Over the past two decades, we have grown to better understand the role of the sports coach and the important influence they have on athletes.
The right pairing of coach and athlete can make the difference between qualifying for events and not being considered for the team, being part of a winning team or on the losing side, or fulfilling your career versus never seizing your potential.
This is why it’s so important to set manageable expectations from the get-go. But this isn’t entirely down to the athlete – the sports coach has their role to play in how they present themselves from the very start.
But first, a little about athlete expectations. In sports coaching courses, we learn about the importance of good communication and building relationships with athletes and wider teams. But in order to achieve success in this, we need to first understand what expectations are, since these can differ from individual to individual. Furthermore, there may be differences in expectations in an athlete that plays team sport, versus those who compete individually.
In any field of mentoring, whether sports coaching or otherwise, this usually starts with objectives; short, mid and most prominently – long term goals.
It may focus around improving performance, or getting to a desired level of standard. It may be as clear cut as wanting to compete in the highest sporting event in their field, or as simple as just honing a specific skill or technique. It may be around raising their profile, an ambition to join a specific club or team. There may be psychological needs or physical development demands involved too.
However, one thing is consistent; whatever the ambition, there’s an expectation that the sports coach will play a significant role in the athletes’ development and progression.
The Art of Relationships
Like any professional partnership, there’s expectations and perceptions to manage in the athlete-coach relationship. This is especially apparent in the service industry, where you are providing consultation in order to help the talent improve and develop. That much is a given,
With the increased pressure that sports coaches are put under, as budgets decrease and demands go up, it’s important to find the right partnerships for success to flourish.
In earlier times, we looked upon the role of the sports coach and the impact it had on their athlete in a very linear way. But as our understanding has grown, so too has our appreciation of their contribution.
At the crux of the athlete-coach relationship we today understand that strategy must centre around the athlete. However, like any relationship, conflict can naturally occur when their demands aren’t met.
In this section, we look at the key discussion points around the subject and forecast how this might impact the future of the ever-evolving sports coaching industry.
The Expectancy Effect
There is something in the sports coaching industry known as the ‘Expectancy Effect’. This is essentially a wrongly held belief by a person “the perceived”, about another person. This in turn makes ‘the perceiver’ act in such a way in order to elicit the desired response from the person. It has been in some ways compared to the self-fulfilling prophecy.
This can be dangerous, since it has ramifications beyond the ability to be met. In sports coaching, this is especially prevalent, when sports coaches over-promise but under deliver, or simply cannot live up to the high expectations put in place.
How to better manage expectations
This brings us to the important question then – how can we better manage expectations in athletes?
One way to better understand and manage expectations is for sports coaches to be aware of the formal and informal cues from their athletes. It also relies upon coaches taking the time to understand how athletes form their impressions and expectations and the consequences their behaviours might have on them.
Some interesting studies have been undertaken in this field, which may help sports coaches in their personal development, some of these are outlined below.
Studies on forming expectations
A study by Horn et al (2010) suggested that there’s two important sources of information to take note from. The first of these are ‘personal cues’; these reflect information that is consistent and unlikely to change, such as gender and ethnicity.
The other and more important type be attuned into is “performance information”. These cues can be changeable over time and can be influenced by ongoing changes in the sport. For instance, performance scores and behavioural outcomes. Their findings suggested that changeable cues were the main influence in the formation of coaches’ expectations of athletes, which in turn were more likely to materialise into realistic expectancies.
This isn’t however the only study in this field. Another research project by Becker & Solomon (2005), found that there are a few cues that athletes use when they form expectations of their sports coaches. These were identified as follows:
- Static cues (gender, age, ethnicity)
- Dynamic cues (body language)
- Third party reports (their reputation and level of experience)
Interestingly however, in a further ‘coach competency’ exercise conducted in 2006, the findings highlighted that ‘successful’ coaches were considered more able than unsuccessful coaches. Thus, highlighting the importance that reputation plays in forming opinions.
We know through sports psychology training that we all have bias, some are known, others are not. This was seen in research by Manley et al (2010), which looked at athlete’s perceptions of sports coaches.
The study found that coaches that had a lean physique combined with wearing appropriate sporting apparel, were believed to have a higher deliverable than those that didn’t conform to this look.
Armed with this insight, sports coaches can be aware of the overall impression they present to athletes, and how this can go on to impact their expectations and deliverables.
Steps to take
As the saying goes, first impressions count. So, when a sports coach first meets an athlete, there’s a few important ways they can manage expectations, as well as come across in the best possible way.
The first consideration is for the sports coach to emphasise their reputation to the athlete. This can be brought to life with testimonials from other athletes, media cuttings or any other ways that may illustrate the point.
The second consideration is how you present yourself. Wearing the right attire will help make the distinction between whether you are a hands-on, or managerial type of sports coach. Being conscious of what you wear and your physical fitness too may provide insight to the athlete on your personality and approach.
When expectations aren’t met
Inevitably, there are times in coaching, when relationships break down, or do not flourish for whatever reason. Sometimes the chemistry just isn’t right, sometimes there’s a failure in communication, on occasion either party doesn’t feel appreciated, and often times expectations just haven’t been met.
Although sports coaching doesn’t focus purely on winning, it’s fair to say that this is an important part of the job. Thus, if performance hasn’t improved, it is understandable that this may cause frustration and conflict in the partnership – from both sides.
When this happens, it usually materialises with a dip in performance from the athlete, and sometimes coach too. Low morale and poor motivation follow, and it can be a downward spiral.
As the sports coach, it’s imperative to keep your athlete inspired and motivated, and to take action when it isn’t working. Communication is always key to this, and having an honest conversation with your team or athlete is the best way to identify and improve any challenges in the way, working through issues together.
If, however, the relationship is beyond repair or has reached its natural end, it may be time to consider to move on, in the interests of both your careers.
Forecast for the industry
While there is some research in the industry on the athlete-coach relationship, and although conflicts in opinions exist, more research is required in this field. Namely, the other factors to take in to consideration when athletes choose a coach.
Future research we hope will provide insight into the impact of expectancies on the athlete-coach relationship, in order to better predict outcomes.
But there is one consensus amongst the findings, and that’s the realisation that sports coaches have a good amount of control about how first impressions are formed. Therefore, if they are better able to master the way they present themselves, both physically and in paper, they will set themselves up for a better chance of success.
As a sports coach, we must be aware of the dynamic cues we provide to athletes upon meeting. From our body language, to the way we dress, this all helps to form an impression of who we are, what we stand for, and our approach to coaching.
There is also some evidence to suggest that since impressions count, by providing an athlete with plenty of positive information about the coach prior to meeting them, may indeed enhance their relationship too.
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