Learning Like You’ve Got Nothing to Lose

Learning with nothing to lose

My first game ever as a head football coach had us losing 13-6 with one quarter to play in the game. My team was young, but extremely talented. I realized after half-time that we were losing this game because I was being out coached, and my players were playing tight due to me being tight as a coach.

We huddled up quickly as our opponents were ready to kickoff after they scored the go-ahead touchdown moments before. I looked at my team and said, “What do we have to lose?”

“We are down a touchdown, it’s the first game of the season, and it doesn’t look like any of you are having fun out there! Smile and do what you’ve been practicing for weeks and years. Just play football like you’ve got nothing to lose.”

The captain of the team rallied the guys who started yelling and jumping up and down in the huddle. The next play we took the kickoff return back for a touchdown and tied the game. A few minutes later we had that same special teams’ unit kick and recover and onsides kick, and then score a touchdown on the next play! We won the game.

I learned something in that game that I never forgot as a coach, teacher, or parent. Our attitude and what we do is often more important than what we say. Kids see through adults “saying the right thing” and are constantly on the look-out for clues to what we really believe.

Going for an onsides kick was playing like we had nothing to lose. It was an action that determined a mindset, not the other way around.

The Nothing to Lose Mindset

When I first saw Kevin Kelley’s story on HBO’s Real Sports, it immediately resonated with me as a coach and leader. Kelley is a football coach from Little Rock, Ark., who doesn’t punt and almost always attempts onside kicks.

He has a 138-24-1 record at Pulaski Academy with four state titles. In 2015, Kelley brought his team to Highland Park (Texas) High to face a team that hadn’t lost a home game since 1998. His team not only won (and avenged their only loss from the previous season) but they did so on a national scene that was fascinated at the strategies and mindset that drove Pulaski Academy’s success. As one reporter put it:

 The Bruins don’t win because they don’t punt or because they attempt onside kicks every time or because their receivers routinely lateral on plays that aren’t the last one of the game.

They win because of the attitude Kelley’s approach instills on Pulaski Academy’s sideline and the mindset it instills on the other sideline.

The Bruins always play as if they’re down 10 with 90 seconds to go. Think about all the points you’ve seen scored in that type of situation. The offense plays as if it has nothing to lose. The defense tightens, playing to protect the lead rather than to advance the cause. That’s every minute of every Pulaski Academy game.


Playing like you’ve got nothing to lose, is also playing to win. The players and coaches live the understanding that mistakes will happen as often as success happens.

What would this mindset look like when applied to learning? In your classroom? In your school?

Learning Like You’ve Got Nothing to Lose

Peter Diamandis, the author of Bold and the founder of the xPrize, recently shared some insights about our educational system. He believes that starting out with an “A” is all about protecting what we have, instead of learning like we’ve got nothing to lose:

In the traditional education system, you start at an “A.” And every time you get something wrong, your score gets lower and lower. In the gaming world, it’s just the opposite. You start with zero, and every time you come up with something right, your score gets higher and higher.
It completely flips the way we currently learn, and it’s addictively fun. How addicting?
Over 155 million Americans play video games, and spend upwards of 3 billion hours per week engrossed in a game. Think about what you do when you play a video game.
  • You observe a problem
  • You form a hypothesis
  • You test the hypothesis
  • You ultimately learn from the immediate feedback and you try it again.
It’s the Scientific Method. We need to make kids as addicted to learning as they are to gaming.

Video game learning is powerful. But the mindset that drives this type of learning is even more powerful.

It’s learning with nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Todd Hunt says:

    Great take on learning!

  • Keri Izoco says:

    This is a great analogy for the attitude teachers need to have in the classroom! This reminds me of a video that Derek Muller put out a couple years ago called “This Will Revolutionize Education” where he claims that saying this about technology in our classrooms is ridiculous; it is not the technology we use but rather how we use it. He also discusses that the teacher’s attitude is the most important piece to the puzzle. I love the point you make about grades decreasing with every mistake compared to gaming where points are earned as rewards which leads to the idea that mistakes do not cost you anything. I agree that this concept it one of the many reasons why people are so drawn to gaming and this is a valuable piece of Gamification in our classrooms.

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