Eight Action Steps for Managing Team Expectations

When we work with athletic departments, under the leadership of J. T. Thoms, we almost always take surveys of both coaches and student athletes. They provide us with data that informs our events and ensures that our partnership is guided by their pain points. These surveys also furnish us with a clear picture of what teams need.

May I unveil a big problem we continue to hear about?


Here’s a common scenario. A student athlete tells me her coach doesn’t communicate expectations clearly. She says, “He thinks he does,” but she and her teammates feel surprised by their coach’s decisions and by how little they know about what he really wants. (This can be both male and female teams).

When I speak with the coaches, they often don’t agree at all with the students’ assessments. They are surprised the student athletes feel “in the dark.” They believe they’ve communicated clearly and frequently about what is expected next week.

Handling Expectations

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It has been said, “Life is pretty much about managing expectations.” People can handle lots of adversity and change when they expect to do so. Trouble arises when we expect the path to be easy or fast and it’s not. The most common problems are:

  • Unclear expectations

Every year, student athletes—particularly from football and basketball— complain that they had no idea how much classroom assignments would occupy their time. We all remember former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones tweeting about how he came to “play football, not play school.” He later regretted that tweet and now disavows it, but it describes how players can enter college with unclear assumptions about what’s most important.

  • Unrealistic expectations

A disproportionate amount of student athletes have unrealistic expectations of playing time, as well as their future careers as professional athletes. According to a 2016 NCAA study, 50 percent of Division 1 male athletes think it’s likely they’ll “go pro.” The probability is actually about 2 percent. Many have been the best athlete in their high school, and they are unprepared to join a team of equally talented students in college. They carry a distorted picture of reality.

  • Unmet expectations

Many student athletes enter college with unspoken expectations—from their parents or themselves—and since they’re unspoken, they’re almost destined to be unmet. Student athletes can become bitter or resentful when what they envisioned does not become a reality. According to the NCAA, about 15 percent of Division 1 athletes are first-generation college students. Few have anyone to offer them guidelines for how to interface with college coaches.

Eight Steps for Managing Team Expectations

1. Invite them into the goal-setting process and decide how you’ll communicate.

Expectations usually work better when all parties get involved in creating them. I like to say: students support what they help create. So, from the beginning, host a team retreat and collectively determine the targets for the year. Then, invite the team to choose how the regular communication will happen.

2. State it clearly, constantly and creatively.

Once you and your team determine expectations for each other in the upcoming season, say it over and over and over again. Use clear and simple language. (Test it on a middle school student). Find times at every meeting to say it again. Post it in writing in visible places. Then, find new and creative ways to remind them of the stated expectations.

3. What gets rewarded gets repeated.

Remember the key motivator for almost everyone: What gets rewarded gets repeated. Find ways to celebrate or reward the players who practice the team’s expectations. Make them models for their teammates. This doesn’t have to be cheesy or corny; it can be authentic moments where you affirm what you want from everyone.

4. Play a game called: What’s it like to be . . . on the other side of me?

This one is fun. In a candid team time, announce that you plan to meet with them as individuals and play a little game called: “What’s it like to be on the other side of me?” We learned this game from Jeff Henderson and play it at Growing Leaders. It provides time for two parties to interact honestly about how the other comes across. It raises self-awareness on a team and always tends to clarify expectations.

5. Utilize “thermostats” or liaisons for the team.

I know coaches who choose five players to become the key communicators for the team. These are natural influencers on the team and these athletes are the middle-men between coaches and players. They help translate expectations so that no one misses them. Leverage these leaders to sustain your high expectations.

6. Spot the bad eggs.

From the start, you can probably identify the team members who don’t seem to catch your expectations or who tend to be negative influences on their teammates. From the beginning, pull them aside and build a relationship. Earn their trust and then be clear that you’ll call them out if they don’t get on board the “expectations train.”

7. Plan regular “family talk times.”

Aside from practices and prep times before competition, plan regular times for the team to act like family, where they can talk freely, safely and air out any frustrations. These need not be times you fear. They can actually help players bond. But a strong leader must facilitate these “talk times.” You must be secure enough to guide them and make them redemptive in the end. This becomes a good time to clarify expectations.

8. In every interaction—require confirmation.

Effective teams over-communicate. Coaches send messages (digitally or personally) and require players to confirm they got it and they understand it. This increases accountability on everyone’s part. No communiqué goes only one way. Make this clear up front, at the beginning of the season.

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Eight Action Steps for Managing Team Expectations