The Importance of Playing Up

Jody Britten
4 min readMar 30, 2024

When you marry a baseball player it seems you learn a lot of terms that oddly become part of your vocabulary. Most recently, the baseball-ish term that is top of mind is “playing up.” (Good timing since we are hanging out at the opening day festivities for MLB this week.)

Side note: this isn’t baseball-specific, but in our house, we hear a lot about all things baseball.

In baseball (and other sports), “playing up” refers to a player competing at a skill level higher than their current one. This can often promote faster skill development. Conversely, “playing down” refers to a player competing at a lower skill level. This can sometimes lead to leadership opportunities but, at the same time, can cause frustration and the feeling of “stalling out.”

During recent coaching sessions with our SheLeadsEdu network, the idea of “playing up” became the focus of our conversation. Specifically, several of the participating women leaders in education are faced with working in systems where their knowledge and skill extend beyond the norm of their organizations and often the needs of their organizations.

Let me level set first and share that all of these women believe in the power of learning from others, looking for opportunities to learn while teaching, and being a team player.

Cumulatively the struggle was in not having enough opportunities for these dynamic and skilled leaders to “play up” within their organizations. This, more often than not, resulted in a struggle caused by taking on tasks that fall far below their skill level. Always committed to their work and organizations, these women never balk at helping out in a pinch, but the lack of tasks or responsibilities that challenge them beyond their current skill set or having people that pulled them to “play up” surrounding them internally weighed heavy on their overall motivation and happiness.

However, as we dug into the idea of “playing up,” two important themes emerged. First, it is important for leaders to surround themselves with a team that can “play up” to the people on their teams with know-how and expertise. Second (yet equally important), it is also important for leaders to understand that we all encounter professional positions where we play up to external peers rather than internal ones.

Throughout our conversation, leaders shared the importance of having people in their professional circle who can lift them up, teach them, coach them, and push them in new (and most importantly) relevant ways. As these women shared their stories, it was obvious that if you are always in a position to play down you get distracted from the long-term goal, slowed down in progress, and frustrated with too much time explaining and not enough time focusing forward. Conversely, if you surround yourself with people who constantly make you better, there is always potential to learn and develop, to, in essence, “play up.”

Here are a few lessons from the stories of these amazing women.

  1. Leaders aren’t determined by the role they have but by the contributions they make.
  2. “Playing down” can help your team, but as a leader, the consequences of your own enthusiasm may be greater than the learning benefit to your peers. Make choices that ensure playing down builds your team to playing up.
  3. If your internal peers do not provide the opportunity to “play up,” find projects or partnerships that can allow you to keep learning and growing in personally meaningful ways that connect to your daily work. (Side note: this will always come back to benefit your organization, so don’t stress about spending time here; when your brain bucket is full, your organization will benefit.)
  4. If you are leading an organization and you see that bright, knowledgable team member playing down, look for ways to elevate their voice, position their peers to play up, and set expectations so that you don’t waste a good opportunity.
  5. Find your people. The ones who professionally make you better, push your thinking, challenge you to improve, and uplift your voice. We all need the chance to “play up” so that we don’t burn out.

As we wrapped up our conversation, there was a call to action for all of us. Look around you and find the people who need encouragement to “play up” and find those people who are spending too much time “playing down” and help them find their people. Both tasks (we all agreed) would be time well spent.

Playing down has consequences; playing up is filled with opportunities. Do what you can to ensure your work equates to pushing forward and not pulling people back.

The baseball player in our house assures me it will benefit the whole team.

Jody is a thought leader, coach, and advocate who works in EdTech and supports global education organizations. Keep up with her work at



Jody Britten

fierce mom, constant learner, writer, speaker, researcher, thinker, designer, gadget queen, advocate for learning that matters & public ed, lead with my actions