“Do not think of winning. Think, rather, of not losing” (一、勝つ考は持つな負けぬ考は必要 Hitotsu, katsu kangae wa motsuna; makenu kangae wa hitsuyō) is the twelfth of the twenty precepts of karate written by Gichin Funakoshi.

This precept did puzzle me when I first came across it many years ago.

I had only just started karate and saw it amongst the other precepts written by Funakoshi which were hung on the dojo wall.

For a long time, I couldn’t understand the difference between the two concepts and only recently I finally understood the stark difference between these two mentalities where one thinks about how to win and one, instead, thinks about how not to lose.

Let’s first talk about the “think of not losing” mindset.

Think of not losing

Karate was created for self-defense. It teaches you techniques that you can use to protect yourself when you come under attack and there are no other ways to get out of that situation except physical confrontations.

Its aim is to help you keep yourself and your loved ones safe and not help you to win.

Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario where you find an intruder in your house one evening.

Your first thought should not be about assessing whether you can defeat the intruder or not or what techniques or weapons you should use in this potential encounter. You never know what kind of weapons the guy may be carrying or how many companions the guy might have brought.

Your first thought should be about what would be the best way to get you and your family out of this situation safely. Protecting your property is a very distant second goal that you shouldn’t even think about in that instance.

The first thing you should do is to call for help if you can and find a way to get out of the house safely and quickly if possible.

If there is no escape route, you then need to look for a safe space: Can you retreat to a safe room or bedroom? Can you barricade yourself in there? Can you text a relative while in there to inform them?

If none of these is possible and you have to face the intruder, you should remain calm and follow their instructions. In most cases, it is about money and valuables and they’d leave you alone if they get what they come for.

Only when the safety of yourself and your family is at risk that you’ll have no choice but resort to a physical fight.

Even when it comes to this, your goal is still not to win but to not lose in the fight in order to protect yourself and your family. Only use reasonable and appropriate forces to achieve your goal. For example, breaking the intruder’s knee to end the fight immediately instead of taking the opportunity to test out your fatal techniques or aiming for vital points and disabling the intruder for life.

“Think about not losing”, in my view, is consistent with the essence of what karate is about: self-defense. And this is the mindset we should all adopt when training.

“Do not strike others and do not allow others to strike you. The goal is peace without incident”

Chojun Miyagi

This mentality has a passive element in that we only use karate when we are forced to do so to defend ourselves. However, it does not mean that when a fight has been initiated, we should not wait for others to attack first in order to defend ourselves.

The “karate ni sente nashi” or “there is no first attack in karate” principle means one should not use karate as the first course of action to resolve conflict but karate still should be sente in an actual fight.

Think of winning

In sports karate, it can be appropriate to think about winning.

For elite karate athletes, the competition outcomes determine their career progress and perhaps their livelihood too, so it is natural for them to think about winning.

Training to win is very different from training to not lose.

In order to win, you must be proactive, baiting and feigning attacks to set up the opponent and creating opportunities to score for yourself.

Lyoto Machida, a former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, once talked about how he practiced feigning arm techniques for two months to draw the opponent’s attention to his arms to disguise his devastating follow-up crane kick which helped him win.

If you watch professional karateka fight these days, you don’t see them waiting around for their opponents to attack first. They don’t wait around for chances to come; they create opportunities for themselves by going after their opponents.

While you can certainly win points by waiting for the opponent to attack first and open themselves up for counter-attacks, you can’t always rely on this strategy and hope for a win.

Waiting for the opponent to attack first means letting them control the pace and direction of the fight. You will be constantly on the defense and your opponent will have the upper hand, and chances are you will not be able to win.

Even if you manage to avoid all of the opponent’s attacks, in the event that nobody scores, the outcome of a match will be determined by the judges based on forms. And the one who looks like being on the offensive the whole time is more likely to be perceived favorably by the judges than the one who is always on the defensive.

So, if you are a professional athlete, you will need to train to win which is very different from training to not lose.

However, even in this context, I still think that the mentality of “think not of winning but think rather of not losing” still applies in competitions.

If you are in a tournament match, you may or may not know what your opponent is like. He or she could be far better than you technically or could be a definite underdog. If you have the mindset that you must win, you will put pressure on yourself, become tense, and are less likely to be ready to react to the fight as best as you can.

You also shouldn’t think about losing either before a fight. Thinking that you’d lose means you’ve already surrendered to your opponent, your spirit is down, you are unlikely able to focus on the fight at hand and do the best you can.

Therefore, instead of thinking about winning or losing, focus on the fight at hand and try to fight to the best of your ability. May the best man or woman win and you will be content with whatever the outcome might be because you’ve done your best. When you are being the best version of yourself, nobody can ask more of you than that.

All Posts in the Series:

Precept 1: Do Not Forget that Karate-do Begins and Ends with Rei

Precept 2: There Is No First Strike in Karate

Precept 3: Karate Stands on the Side of Justice

Precept 4: First Know Yourself Then Know Others

Precept 5: Mentality Over Technique

Precept 6: The Mind Must Be Set Free

Precept 7: Calamity Springs from Carelessness

Precept 8: Karate Goes Beyond the Dojo

Precept 9: Karate Is a Lifelong Pursuit

Precept 10: Apply the Way of Karate to All Things, Therein Lies Its Beauty

Precept 11: Karate Is Like Boiling Water: Without Heat, It Returns to Its Tepid State

Precept 12: Do Not Think of Winning, Think, Rather, of Not Losing

Precept 13: Make Adjustments According to Your Opponent

Precept 14: The Outcome of a Battle Depends on How One Controls Truth and Fiction

Precept 15: Think of the Opponent’s Hands and Feet as Swords

Precept 16: When You Step Beyond Your Own Gate, You Face a Million Enemies

Precept 17: Kamae Is For Beginners; Later, One Stands In Shizentai

Precept 18 – Perform Kata Exactly; Actual Combat Is Another Matter

Precept 19: Do Not Forget the Employment or Withdrawal of Power, the Extension or Contraction of the Body, the Swift or Leisurely Application of Technique

Precept 20: Be Constantly Mindful, Diligent, and Resourceful in Your Pursuit of the Way


Gichin Funakoshi (1938). The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate