Positive Leadership and High Expectations Go Great Together

Positivity does not mean being a pushover.

Having high expectations does not require (or excuse you) from being a raging dick.

These two concepts get conflated time and time again. In a world where many with “old school” tendencies think the athletic talent pool is going soft, there’s often a misplaced rage at more empathetic and optimistic coaching. As if what’s really going wrong with “kids these days” is that they are coddled with…understanding of their emotional state? Nothing could be further from the truth.

On the flip side, I’ve seen coaches often worry that having high expectations and firm boundaries for what is and what is not acceptable behavior on the team somehow makes you a “negative” coach. I’ve experienced my fair share of this, with people throwing my “positive psychology” association back in my face.

So consider this an attempt to make the proverbial waters in this conflict a little less muddy.

Managing Result Expectations

Since the beginning of time, great leadership has required high expectations. What the nature of those expectations are, and how you manage your own reactions when those expectations are met or not, is a huge part of the art of coaching.

As people involved in competitive sport, we cannot ignore our natural tendency to be results focused. As much as we worship “the process”, I’m hard pressed to find people who honestly don’t care about who wins or who beats who. It matters to us.

As coaches, it’s incumbent for us to model how we’re going to react when our competitive expectations aren’t met. Most of us get frustrated when our athletes unravel after a race doesn’t go to their expectations. If we expect them to improve, coaches need to show their own system for dealing with the inevitable emotions they feel when you don’t get your expected result.

It’s normal to be angry. Anger often coincides with thoughts of how what has happened is not fair. How productive is it to direct that anger at one or more of your athletes? Does it help them to recover and prepare for the next race/competition?

It’s just as bad to stifle your own anger (take it from someone who’s an expert anger stifler). People know that you are angry anyway, so stifling is pointless and you’re putting undue stress on your mind. You need a way for safely expressing that anger directionally away from other emotionally troubled parties so that you can recover.

Having a system for recovering can also allow you to be empathetic with your athletes, which will certainly be more helpful to them as they try to prepare for the next go. Just a quick reminder that any statement that denies the emotional reality of a result that both you and the athlete were disappointed in is not empathy.

Managing boundaries

A part of any healthy relationship is managing boundaries. Basically, the process of deciding what kind of behavior you will and will not accept from the other person. As a coach, you have the absolute right to set standards for behavior on your team, as long as those expectations do not threaten the physical and emotional safety of those on your team.

So for example, you are totally fine to put in an expectation that athletes on your team wear a certain shirt and shorts to a particular day. You are not fine to require them to step on a scale in front of their teammates.

Again, as we all worship “the process”, it follows that having very high expectations for the behaviors that people on your team execute. You should have similarly high expectations for yourself as a leader, for your own process and behavior. It should never be inverted to where the expectation is much higher on the athlete than you.

So what should you do when those process expectations are not met? This is where it is critical to understand the answer to the question “WHY?”. Let me use another example.

At an area where I used to pick my daughter up, there was one older boy that ran wild. His behavior was out of control, and I watched as his mother struggled to rein him in. I was frustrated. Why couldn’t she just get him in line?

Later I discovered that her child had a cognitive disability. This made me considerably more forgiving and less angry about the situation. Did I think it was alright for the kid to behave as he did? Of course not- he was making things less safe for himself and other kids. Understanding some of the reason why however did inform my response.

Most athletes you coach are not trying to fail in their attempts to meet high expectations. Although it can feel morally righteous to dish out some punishment, and there are still situations where it is appropriate, consider the many other tools you have at your disposal. Punishing athletes who believe they are making a good faith effort to meet your expectations is going to do more damage than good in the long term.

Some Positive Tricks

Here are a few hacks I use to manage the relationship between high expectations and positive leadership.

  1. Look for what is right- When coaching a group of people, it takes conscious energy to look for what is good about them. I find this is particularly important with athletes. It is easy to be cranky and find stuff they are doing wrong. It is hard (but worth it) to find out what is right with them. I can honestly say that by doing this I was able to start from a position of liking athletes that behaved well below my expectations, which in turn helped drain some of the negative emotion from our interactions.

  2. Strive to never adjust to expectations met- If you have expectations that are high, make it your job to recognize when they are met (or exceeded) as much as possible. Also, coming back to the above, communicate to people what you like about them. You’ll be surprised at how much better people you’re leading correct their weaknesses when they know that you understand their strengths.

  3. Have an emotional plan- Quite simply, have effective systems for dealing with the emotional highs and lows of what you do. For the highs, you should actually have a plan to share them with other people or otherwise build on those feelings. For the lows, you should have multiple outlets, often directed away from the people who you are emotionally charged around, to deal with it.

So next time you’re about to set down a marker for behavior on your team, remember that doing so doesn’t make you a “negative” coach. Also, remember that you can be a kind, empathetic coach if you work to understand not only why people transgress, but also what is good about them.