowl four consecutive times and lose every time. Fans like me are left to second-guess every play and loss.

Unlike corporate boardrooms and political "war rooms," though, the white-knuckle decisions of Super Bowl Sunday are open for us to dissect on Monday morning. Just ask Norwood. Or Brady, for that matter. Justice is swift when dozens of cameras are watching, and those who play to win even if they ultimately lose have an easier time answering questions in the locker room after the game.

The trophy that will be hoisted in one locker room Sunday night was named after NFL coaching great Vince Lombardi. No one dare ask whether he played to win. He did. "Winning is not everything but making effort to win is," he said.

Such a simple thought if only followed through.

A contributing writer for USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Tim Wendel is the author of Castro's Curveball and The New Face of Baseball. He is also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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