Dealing with Expectations

A valuable lesson I have learned concerns expectations placed on players, teams and coaches.  I am not sure there was a specific point in time when I realized addressing expectations was a coaching technique, but there is a necessity to train on how to handle expectations.  If we accept there are four basic facets to the game - technical, tactical, physical and psychological, - then handling expectations falls in the psychological category.

Recruiting often brings a lot of hyperbole to athletes and builds expectations for them to an unrealistic level.  When an athlete does not live up to expectations he is them considered a "bust".   One need not be a highly recruited athlete to have expectations thrust upon him. Consider the best player(s) on a high school team. These are the athletes expected to lead their team to victory, a winning season, a league title, a state championship even. 

Similar expectations can follow a coach. Successful coaches tend to be upwardly mobile and are recruited to new positions after having success in their current situation. Some coaches move every couple of seasons while others remain in the same position for years seeking to build a dynasty.

Just because an expectation exists does not mean it is based in reality.  In fact, many expectations are more hopeful in nature than they are grounded in reality. In the construct of today's youth sports where big, strong, fast can be valued over technique and tactic in pursuit of wins this is ever increasingly a truth.  Time and again I have witnessed the dominant player in U12 fade away and abandon the game entirely as other players catch up to him (or her) physically and surpass them technically and tactically. And it's not peers alone who can surpass once dominant youth players but the game itself can leave them behind.

This is where managing expectations comes in. And let's be honest about this, very few youth coaches actively seek to manage expectations.   Youth coaches tend to ride the best player for as far as that player can take them. They may seek to put a better supporting cast around the dominant player or recruit other dominant players to play along side him.  Our local youth sports organization has followed this path for the last 10-12 years to disastrous results. 

A one time well-oiled feeder program that regularly produced 10-15+ athletes for the high school teams has in recent years has produced 4 or 5 each fall.  Why the drop in numbers?  A change in philosophy that produced initial results that proved to be false in the long run.

When my sons began coming through the SSA teams were randomly selected each year. Those WCOSA league teams were not always successful against teams from opposing school districts.We put together all-star teams comprised of the best players from each team to play in local tournaments and generally had very good success. During this time the high school team was the dominant program in the area.

The change in philosophy was to begin placing all the best youth players of an age group on one team and leave them there from year to year as they progressed toward high school.  At first glance, this may appear like a good idea and while the SSA WCOSA league teams initially fared better, the high school program began a sharp decline both in terms of numbers and competitiveness.

Some of the best youth players are leaving the sport. And not necessarily to play another sport either. Those youth teams (regardless of the sport) that enjoyed so much success coming up through the system cannot achieve a .500 record on the varsity level of play. Obviously there is a short in the system somewhere.  In my opinion, this short can be found in a general category I term "Dealing with Expectations."

We need to go back to the idea of big, strong and fast (BSF) youngsters dominating youth sports physically to produce wins. There will come a time when your best BSF is not as good as an opponents BSF is.  This is adversity.  The expectation was for your BSF, your "best" player to carry your team to victory and now that has not happened. 

What now?

I remember a young lad by the name of David.  Now, David was BSF to an extreme extent. As a 10 year old he was physically capable of playing U14. He scored at will and when in goal, no one scored against him.  I coached David as a U8 and recommended that he be moved up an age group or two, It didn't happen and we never lost a game. Only one team came close to competing with us (David).   I coached David again as a U12 on a tournament team and quickly realized the need to adjust my own expectations.  In a close match I had turned to David and said something like, "We need you to bring your "A" game today. Put us on your shoulders and carry us to victory."   Yeah, definitely not one of my better moments as a coach.  I was young and dumb coaching my eldest sons team and wanting the win. I placed unrealistic expectations on David who failed to live up to them leaving everyone dissatisfied with the experience. I messed up BIG time.

I learned the lesson though. 

From that point forward my teams had no "stars" in terms of expectations.  More importantly I learned even the best players need to learn to deal with adversity and the expectations that can lead to adversity.  This is where our local youth program, the SSA, is failing kids and thusly failing the high school program as well.

As I stated earlier, when my eldest came through the youth ranks teams were randomly selected each year.  This lead to a competitive imbalance against teams from other local associations who stacked their best players all on one team.  Let's also remember that it was our local high school that was the dominant program in the area while the high schools those other teams fed into were weaker. Although the transition was slow, those roles have now entirely reversed.

My contention is that by placing all the best players on a single team and leaving the remaining teams in the program with the "leftovers" many of the important lessons necessary for eventual success were denied to players who would have benefited greatly from those experiences when they arrived to the high school program. 

If your BSF never experiences adversity, how will he know how to overcome it when it does arise?  Splitting up the best players during their youth years almost guarantees those BSF players will meet with adversity, aka losing or failing.  And if you have talent divided among multiple teams with each team having a dominant BSF of it's own (relative in nature, of course) then more players will learn how to lead through adversity.  Spreading the wealth (talent) in the youth ranks serves to develop better leadership depth.  It also serves to prepare a larger group to deal with the hyperbole of expectations.

Then when you bring everyone together on one team in middle school or freshman soccer the pecking order amongst players can sort itself out.  But now when the best player, no longer necessarily the BSF, meets adversity there is depth behind him (or her) to help guide the team through and on to victory.  The phrase used to describe such players today are "outliers", those kids for whom expectations are moderate at best, but who are capable of stepping to the fore when necessary to carry their team. They give "surprise" performances that catch opponents off guard,  The confidence necessary for such performances are rooted in their experiences in youth soccer.  At some point in time, they persevered in the youth ranks. They had that one game when they got "hot" or were "in the zone" and carried their team. The seed for the expectation that they could do so again was planted in that youth game.

So too were the realization that the BSF or best player cannot carry the day each time out.  These players need to realize they are not expected to do so each time out. The expectation is for them to be consistently good each time they take the pitch but the realization is that some days they will perform below average.  This is when other teammates need to understand the expectation for them to step up. They need successful experience in order to do so and that type of experience is found in youth sports.

I harp back to recent articles I have written where I recounted one coach's lamentations about being unable to scout our club team the last couple of springs.  "We played you 3 times this season and watched you several more. Your team is impossible to scout.  It's a different player having a big game every time we watch. You generate goals differently every time we watch.  How do you coach that?"
Expectations have a lot to do with it.  I consciously sought to lower the expectations for some players and raise the expectations for others.  I did not want one or even two dominant goal scorers. I wanted a team full of players capable of scoring goals.  Take the pressure, the expectations, to score off the best goal scorer and make him even more productive by doing so.  Raise the expectations for outliers to score goals by giving them the confidence to do so and enabling then to explore the game to it's fullest extent in pursuit of doing so - we raised the bar for these players and they strove to meet the expectations. Some might say we had certain players over-achieve, but not based on our expectations for them.

This past fall, the new high school coach set very low expectations for the team in general and many players specifically.  He just did a terrible job of managing the expectations in general.  The results were the worst season in decades for the program.  Many players and the team as a whole lived down to the expectations he set for them.  There was emphasis placed on BSF when such really did not exist on the team.  Too little emphasis was placed on tactical and technical considerations when a solid foundation was present to be built around.  Everything was topsy-turvy and as a result individuals and the team as a whole underachieved even to lowered expectations.

There is a very real need to establish expectations for each position on the team and for the players who will be playing those positions. Matching players to positions in this manner is important, but not necessarily the end-all for positioning.  Do not sell players short, but also do not place unrealistically high expectations on them.  Watch closely how players respond to situations. Their (re)actions will often indicate whether you need to raise or lower expectations.  And please watch how players interact with one another.  Do not mislabel an outlier nor the star - this past high school season saw the coach do both leaving a confused, disappointed and largely directionless group of players.  The players absolutely know when a coach does this.  Dealing with and managing expectations for the individual and the team is not something normally found in textbooks or coaching courses, but it should be.  It can make or break the individual, the team, the season. 

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