By Emily Brooks, Northwood High School, Pittsboro, NC
“When I coached volleyball, we would go out and play Cardinal Gibbons, who are phenomenal, and we would play well. Then the next game, we would play a team that was just awful, and then we would lose. And I would think, why? Where was that fight?” athletic director Jason Amy said of the puzzling topic as to why athletes play down to their competition, or play at the same level of a weaker team.
Athletes around the world struggle with the mental side of many sports, and this specific topic has hit many with full force. Senior baseball and basketball player Jacobi Harris said that knowing about a team can be harmful prior to a game.
“[Teams] know that they don’t have to give it their all to beat [the weaker teams],” said Harris.
Senior soccer player April Gibbs agreed.
“I think it’s natural to kind of feel that you don’t have to try as hard if you think you’re going to get an easy win,” said Gibbs.
But others shared a different opinion. Dr. Bob Christina, a sports psychologist and mental strategist, who currently works at UNC-Greensboro, says there are many factors contributing to this phenomenon.
“Part of it is that the other team [does] things that are unexpected; they play the game awkwardly,” said Christina. “That unexpectedness, you should be able to overcome that after a little while of playing, whether its an inning, period or quarter, and you should then be able to play up to the level that you are expected to.”
According to Gibbs, this expected level sometimes causes the athletes to play with fear and frustration.
“For me, I get really frustrated if I know I’m playing bad, and it gets in my head,” said Gibbs. “It usually takes me through half time to pick up my game.”
In opposition to this situation, there is also the event in which some teams become an “underdog” figure, and play better than expected when playing teams with strong abilities. In the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, No. 15 seed Lehigh defeated No. 2 seed Duke, with a score of 75-70.
Before the game, Lehigh head coach Brett Reed told Lehigh Valley Live that, “We’re going down there with a purpose and a mission, and that is to compete with and beat Duke.”
Coaches strive to make sure their teams never fall victim to this scenario.
“I can remember years ago hearing an outstanding soccer coach telling his players at the college level [that] anybody can go up or down with the level of competition, that’s easy to do… What he wants, and what all coaches want and what athletes have to learn is [to] discipline themselves that they play up to their level of ability, and [if they play at] the highest level, they can play every minute they are out there. It doesn’t matter what the other team is doing,” said Christina.
Although the situation of playing down to competition is confusing to many, Christina said that there are ways to help improve it.
“You have to condition yourself to get better at dealing with that issue. It’s a function of each person’s personality,” said Christina. “With some people, it’s harder to do than others.
“Some people are very conservative, don’t want to make mistakes and tend to be perfectionists; those are the tough people to deal with. The people who are free spirits have a broad perspective, [they think] their sport isn’t everything [and] can learn it much more easily.”
Amy has another way of helping teams deal with the issue.
“Establishing a routine that is consistent, that will achieve the goals that you want, no matter who you play,” said Amy. “[There] has to be a level of consistency.”
Christina added yet another way to solve the problem.
“You should play to win. If you lose, you lose.”the original article from hsj.org, written by Emily Brooks