I'm looking for a word (or possibly a phrase) to describe a situation where someone, usually in secret, wants to fail at something they're doing, or where one or more people want a project that they're part of to fail.

Some examples:

  • A player is repeatedly not picked for his team's basketball games. After a while, he becomes frustrated and starts hoping that his team lose matches, as it may increase the chances of his coach making a change and giving him a chance.
  • A software development team is given a difficult project with a very short timeframe. It requires long hours of hard work. Some members of the team want the project to miss its deadline in order to show management they've been overworked.
  • A kid is always chosen by her friends to be the goalkeeper when they play football. She hates playing in goals, so starts messing up saves, dropping the ball and such, so they'll pick someone else and let her play outfield.

I was thinking something along the lines of "schadenfreude" (those Germans have a word for everything!) as they're taking a degree of pleasure from something unpleasant, but it doesn't quite fit, as it's their own endeavour and they should, ostensibly, want themselves or their teams to succeed.


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    Subterfuge would be a good choice in some contexts although it is not specific to self-sabotage as the sole strategy. thefreedictionary.com/subterfuge - has a lot of synonyms and other ideas Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 23:20
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    @HotLicks "I'm so sorry that our clothes are all grey again. I guess I'm just not good at this laundry thing." Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 23:23
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    I've heard the term "self-sabotage" but I don't think it is exactly what you are getting at.. and these psychological definitions get squishy anyway. psychologytoday.com/basics/self-sabotage
    – Tom22
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 23:31
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    If you are meaning more deliberate, you could start with words like "ploy" or "ruse" ... and maybe couple it "incompetence" : "ruse of incompetence"
    – Tom22
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 23:33
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    I call this making a point - as in "tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy."
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 0:31

4 Answers 4


Tanking is a common term in sports to refer to purposefully losing.

Tanking ... the act of giving up a match or "throwing it away", losing intentionally or not competing. (Urban Dictionary)

e.g. They tanked their match because they got angry with the umpire.

This practice is common in the NFL and other professional sports where losing more often means you'll be able to get a better draft position in the following year. Professional sports leagues benefit from parity so leagues like to give certain advantages to poor teams and disadvantages to successfully teams in hopes that no one team does terribly for long periods of time.

Just last month, an ESPN sportswriter posted an article about the advantages and disadvantages of tanking, A tanking guide to the NFL, and a warning

There is a certain stigma attached to purposefully losing so most teams won't admit the practice, but it is nonetheless common because of the big advantage it can give to the franchise.

  • Good suggestions, tanking or throwing a game is close to the heart of the matter - I've seen similar stuff in football/soccer, where managers field weakened teams in some games, or even sometimes where players seem to perform poorly to force a change of coach (see: Chelsea in 2016 or Leicester in 2017). I was hoping to find a single word or phrase that encapsulates the desire to fail or lose though, rather than the act itself. Maybe there isn't one just for that. Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 19:05

You could also call it feigning incompetence.

Here is an article about what to do when kids try to do it: How do you handle feigned incompetence in your children.

Mom: Can you please wash the dishes for me?

Child: Oops! I dropped another dish. I don't think I can handle this, Mom!


In your first two examples, there's merely a desire for failure. In the third example, the subject takes action.

For third case, you can use a word like undermine or sabotage.


In my opinion, a word for such a thing is unnecessary. If you want to convey that someone secretly wants to fail at their task, then it ought to be done so secretly, i.e. through implication. Phrases such as "he/she was/felt dubious/uneasy/antagonistic/unwilling about doing X" are excellent at hinting towards such inner desires.

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