5 things you may have missed with setting expectations

 written by Erica Quam

It was November and April was frustrated. 

She was tired of having to repeat herself.  Not only that...when she sat down to figure out why she was so tired, she realized it was really just a couple of athletes who were taking up the majority of her time.

She had a big team.  How could two athletes suck so much of her energy?

After fifteen minutes of venting about the situation, I asked her to try and identify her main challenge.

We sat in silence for a minute or two.

Then, it was as if a light bulb went off in her head.

"It all boils down to expectations," she said. "We talked about these things at the beginning of the year.  It's so simple if I really think about it.  But...I've just been letting them get away with this stuff and continually push the limits...over and over again."

I talk to coaches all the time about the importance of setting up expectations at the beginning of the season. That's where it starts and stops for most coaches.

Thinking about your team expectations is only step one.

If you want create a winning team culture align your team expectations through these five steps.

Step one: Get clear

Take the time to write out what you expect from your athletes.

Separate expectations out into categories: academics, practice, game day, recruiting, parent communications, etc.

Don't just THINK about these...actually write it down.

Answer this simple question for each expectation you write:

What does it look like when this expectation is done...and done well?

Identify the specific behaviors you would like to see for each expectation. This will take the guess-work out of it for your athletes.

Here's an example:

A. Be on time to practice.

With this expectation, you could have people rolling out of the locker room "on time". Yet if they're not actually ready to go, then you'll be starting practice 5 or 10 minutes late. If you're tired of tolerating this kind of behavior, then get more specific on your expectation from the get go.

B. Be on time for practice: shoes tied, equipment lined up, water bottle filled, ready to listen to the warm-up, and begin.

Here's another example:

A. Have a positive attitude.

That's a pretty common expectation, yet...what the heck do you mean? Most of your athletes won't even listen to this one. They'll just roll their eyes.

What does it LOOK like to have a positive attitude?

What specific behaviors do you want to SEE?

Your athlete's body language will convey their attitude. They may or may not be aware of this yet. It's your job to tell them what you're looking for and what you DON'T want to see.

B. Bring a positive attitude to practice: stand tall, make eye contact with coaches and teammates, nod your head yes to confirm instructions have been received, and maybe even smile every once in a while!

Then, when you SEE behaviors that are not aligned with your expectations, give your athletes 'behavior specific' feedback.

Instead of saying something like, "Alice, you have a really negative attitude today" to which Alice can simply argue back, "No, I don't."

Try using behavior specifics, "Alice, you're slouching and shaking your head no. You aren't making any eye contact with me or your teammates today. Is something wrong?"

This WILL take more work AND it will also help you become a better coach.

This separates who your athletes are as people with their individual behaviors.

When you can flip the switch from coaching emotion to giving your athletes feedback on their behavior, everyone wins.

Involve your athletes

Talk about what your goals are for the season.  Ask your athletes, "what kind of expectations do you need to have as a team to reach these goals?"

They may set higher expectations than you.

(A Word of Caution: if your athletes make up a bunch of expectations that just sound good, and are something they think YOU want to hear...but are totally unrealistic...it's your job to facilitate that conversation too!)

Step two: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Once you've gotten clear on what your expectations are, you HAVE to communicate these with your team. Yet so many coaches have expectations in their heads. If you haven't told your team what these are, then you're gonna the one who gets super frustrated!

Tell your athletes what you expect.

Then tell them WHY you expect these behaviors.

Position yourself as the expert - who has seen what works and what doesn't work for teams.

(Note: You will have to build trust...so that they believe what you expect will actually help them be successful.)

Then, give your team an opportunity to ask questions and clarify exactly what you're looking for.

Make sure that everyone is on the same page.

BONUS: Ask your team what they expect of you as a coach

Believe me. Your athletes have expectations of you. What's okay and what's not okay...what you should and shouldn't do.

I'm not saying you have to live up to your athletes expect of you. You don't!

Their expectations may be unrealistic, inappropriate, and absolutely ludicrous. Which is why you HAVE to discover what these are - and sooner than later.

If you don't find out what their expectations are at the beginning of the year, you'll be finding out during the season or even worse - at the end of the season...when they fill out their evaluations and talk about how you didn't meet their expectations.

So, find out what they expect and THEN, let them know what you will do, what you won't do...and why.

For example, an unspoken expectation my team eventually revealed was: "Coaches should always be available."

Okay...coaches should be available for athletes...sometimes.

The backstory was a couple athletes were 'upset' when they came by the office to talk about something that was important to them...and coaches weren't there.

The story evolved into... the coaches are 'never there'. The expectation was that coaches would always be in the office for athletes to talk...whenever they needed.

This was really helpful when we talked about it. It gave me an opportunity to educate them on what coaches do and all of our different responsibilities:

ie. "We won't be available all the time. There will be times when I'm not in the office all day. I have two hours of recruiting calls to make when I get home tonight. Therefore, I will be taking some personal time during the day between workouts."

Or...for coaches with kids: "There will be times this season when I won't be at morning practice. My family is important to me too. I will be running morning practice twice a week and taking my kids to school one morning a week."

If you're a college coach, your athletes are part of your program for four years.

You are a coach for your entire career.

You get to set up boundaries and structure your career in a way that's right for you and the phase of life you're in.

It's important to communicate this to your athletes so that they know what to expect.

Work with your athletes towards a more realistic expectations together: here is when I'll typically be available for you to come and talk...and here's why.

It gives them a sense of ownership in the process and helps you become more aware of exactly what they're thinking.

Step three: Establish commitment

Once you have communicated your expectations and had a discussion with your athletes,  the next step is to have them to commit to this set of expectations.

You can have everyone agree to these expectations by a show of hands, a team break, or something more formal - like signing an official document.

I'd recommend the latter. Here's why:

You can (and should) use your team expectations in individual meetings with your athletes.

Giving them consistent feedback is part of your role as a coach! Let your athletes know what they're doing well and where they need to improve. Having their actual signature on that set of expectations is powerful!

Coaches get to set the tone for their program. You are ultimately in charge of your team. Your athletes CHOOSE to be a part of your team - under the conditions you've laid out.

That's super important!

If they decide not to meet the expectations that you've laid out, then they are deciding not to be on the team - based on their behavior.  Not who they are as a person.

Step four: Accountability

Once people have committed to your team expectations, then you have to hold them accountable.

You can even say to your athletes at the beginning of the season, "I've coached long enough that I know how difficult it will be for some of you to follow these expectations. How would you like me to handle it when you get off track?"

If you have strong leaders on your team you can delegate part of this accountability to them.

Talk to your captains - specifically - about how to hold their teammates accountable to the team expectations.

Talk about when and how to intervene if someone is falling short as well as how they can reward all the positive behaviors too - by acknowledging when things are going well!

Step five: Decide

You get to decide how consistent you will be on managing your team expectations.

If you are inconsistent, you're likely to see conflict popping up amongst your athletes.

This is because there is chaos at the structural level of your team. If your athletes can't trust you to be consistent in holding people accountable to the expectations you've set, then they will no longer be as committed to the goals you've set as a team.

Sometimes this is a systemic problem - involving two or more people. Other times it's a more isolated problem - involving one individual.

If it's a systemic problem, then you need to address this with everyone on the team. If it's more isolated, you can address issues with the one athlete directly.

Your team will get really frustrated if you're constantly involving everyone on the team because of the behavior of one person. That gets exhausting!

There are times when one person on your team can't (or won't) meet your expectations. That's when there's a real decision to make. Do they continue on your team or is it time to end this relationship - for the health of the team?

You can make the decision for them or come back to your team expectations and let them choose. They can either change their behavior to meet your expectations or choose not to change their behavior and not be on the team anymore.

If you've set your team expectations up in a way that is all about behaviors, then you take the focus off them as a person and make a distinct separation.

It's not that they're a bad person...it's just that they need to change their behavior. If they can't or won't change their behavior...they may still be a good person. They just can't be on your team anymore!

Wrapping up

Most coaches think that going over your expectations at the beginning of the season should be enough. Yet, your expectations are an integral part of your team culture. These parameters need to be at the forefront of your mind. Bring your expectations to life by talking about them consistently, rewarding people who are living up to them, and holding people accountable who are no longer on track.


What's one thing you'd like to change about the way you set expectations with your team? Share it for accountability and support in the comments below.