“We were down. Coach told me I had to step up my game and I did.”
How many times have we heard this expression from coaches and players: step up.
I think the notion of step up carries real weight as an ethical and psychological moment in sport and represents a model to carry into professional domains.
Think about the metaphor for a moment: step up. It places the person on a step, a place, even a plateau. The notion specifies that the athlete or professional exists at a particular level of performance on an upward climb. The level may be a plateau or it may be a lower rung, does not matter. What does matter: the metaphor urgently states that the present step/level/plateau does not suffice to achieve the goal. Staying at this level, this step, means failure.
Let’s think about some classic situations where a player or coach must step up their play. I am going to use team here but this applies as much to individuals in individual sports as team competition.
- · Seniors or veterans have graduated, and the younger players of the team have to step up and perform at a higher level of skill and commitment.
- · The team has fallen behind in a contest, and the contest verges on getting away from the team. The player must step up and perform to bring the team back from its lethargy and gain energy and focus.
- · The team possesses a lead but the other team makes their expected run. The momentum seems to be shifting, and a player has to step up and stop the run.
- · Players can step up when a window exists to excel to break the game open like avoiding a tackle and finding a fourth gear or making a free throw shot with time running out.
- · Players are challenged to step up when a championship or playoff or chance is on the line.
All these situations differ but carry a common denominator—the existing level of performance will not work and must change. To the point of the game, the performance must rise up from its immediate level.
Step up has two related connotations. First, it might mean that a team is playing below its normal level. The below norm can occur when a team has not prepared for the challenge opponents pose. They took an opponent for granted and must literally snap out of lethargy and step up to their normal level of play. A team might be surprised or tired and is not containing the other team’s comeback. Athletes must change their emotional and mental mind set on the spot and take the game seriously. They need to respond with integrity to the challenge before them.
Second, step up suggests that just being competent or playing at the norm, even if very high, will not work. A team might be playing hard and well, but just not good enough to win. A team may have been playing very well, but the opponent is roaring back, making a run, or they opponents take the lead. This calls for exceptional performance. Exceptional does not demand the impossible but dictates that a player pull it all together and bring the absolute maximum physical, mental and emotional presence that they are capable of at this stage in their development.
Stepping up means bursting past a performance plateau. This exceptional moment meets the test of the moment. Often players may not know they have it in them, but they achieve it. They step up.
A player can have a career game responding to the quality of the opposition or stakes of the game. They can have a break out performance or a breakout moment—they escape a tackle at a critical moment; they sack a quarterback to end a drive; they intercept a pass; they stop a run with an exceptional block or spike; they perform an extraordinary save. Each action not only personifies a great individual action but galvanizes a team. Stepping up can be contagious, and fellow teammates take heart from the action; they bear down more and give a more attention and energy. Not only does the opponent’s run stop, but momentum shifts as teammates gather up their focus and their collective performance rises.
Players on the verge of giving up recover. Coaches who started to call plays based on minimizing a loss take heart and re-infuse their play calling with risk and energy; they coach up, not down. A team comes back from behind.
Multiple players express their commitment to each other. They cheer and encourage each other. The team as a whole steps up, and the coaches respond in kind with deeper concentration and focus upon plays or the energy they convey to players.
To step up does not mean just to try harder. The player calls upon him or herself to attend more deeply, concentrate more intently and push their body and memory more powerfully. Step up involves physical and mental rising from a baseline to a higher baseline for a moment in time. It may presage a higher level of performance in the future for the player or team, but it succeeds for a moment, that is enough.
Successful stepping up expands a person’s imagination of the player he or she can become. To step up need not be a one shot moment, but a new possibility.