Many people are familiar with the research finding from education, which shows that the most influential element for a student to learn and succeed in education is the role of the teacher. Yes, excellent teachers make an enormous difference in the lives of pupils in education. So if an excellent teacher can cure most ills, does the teacher’s expectations influence the development of the child in the classroom? The simple answer is yes. But in sport, should we expect something different between the coach and the athlete?
According to Gloria Solomon, three lines of research show us how to maximise a player’s development in sport. First, the sources of information a coach uses to judge an athlete’s ability. Second, the feedback given to athletes matters because we know coaches differ between those they expect more from than those they expect less from. Finally, the degree to which coaches do not change their mind about an athlete’s ability truly affects the athlete’s development in sport. We shall deal with each one now.
In the four-step expectancy cycle, we see that coaches form expectation using their interpretations of performance, personal and psychological information. Next, the coach uses these initial expectations to treat the players before him or her. In step 3, the athlete’s perceptions of the treatment received from the coach affect the athlete’s behaviour and performance and, finally, the athlete’s performance conforms to the coach’s initial expectations.
One of the most intriguing issues in sport is how we treat others based on our initial expectations. For example, how do we treat people from whom we expect more? It appears in at least four ways.
We give them more and better quality feedback.
Then, we provide them with warmth (a warmer socio-emotional climate).
Next, we give them more opportunities to give their input.
Finally, we give them more challenging tasks to optimise their development.
If I translate this entire process into a positive case example, it might resonate more clearly.
The positive case of Paul
When Paul turned up to tennis practice for the first time, he seemed to have a way of hitting the ball that was better than all the others. He was tall, confident, and strong. He listened well and worked hard for the coach. The coach could see good things ahead for Paul. Paul could see that the coach believed in him. The coach gave Paul more feedback more often to help him improve. He stayed around Paul’s side of the court. When Paul didn’t perform a skill so well, his coach encouraged him warmly. If the coach wanted the group to see a skill performed well, she would ask Paul to show the others, and sometimes she would ask Paul to explain how he played a particular shot. Finally, Paul always seemed to move on to the more challenging skills ahead of the group. He enjoyed the coach’s support, warmth and attention and worked hard to improve at home and at practice.
The negative case of Neil
When Neil turned up to tennis practice for the first time, he seemed to have no good way of hitting the ball and seemed less co-ordinated than all the others. He was short, clumsy, and weak. He struggled to listen and couldn’t always understand the coach’s instructions. The coach could see only a few good things ahead for Neil. Neil could see that the coach did not believe in him. The coach gave Neil only a little feedback to help him improve. The coach rarely came round to Neil’s side of the court. When Neil didn’t perform a skill so well, his coach didn’t encourage him. If the coach wanted the group to see a skill performed well, she would never ask Neil to show the others. Finally, Neil always seemed to struggle with the more challenging skills and seemed behind the group. Neil felt silly, uncoordinated, and his favourite thing to do when he came home from practice was to put his tennis racket under his bed so he would not see it until the next day’s practice.
It might be time to check in on our expectations of others. Perhaps if we, as coaches, changed our approach and expectations, then our athletes would change too. The future is bright when we brighten our futures.
Solomon, G. B. (2010). The influence of coach expectations on athlete development. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 1:2, 76-85, DOI: 10.1080/21520704.2010.528173