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What Do You Expect?

goal (gol) n. &- A thing for which an effort is made; something desired. expect (ek spekt') v.t. &- To look forward to with reason and confidence. expectation (eks-pek ta-shen) n. - The act of expecting. World Book Dictionary
by: Dennis Hamby
Offensive Line Coach, Bishop Amat HS, La Puente, California
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Over the years, Bishop Amat Memorial High School (Calif.) has achieved notable success. The school has been recognized by the U.S. Congress as one of the "Exemplary Private High Schools in the Nation" and consistently receives the highest possible accreditations from the various associations and boards responsible for scholastic certification. This tradition of academic achievement has found its way onto the athletic fields of Bishop Amat, as well.

Since their first varsity football season, in 1958, the Lancers have won 339 games and 17 league championships, including a span of 11-straight from the 1985 through the 1995 seasons. Amat has appeared in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) playoffs 27 times, played in 10 finals and won five championships. Each championship, interestingly enough, came under a different head coach.

Individually, 272 players have been named to all-league teams, 79 have been given all-CIF recognition and eight have been named CIF player of the year. Twelve players have been named all-state and 14 have been named to all-Southern California teams in the 11 years since those awards began. Sixteen Amat graduates have gone on to play professionally and, as of this writing, more than 50 former athletes are playing college football.

It's obvious Bishop Amat has been blessed with its share of outstanding student-athletes and great coaches. But, whether it's at a small town high school or a major university, people alone cannot account for such success. Other dynamics are certainly at work within perpetually successful programs.

I was given a glimpse into one of those forces in 1997 when I was asked to interview for a coaching position on the Amat staff. During the interview process I became increasingly aware that a great deal of the discussions centered on the expectations of the program, its athletes and its coaches; not the goals, but the expectations. The staff expected to succeed, the team expected to succeed and everyone, players and coaches alike, were expected to do the right things. Success was not a goal. It was simply what everyone expected, both from and for one another. Responsibility, respect, appropriate conduct, in short, all of those positive qualities which a coach hopes to instill in a program and its players, were not matters of lengthy discussion or particular notoriety. They were simply what was expected and little else needed to be said.

A Different View

Conventional wisdom holds that when it comes to the venerable coaching staples of goals and goal setting, more is definitely better. The belief is that too fine a focus is likely to cause a team to overlook an opponent and that a few excessive goals, set beyond a teams reach, somehow guarantee an exceptional effort. Neither position is accurate and the perpetual wish lists they create have some significant shortcomings.

A multitude of ambitions, sorted, as it always is, into an order of increasing difficulty and lesser probability, relegates the ultimate objective of a program to the most distant point from its day-to-day operations; a place at which it's continually being obscured by the more immediate challenges placed before it. Even though the setting of numerous goals is well-intentioned, the strategy can significantly retard a team's progress.

Multiple goals create natural plateaus which can become convenient comfort zones for an entire program. Remember, over time, the greatest thing sought within any set of goals will be the thing least often realized. Combine this principle with the need for a confirmation of its efforts and a team is likely to find itself becoming appeased with its more frequent, albeit lesser, accomplishments and interpret even limited achievements as proof of progress, if not outright success.

Worse yet however, is the that these unrestricted objectives never challenge a program fairly, regardless of its proficiency. No constructive purpose is served by negligible goals, set shamefully beneath a team's ability or by the mega-goal which is so patently beyond even a team's most extended capability. Unrealistic goals simply lack the credibility needed to truly invigorate a team toward achieving them.

Team Goals or Expectations

It isn't that goals are bad in and of themselves, it's just that they are, at best, what teams aspire to. They are based on hope and, although contrary to our experience, always formulated with the best case scenario in mind. An organization never sets its goals based on the likelihood of adversity. "If we can stay healthy . . ." is a coaching mantra in terms of assessing a team's likelihood of success and no amount of contingency planning or back-up strategy can obviate that, in the final analysis, a team's highest goals are inexorably tied to its hopes and need for indestructibility.

This intimate connection with hope causes goals to be fragile, easily shattered by adversity, and quickly abandoned when circumstances appear less than hopeful. A key injury or upset loss in week four can have a devastating effect on a team's aspirations for Week 10.

The impact of misfortune on expectations, however is far less disruptive. An expectation is inherently more stable and resilient because it's a belief; a particular confidence based on reason and experience and therefore less likely to be upset by the caprice of fortune.

Coaching is an ongoing struggle to maintain a calm hand and steady course against the uncertain torrents of prosperity and calamity. Therefore, a large part of the job must be to foster a belief system in which people view adversity as temporary setbacks while remaining confident that good fortune is their destiny. If they are to continue in spite of misfortune, players must truly believe that good things will happen to them eventually. Developing rational expectations for a team and its players, based on experience and reason, is an important step.

Experience, Reason and Expectations

Tradition should be more than a dusty compilation of the records and experiences of a program. When viewed as the history of a team's athletic diversity and adaptability, tradition forms a useful underpinning on which to build prosperity. An awareness of its history allows a team to see that major successes are created by the inertia of an entire program, built up over time, under a variety of circumstances and not the products of an isolated moment or a particular individual.

An accessible, diverse tradition of success helps to build a collective air of confidence, provides an example of what is possible and gives a team tangible reasons to expect success. Having that expectation of success, in turn, allows tradition to be more than a scrapbook of great players and big wins. When a team expects to repeat past success, tradition becomes a teammate. Believing that they too will overcome the obstacles encountered during the course of a season, because of repeated exposure to past examples, allows players to stay focused on the work at hand without being swept up in whatever happens to be the most current "catastrophe." The team that honestly believes it will succeed isn't easily deterred by the loss of this or that player or game. People who expect good fortune to be their destiny can remain calm and directed, without panic, largely because they simply have confidence that they will prevail.

But what of the team which has no history of high achievement? How can a program seemingly void of success expect to succeed? Somewhere within even the most destitute program lies a success story. A compelling instance of high achievement exists. Find it, talk about it, use it to build on and encourage your players to expect that it will happen to them.

Experience alone is not a dependable regulator of the expectation level of a team, however. Expectations must be based on both experience and reason and, if they are in fact reasonable, they will likely vary from team-to-team and year-to-year, perhaps considerably.

It's completely reasonable for a team which has a history of success, a solid coaching staff and a fair share of good athletes, to have more extravagant expectations than those of a start-up program with a first year coach and a roster of untested players. And it's patently unreasonable for those two teams to share like goals.

Even though there is no precise mechanism with which to measure such things, those expectations forged by experience and honed by reason will prove to be more compelling than a group of cookie-cutter goals formulated out of habit and orchestrated by bravado. Be reasonable. Expect a degree of success that will challenge and enthuse your program, not overwhelm it, and openly discuss the underlying reasons for your expectations. Explain your system of evaluation and give your team an understanding of the totality of the forces which have, and will, come into play on their behalf. Show the players how their ability levels, team traditions, experience, the success of the weight training and conditioning programs, and all of the other circumstances surrounding them have combined to make the expected degree of success reasonably attainable.

Expectations and Conduct

Society's written laws and their attendant punishments have evolved to ensure equal treatment, to act as deterrents to unacceptable behavior and to preclude those in power from capricious rule. Over the years coaches have applied these same precepts of governance to their teams, even though there is little to compare between the two conditions.

A coach's world is populated by individuals who are, for the most part, predisposed to disciplined behavior, hard work, fairness and accountability. The message sent to such a group by the political model of discipline may be far different from what we intend it to be. The point we actually make is, while we may honestly hope the players will follow the rules, we don't actually expect they will, because we already have a mechanism of punishment in place to deal with their failure.

After 30 years in law enforcement and more than 20 in coaching, I am still naive enough to believe that a vast majority of young people, especially those involved in athletics, truly want to do the right thing. And I believe this becomes particularly evident when players find themselves in an environment which supports both their ability and their willingness to act properly, rather than one overly preoccupied with the likelihood of their failure. Moreover, expecting proper conduct more directly involves a coach in the success of his players because good behavior is an acquired skill, requiring explanation, discussion, guidance and practice.

We have been invested with the power to manage by edict and we can certainly elicit responses with rules, orders and punishment, both threatened and realized. But acquiescence should never be mistaken for commitment and obedience is not the same as loyalty. Those who are truly dedicated and steadfast will hold up to pressure. The same cannot be said of those whose compliance is fostered by fear and for whom trustworthiness is proportionate to their degree of intimidation.

Expectations and Failure

Admittedly, good intentions notwithstanding, young people do have a tendency to test the will and try the patience, but if we are to succeed as both coaches and mentors, we must deal positively with even the most troublesome of setbacks. When a player fails, either mentally, ethically or physically, our response should not advance the notion that such breakdowns are the norm. Failure is habituated far more easily than success, and as failure becomes more customary, it becomes an increasingly simple matter for players to hold up each successive downfall as fate.

To break this cycle of self-replicating failure, players need to understand and believe that, although errors don't go unnoticed and can't be tolerated, mistakes are believed to be out of the ordinary and achievement is not only still possible, but indeed likely. If success and failure are both possible, as they certainly are, why not deal with deficiencies as abnormal events and view successes as the standard?

Of course, the simple act of expectation is no substitute for old fashioned hard work. It offers no guarantee of success, even to the true believer. What high expectation does, however, is provide an additional coaching tool, another means by which to teach, challenge and support young people.

Take the best your players have to offer, expect it of them and let them know you trust them not to disappoint. Expect your players to excel both individually and collectively and athletically and ethically. You may be pleasantly surprised.


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