Before I went to college, I was never a big basketball fan (for those who know me now, I’m aware that this is probably surprising). As a result, when I arrived for my freshman year at Duke and began attending a ton of basketball games, I had the opportunity to learn an entire dictionary’s worth of terms for the first time.
One of the phrases that I quickly heard was “playing down.” Even though we were highly ranked and expected to do well later in the season against big-ticket teams like the #2 Texas Longhorns (who we eventually beat by 31 points), I was somewhat surprised by the fact that our margins of victories over early opponents were, quite frankly, not as impressive as I had expected them to be.
“Ugh, we’re playing down again. We always do this,” my friend Leah would say.
It wasn’t intentional. The players probably didn’t want to run up the score, but they also probably didn’t want to make every game against a low-ranked opponent a too-close-for-comfort nail-biter. You would think that, given the large difference in rankings (and presumably in ability levels), the better team should be able to maintain a respectable 15-20 point lead — wide enough that no one had to worry about the outcome, but close enough that it wasn’t rubbing the score in the other team’s faces.
Yet…they didn’t. Most of the time they made sloppy mistakes, missing easy 3-point shots or turning over the ball more times than we could count. The looks of frustration on their faces let us know for sure that this wasn’t anything they were doing on purpose. They weren’t thinking, “OK, this is a no-name team…let’s just not play as well as usual.” They were certainly putting in effort, but they simply couldn’t break past a ceiling that seemed to be hanging far lower than usual, even though their skills were demonstrably better when they played higher-ranked teams. In short, as Leah noted, they were “playing down.”