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Playing down to the competition? What's really going?

I'm working with a 14 year old basketball player and we had this conversation the other day:

"I'm on a new team and my parents came and watched me play. I wasn't very good. They said I was playing down to the competition." Hmmm. I could tell this needed deeper examination so I became curious and asked a bunch of questions.

What I learned was this new team plays at a slower pace and things aren't as intense. In other words, the skill level of most of the players is lower than the previous team. See where I'm going with this?


Playing down to the competition wasn't a helpful statement for this athlete. That phrase didn't solve the problem, because we don't change behaviour by addressing the behaviour.


We must go underneath and see what's driving/causing it. We must shift from WHAT to WHY. Playing down is WHAT. We needed to dig into WHY. We talked about Ideal Performance State (IPS), also known as the Inverted U Theory. This theory states that when the task is too easy, when the outcome doesn't matter, arousal level drops and so does performance.

On the other hand, when the task is too hard, when the stakes are really high, arousal level elevates beyond optimum and performance drops. The goal is to find the sweet spot in the middle.

I asked this athlete to give me a number, on a scale of 1-10, for their Ideal Performance State. What number gives you just the right amount of challenge? The answer was 7. "What number were you at during the game?" The answer was 2. Any time an athlete is at a 2, they will always play down to the competition. Why? Because they are bored, they aren't challenged, it's not meaningful to them.


I knew we needed to raise that number and we came up with these ideas:

  • only shoot with your left hand (non-dominant) around the rim

  • only dribble with your left hand

  • guard the best player and shut down their points and rebounds

  • how would you play if scouts were in the stands

In other words, we had to make the task harder and increase the challenge. So, next time your athlete plays down to the competition, help them identify what's really going on. Remind them of their IPS number and get them to pick one thing that increases the challenge and makes the task harder.


Want some help with that? Book a Tiger Talk and let me help your athlete start showing up as their Greatest Self, regardless of the challenge.


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