Athletes are always looking for an edge. They consult speed coaches, visualization specialists, nutritionists, strength trainers – anything to give their game a little more fuel.

These programs all have value, but one performance enhancement option that is floating out there for anyone to use and is free of charge. You just need to commit to the decision to apply it.

If you’re looking to elevate your game and come up big in big spots – learn to play small.

Pay attention athletes with average and above average size. This post is for you.

Here’s a scenario we’ve all witnessed. An athlete with below-average size is having a major impact on a game. Coaches, players, spectators are surprised at their success, “Imagine if that kid had more size? I wish all of our players could compete with that kind of intensity.”

The comments are universal regardless of sport. “He always hustles.” “She plays with heart.” “He’s tenacious.” “She’s a gritty player.” “They’re fearless.” These are common descriptions of impact players who are undersized. Why? For those athletes, it’s a matter of survival. If they don’t play with energy and aggression, they will be a non-factor. And in the near future, they likely won’t be playing at all.

Here are some real advantages that larger athletes enjoy in every encounter:

  • Height
  • Reach/Wing span
  • Leverage
  • Overall strength
  • Weight/Mass
  • Stride length

A Force on the Playing Field

When talented athletes with regular or above-average size choose to take on that personality of playing small, look out! Now you’ve really got a force to be reckoned with.

Sometimes this happens on its own. An athlete spends the majority of their sports life undersized and learns to play small. They experience a late growth spurt and then become a serious problem for opponents. They compete with the fight and urgency of a lesser-sized athlete and execute their performance from a larger frame.

The most notable example of this was Michael Jordan. As a sophomore in high school, Jordan was 5’ 11”. That’s not small, but at advanced levels of basketball, it is undersized. He was cut from his varsity team and summoned to play junior varsity. Jordan gave up playing other sports and fought ferociously to improve his game and make the varsity squad the following season. Simultaneously, he hit a growth spurt. He eventually grew to be 6’ 7” and the rest is history. Jordan was extraordinarily talented, but always played with an intense edge on both ends of the floor. That’s what made him the greatest.    

What Does It Mean to Play Small?

Playing small begins with a mentality that manifests itself into physical performance. For example, playing aggressive is born of an internal decision. It’s a commitment to bringing the action to or at the opponent, rather than being reactive. Your mind decides to do it, and your body follows.

Hustling and constantly applying pressure on offense and defense are often showcased by smaller athletes. Size is not necessary to compete with a sense of urgency, but physical and mental conditioning is essential. Physical conditioning enables your body to withstand the intense effort. Mental conditioning allows your mind to push through moments that your body wants to take a break.

Anticipation and taking educated risks are also key components. Again, these elements are not dependent on size. They entail study, awareness, and acting on instinct, all of which are critical to gain positioning. Malcolm Butler, a 5’ 11” NFL cornerback, made the play of his life for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. He applied observation and instinct to gain position and make a game-saving interception at the goal line.

One asset undersized athletes are gifted is tempered expectations. That allows them to play with an “everything to gain, nothing to lose” mindset. It’s a feeling of competitive freedom that’s difficult to quantify, but can foster a psychological advantage. If larger athletes play with that type of mentality, they immediately become more dangerous.

Big Athletes Playing Small

A great example of a big athlete playing small is Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. Watt competes with a sense of urgency on every play. He’s been described as a player, “whose motor never stops running.” There are plenty of 6’ 5”, 288-pound players in the NFL. But when you combine Watt’s tenacity with his physical size and talent, you have a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

There are many others to cite – Mike Trout, LeBron James, Abby Wambach, Alexander Ovechkin, Cristiano Ronaldo, Maya Moore, etc. All of them possess size and exceptional talents, but it’s the attitude they play with that sets them apart.

So if you’re an athlete that is blessed with size and skill, raise the volume on your game. When people start describing your play as relentless, determined, or cut-throat, you have truly arrived and the sky is the limit.