The Paradox of Expectations

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A very big part of the job of the coach is managing expectations. To improve the performance of a team the best and easiest way is to increase their expectations. Not in the sense of setting higher goals (although that also helps), but in the sense of increasing the expectations on each individual action**. Increasing the expectation for each individual action and interaction improves performance incrementally. For example, It turns out that telling middle blockers that they can set high balls and pass free balls, instead of developing complicated tactics to avoid it, has a positive effect. The sum of these increments ultimately leads to much improved performance. Once the performance has increased, the expectations for continued performance improvement increase. Unfortunately, the next step is that the higher the expectations of players, club management, and fans the greater the chance of failure.

It has happened to me on numerous occasions. At one club the management began a three year plan to win a medal. After unexpectedly winning a medal in year one, the club immediately changed course and the goal for year two became sign big stars and win the championship. Fourth place at the halfway mark of the next season was clearly below the new expectations.

Many years ago, an old player of mine asked me why coaches always talked down their chances, why they never set winning as the public goal. When you think about it, the reason is to manage the relationship between performance and expectation. Managing that relationship is a key for maintaining job security, a key for the coach at any time. In terms of job security the perfect level of expectation / performance is a modest expectation that performance very nearly, but not quite reaches for reasons that are out of the coach’s control. The coach can then persuade management that those things can be fixed and next season will be better. Reasons that coaches could (but definitely don’t) find for very nearly, but not quite reaching their expectations include:
– I didn’t choose the players
– I didn’t choose the staff
We had too many injuries
– The players are lazy
– The players aren’t good enough
– Something else about the players
– Bad luck

The paradox of expectations is that while it is impossible to achieve high goals without setting high expectations, high expectations also increase the chance of failure and lower job security. It is a tough balance and in many cases a difficult decision.


** There are many coaches who would likely say that the best way to improve performance is through technical and / or tactical improvement. While those things do improve performance, I would argue that it was not the best or quickest.


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