If You Want to Win, Stay on Offense

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When I was younger, I played hockey. I was lucky enough to be on some very good teams, teams that won a lot of games.

In fact, during my senior year in high school, our team (Grafton-Park River) won the 1991 North Dakota State Hockey Championship (if you doubt me, click here). We scored the winning goal with 13 seconds left in the game, which made the arena (consisting largely of our fans) go absolutely crazy! It was, and continues to be, one of the highlights of my life.

I started playing hockey when I was 5 years old, and as I moved through the ranks, I learned that coaches often have very different strategies for how they approach the game.

Some coaches wanted us to be very physical, hitting (or, “checking,” as it’s technically called in hockey) the other team as much as possible. Other coaches wanted a more “wide-open” game where we did less checking and more skating and passing.

But one thing I heard over and over again as I played for different coaches was this:

“If you want to win, stay on offense. Don’t go into a defensive shell.”

Most often, we heard this when we were ahead by a goal or two and the game was starting to wind down.

The reason our coaches told us to “stay on offense” was because, when we were up by a goal or two, it was really easy to focus on trying to keep the other team from scoring rather than trying to score yourself.

Now, although the hypothetical outcome in each of these approaches is essentially the same—whether you keep the other team from scoring or whether you score yourself, you win the game—they are, in fact, quite different. And I quickly noticed that we played much differently depending on whether we were on offense or defense.

When we were on offense and trying to score, we attacked. We pushed hard at the other team and made things happen. We were proactive. And when we did that, we scored frequently (and usually won).

When we were in a defensive shell, however, we played differently. Rather than attack the other team, we were on our heels. We reacted to what the other team was making us do. And when we played like that, the outcome was often very different: We were much more likely to give up a goal or two, and sometimes, the other team even came back to beat us.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to believe that this sports analogy provides a very good way to think about our own personal development.

Staying on Offense: Covey, Skinner, and Proactivity

Quite often, when we decide to improve our lives, things start off well enough. We put in the work, and good things happen. But eventually, we get stuck, not knowing what to do next. And when this happens, we often stop trying, hoping instead that something will eventually happen that gets us out of our rut.

But when we approach our lives that way, there’s a problem. When we sit back and wait, we’re on defense—reacting and trying to keep bad things from happening to us.

What we need to do instead, though, is go on offense and make things happen for us.

In fact, many knowledgeable people, from all walks of life and from very different philosophical traditions, have given similar advice over the years.

Take, for instance, best-selling author Stephen Covey, whose famous book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” has sold over 25 million copies, and B. F. Skinner, considered to be one of the most influential psychologists of all time.

Covey’s writings show him to be a true believer in the notion of pure free will, which suggests that our choices are unaffected by past or current events.

Skinner, on the other hand, thought that free will was an illusion (as do many scientists) and that our actions are completely determined by genetics, past experiences, and things happening in the current situation.

Now, despite their philosophical differences on the notion of free will, what Covey and Skinner did have in common was the belief that we could improve our lives by being proactive.

In Covey’s “7 Habits” book, he discussed the notion of S → R, which suggests that stimuli in our environment (the “S”) automatically cause us to react, or respond (the “R”). For example, if I put food in your mouth (the stimulus), you will automatically salivate (the response). Or if you get a speck of dust in your eye, you will automatically blink.

In contrast with the reflexive nature of S → R (where we reactively respond), Covey suggested that we should instead be proactive (the first of his 7 habits).

Specifically, he said we should pause after a stimulus and proactively decide how we are going to respond to it rather than “reflexively” and mindlessly going through the motions.

Rather than “reflexively” eating the cake we are offered, we can pause, think twice, and eat something healthy.

Rather than “reflexively” wasting time watching Netflix, we can pause, be proactive, and do our homework instead.

Rather than “reflexively” going to graduate school because our parents expect us to, we can evaluate our lives and decide to take the path less traveled.

Ultimately, as Covey noted, “[E]very moment, every situation, provides a new choice. And in doing so, it gives you a perfect opportunity to do things differently to produce more positive results.”

Likewise, Skinner introduced the concept of self-managementAlthough Skinner believed that our behavior is determined, he nevertheless proposed that we have the ability to modify, or manage, our actions. We can do this by identifying the stimuli that cause us to act in certain ways and then proactively changing them.

For example, if we have a problem snacking late at night (because we see a pint of ice cream in our freezer), we can remove unhealthy snack foods from our house. No unhealthy snack foods in the house means no unhealthy snacking.

Or if we waste too much time watching Netflix when we should be studying, we can place an app on our computer (like StayFocusd) that blocks Netflix during study time. No access to Netflix means no watching Netflix.

Be Proactive, and Stay on Offense

Now, whichever of these definitions of “proactivity” we like best—Covey’s notion of free choice, or Skinner’s idea of proactively changing the factors that cause you to behave, or even some other definition—doesn’t really matter.

What does matter, though, is that we need to be proactive in trying to make things happen in our lives. For example:

I’ve tried to do this over the past year by starting this blog and holding myself accountable for my diet and exercise activities.

I’ve also tried to do this by “putting myself out there” with other local musicians and seeing how my guitar playing stacks up.

Similarly, I tell my students that they need to be proactive and seek out help from their professors if there’s something they don’t understand in class (or, as my graduate advisor put it, “You need to be a good-natured pain in the ass”).

I also tell those interested in getting into graduate school (or getting a job) that they need to email prospective graduate advisors (or employers) and get their foot in the door.

There are many other examples, but I hope you get the point.

In other words, we need to stay on offense.

We need to attack our lives and act in ways that make things happen for us, rather than hanging back and waiting for things to happen to us.

When we take control of our lives and proactively pursue the things we truly want to accomplish, we are more likely to “get the goal,” more likely to “win the big game,” and more likely to create the kinds of lives that matter to us.

So, as you tackle tomorrow and try to make improvements in your life, just remember what my hockey coaches told us:

If you want to win, stay on offense.


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2 thoughts on “If You Want to Win, Stay on Offense”

  1. Love this one. Robert Sapolsky writes about this phenomenon in baboons, as well. If there’s going to be conflict, the one that’s aggressive and strikes first will have less stress about the conflict. His translational advice to humans is essentially “be proactive as you face challenges in order to reduce stress.”

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