The Infinite Game: Challenging Our Limited View of Sports

As you have undoubtedly seen by now, the MLB season ended in controversy this week with a sequence of events perfectly fit for 2020.

While many of us had a strong reaction in the moment, I want to focus on the bigger picture rather than rehash the specifics of the situation and relitigate the many questions that arose about the MLB, the Dodgers, and Justin Turner. The true problem here is one that is all too common in the world of sports, and one that is much bigger than Justin Turner: a culture that is so hyper-focused on winning a game that we fail to recognize the larger purpose of sports.

To be clear, Justin Turner is likely not a bad person despite this huge error in judgment. Rather, he is the victim of a system that has taught him that winning- the trophy in his arms, the adoration of his fans, the videos, and photos of his triumph- should be prioritized over everything else.

This challenge is ever-present in the sports landscape as we rationalize suboptimal behavior in pursuit of winning. Collegiate athletes are asked to prioritize their practice schedule ahead of their class schedule. Coaches are compensated for their achievements on the field, not the outcomes of their athletes. Donors write checks for teams that win championships, not for teams that graduate champions.

Ultimately, this mindset of short-termism and fetishization of ‘winning’ is to blame for moments like the one we witnessed with Justin Turner that are completely devoid of empathy for the much larger world in which sports exist.

Shifting to an Infinite Mindset

To better understand the phenomenon at play and consider the best path forward, Simon Sinek’s concept of finite games vs. infinite games is a helpful framework.

Sinek defines a finite game, like basketball or chess, as one where the rules are fixed, the endpoint is clear, and a winner or a loser can be easily identified. Conversely, an infinite game is one where the players change over time and there is no defined endpoint, but rather a continued effort to improve and move the game forward.

Sinek uses Microsoft vs. Apple in the late 2000s to illustrate this concept. While executives at Microsoft focused exclusively on beating Apple, the executives at Apple were focused on finding new ways to improve the education system. Microsoft, obsessed only with competition, found themselves stagnating while Apple, obsessed with moving technology forward, was paving the way for the future. As a byproduct of not focusing on winning, Apple has found itself with a market cap significantly larger than Microsoft for the past decade.

We can count many examples of this phenomenon in sports. Organizations focused solely on winning and beating their rivals often find themselves stuck, unable to break through no matter how hard they can throw or how high they can jump.

The organizations who find lasting success are those who instead become obsessed with improvement, creating thriving cultures centered around quality people and excellent habits that set them apart well beyond the playing field.

How can we shift the mindset of sports from finite, focused only on the outcome of games, to infinite, where winning is a pleasant byproduct of a system that sets athletes up to succeed at levels far beyond holding up a World Series trophy? Sinek presents five essential practices for leading with an infinite mindset. Based on our work with athletic departments and student-athletes across the country, we believe these leadership principles provide a roadmap to evolve sports culture at all levels.

1. Advance a Just Cause

We must be clear that the mission of sports is about far more than just winning games. Sports can empower marginalized populations, teach incredible lessons in resilience, and mold the future leaders of society.

However, this just cause has to be more than just words on a page. Every college program touts themselves as a family, as a ‘40-year decision not a 4-year decision’, as the perfect balance of academics and athletics. Yet when it comes down to it, few would actually prioritize the networking, career development, and academics implied by these claims above their focus on winning games.

Not surprisingly, the typical feedback that we have received from athletes in programs like Campbell MADE, Duke Football Future, and Beyond Sparta are comments like “This program is what made me want to play here.” or “This has been the most impactful experience of my college career.” Athletes, despite their incredible desire to win championships, recognize the much larger impact that sports can have on their lives after the whistle.

An infinite mindset requires not only having a just cause, but having the leadership, vision, and focus to prioritize that cause over everything else.

2. Foster Trusting Teams

The most successful teams foster an environment where players feel comfortable expressing concerns about the strategy, calling out their own weaknesses, and asking for help without fear of retribution. True leaders put players in a position to do the job that they were trained to do and to exercise their own judgment without fear of failure.

On a team prioritizing self-improvement and character development, players know that confronting a weakness will put them in a great position to succeed. A player on a team focused solely on winning will stagnate, recognizing that their playing time or dignity might be lost if they express signs of weakness.

Each time we kicked off a USA Basketball training camp during my time with them in the 2010s, we began not with a basketball practice, but with a player-led meeting to define the standards and the culture for the summer. Those meetings- and the environment of trust and mutual accountability that they inspired- were the foundation for every gold medal.

In an environment of psychological safety, teams can reach their full potential by making each other better and creating an environment where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

3. Admire Worthy Rivals

In an infinite game, the only true competitor is yourself. Success is determined by your own pursuit of a just cause, not by the score against your opponent in an individual contest.

However, each individual game or season can give us key insight on how to improve. We can admire the strengths of our opponents, particularly as they make clear our own weaknesses, and use them as an inspiration for continued improvement.

At NextPlay I am always heartened when a school seeks to work with us not because they are worried that a rival has a recruiting or fundraising advantage by using our software, but because they have seen the impact that it can have on athlete outcomes.

Not surprisingly, the schools that get the most value from our software are the ones who are focused on preparing their athletes for life after sports. When focused on improving their program in pursuit of a larger mission, the recruiting and fundraising success are a natural byproduct.

Drawing on another analogy from Sinek, the goal should never be to simply win a race. If that were the goal, we could trip any runner that ever tries to pass and win as the slowest runner. Instead, the goal is to learn from our opponents to become the best runner we can be. Winning a race is a possible result of sustained improvement, but not the primary focus.

4. Maintain a Flexible Playbook

No matter how much success a player or a team has had in the past, they must always be open to creating a better future.

A pitcher who is successful throwing only fastballs the first time through a lineup will almost certainly begin to fail once hitters adjust to their strategy, and a soccer player who only takes PKs to the left will eventually be stopped repeatedly.

Our entire company is built and named for this philosophy, encapsulated in a quote from Mike Krzyzewski:

“In basketball and in life, the ‘next play’ philosophy emphasizes the fact that the most important play of the game or life moment on which you should always focus is the next one. To waste time lamenting a mistake or celebrating success is distracting and can leave your team unprepared for what you are about to face. It robs you of the ability to do your best at that moment.”

Particularly as so much of our normal operating rhythm has been upset in 2020, we must not be afraid to consider new and creative ways of pursuing our just cause.

5. Have the Courage to Lead

An infinite mindset takes an immense amount of courage to continue. The best coaches often speak to their teams about human nature: the natural desire to let our foot off the gas once we have achieved a goal or reached a milestone.

Fighting against human nature requires each component discussed above- motivation, cooperation, inspiration, and innovation- but it also requires strength in leadership. Those in charge must have the courage to look past winning as the destination and to pass on that motivation to those looking for guidance.