How To Protect Your Athletes From Your Low Expectations

Coaches have a tremendous influence over their athletes. A coach’s philosophy, communication, demeanor, and competence all play a role. The expectations a coach has for a player, whether spoken or not, have a significant impact on that player’s ability to reach his or her potential. I call this the self-fulfilling prophecy of leadership. 

My Rise and Fall to Coach’s Expectations

As I look back on my time as an athlete, I can clearly see how I rose or fell to my coaches’ expectations. My high school tennis coach never quite saw my abilities come to fruition. He didn’t view me as a top contender in our lineup. Consequently, I fell to his expectations rather than rising to my potential.

In contrast, my cross country coach pushed me to become one of the top runners in our district. Looking back, I believe that I could have become even better if he’d challenged me to do so.

Neither of these examples capture all of the contributing factors. However, as a coach, don’t deny the true impact your expectations have on your players.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Theory

In the 1960s, researchers conducted an experiment to see whether or not a teacher’s expectations of student abilities affected academic progress (Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968). It did. Teacher’s expectations were found to serve as self-fulfilling prophecies by influencing the communication patterns between a student and his or her teacher.

Since then, further studies have confirmed these findings and extended their application to the relationship between coaches and athletes.

While not all coaches are prone to allow their expectations to negatively impact their coaching of certain athletes, research suggests that information is power when it comes to avoiding this phenomenon.

4 Steps of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Thelma Horn, Miami University professor, and colleagues outline a logical four step process to help coaches understand how this prophecy develops.

Step 1: A coach develops expectations of an athlete. Through word of mouth, reports, recruiting, try outs, and pre-season camp a coach develops an expectation of an athlete’s ability and potential level of performance.

Step 2: Coaches’ expectations influence the quantity and quality of communication with their athletes. For example a coach may challenge high expectancy athletes more or provide them with more specific technical or tactical feedback. This additional coaching gives high expectancy athletes an added advantage.

Step 3: Coaches’ communication negatively impacts an athlete’s performance and rate of improvement. It also impacts how athletes view their own abilities and how motivated they are to get better. Research shows that different types of communication from coaches can influence athlete’s self-esteem, self-confidence, internal motivation, performance anxiety, and likelihood to dropout.

Step 4: Athlete’s behavior and performance conform to the coach’s expectations. This conformity reinforces a coach’s initial perceptions and expectation of the individual athlete. Thus, the process continues.

Just as not all coaches create self-fulfilling prophecies for their athletes, not all athletes are susceptible to self-fulfilling prophecies. If an athlete doesn’t conform to a coach’s expectations, then there is no prophecy effect. You see this in the athletes who aim to prove their coaches wrong and outperform expectations.

How to Avoid Creating Negative Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

If a coach’s expectations and communication is so influential, then coaches need to follow 7 guidelines to avoid this low achievement trap.

  1. Carefully select the sources of information upon which to form your preseason or early expectations for each athlete.
  2. Maintain high expectations for each athlete based on his or her individual skill level.
  3. Keep your expectations for each athlete flexible and open to change.
  4. Ensure that practice plans include drills and activities which allow all athletes an opportunity to improve their abilities.
  5. Develop a habit of praising the process to encourage each athlete’s continual growth and development toward his or her potential – the basis of true evaluation.
  6. Monitor the frequency, specificity, and tone of your communication with all athletes regardless of performance expectations.
  7. Work to create a growth-minded team culture which prizes improvement and a pursuit of excellence in all team members.

Free Download

To help you remember these seven guidelines download and print this free PDF, 7 Guidelines To Help Coaches Avoid Self-Fulfilling Prophecies.

Bring Out the Best In Each Athlete

As you evaluate your athletes, beware the negative consequences of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Be proactive and follow these seven guidelines to bring out the best in all athletes, helping them reach their highest potential.

Question: What are other strategies to keep a self-fulfilling prophecy from sabotaging your coaching? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.


Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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