How a Coach's Expectations Influence an Athlete's Success

Set positive expectations to help all of your athletes succeed.

Coaches, have you ever wondered why your athletes tend to meet your expectations—why those whom you expect to perform well do well, and those whom you expect to perform poorly do poorly?

It may have less to do with your eye or your feel for talent and more with the expectations themselves.

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This theory has its root in a 1968 study in which teachers were informed that certain students had the highest potential for improvement during the year. What the teachers didn't know was that the students were not pre-tested; they were selected at random. Yet at the end of the year, the students fit the prediction, leading the researchers to conclude that the teachers provided more feedback, instruction and reinforcement to the students they expected to improve.

More recent studies in sports show similar results. Understanding the relationship between expectations and performance allows coaches to develop awareness of their expectations and behaviors, and how they impact athletes. There are four steps to this cyclical coach expectancy model, broken down here.

Step 1: Coach forms expectations

At the beginning of any season, coaches are trying to get an idea of how each athlete can help the team succeed. They look at a number of factors, which tend to fall within three categories: personal cues, performance information and psychological characteristics.

Personal cues are things like socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, family background, gender and physique. Performance information can include previous performance accomplishments, other coaches' comments and observations of the athlete. Psychological characteristics include things like coachability, discipline and love of the sport.

If coaches are accurate in their assessments, there is not a problem. However, coaches can be inaccurate and unwilling to change their beliefs once established. Expectations alone do not impact performance, but they do impact how coaches treat athletes.

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Step 2: Coach's expectations influence their own actions

Generally, the higher the expectation, the more time a coach spends with an athlete, developing closer ties and deeper relationships with "star" players. Coaches also provide instruction and praise differently to those who fall into the low-expectancy category. After a successful performance, they tend to provide low-expectancy athletes with less praise, less reinforcement and lower informational and corrective feedback to help them learn and improve. Additionally, coaches tend to set lower performance standards for low-expectancy athletes and give them a minimal amount of time in practice performing drills but more time doing non-skill-related tasks like shagging balls or keeping score. These coaching behaviors impact the athlete's level of success and improvement.

Step 3: Coach's behavior affects their athletes' performance

If high-expectancy athletes receive better instruction, playing time and practice time in drills, they will have a closer relationship with the coach and will most likely continue to improve and perform at a high level. Low-expectancy athletes with less practice time, instruction and feedback have a more distant relationship with the coach, and less confidence and motivation as well, so they are set up to fail.

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Step 4: Athletes' performance confirms the coach's expectations

If an athlete whom a coach didn't expect much of performs poorly, the coach may see it just as prediction coming true. But really, a coach's behavior looms large in success or failure.

So maybe it's time to re-evaluate what you expect of players in relation to the time and direction you give them.

Who do you spend most of your time with at practices? How do you give feedback and instruction, and does it change for each athlete? Who is getting the majority of the reps in practice, and how often are people just standing and watching?

Your expectations influence your behavior, and your behavior impacts your athletes. Be the best coach you can be by understanding how your expectations drive your behaviors.

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