Raising Expectations

Would you rather be the perennial favorite or are you more comfortable in the role of the underdog?  As a coach, in my opinion, how you answer this question says a lot about your expectations. For those who prefer to be the underdog, I believe it ultimately falls back on being scared of expectations.  There’s no “pressure” and you can play loose and free. As the underdog, if you lose, that’s what was supposed to happen. Everyone pats you on the back, tells you how hard your kids played, and the other team was just better than you.  No doubt, in many cases, that is exactly the case. However, as a coach, if you are satisfied with this scenario then I believe your teams or program will never reach their potential for one simple reason…it’s ok to lose.

In the event that you win as the underdog, then there is great euphoria…you did something you weren’t expected to do. The fans storm the court/field, the team goes nuts, and the band breaks into the Rocky theme song!  There are few feelings in sport that can match such moments. That’s why everyone (at least most everyone) cheers for the underdog. So why wouldn’t you want to be in this scenario of consistently being in position to pull the upset?  It seems like there’s nothing but an upside.

To a competitor, I think the answer is simple.  When the underdog wins, that’s the exception. If they do win often then you guessed it, they probably weren’t as much of an underdog as they wanted to believe. Being the underdog is always safe.

If you’re a perennial favorite, the game changes.  There are expectations…you’re expected to win. In my mind, there is no other place you would rather be.  To me, if I could choose to be the underdog or the favorite, it’s a no brainer every single time…I wanted to be the favorite! In my analysis, being the favorite means one simple thing, in most knowledgeable people‘s opinion, my team should be better than yours. That’s a good thing!  So, why wouldn’t everyone want to be in that spot? One word…fear.

What’s there to be scared of?  Expectations. More precisely, the fear of not meeting those expectations. Of course, the easiest way to solve that problem in some coach’s mind is scheduling.  I believe you can always look at a team’s non-district schedule and tell how much a coach believes in his team. Programs that constantly schedule inferior teams in order to avoid competition or sugar coat their record deal in fool’s gold.  Their teams don’t improve throughout the year, they develop bad habits, and are not battle tested once their team plays someone of equal or better talent in district or the playoffs. When you play bad but still win, it’s not because your team was good, it’s because the other team just happened to be worse.  Consequently, when you play a good team and lose it’s usually because you played “bad” when in many cases that was the same “bad” you had been winning with when playing inferior teams.

So, how do you gauge how good your team is or was?  A good measuring stick for any program is the number of teams you beat that have equal or better talent than your team.  Or better yet. Want to know how good your team was? Ask yourself, “Who is the best team or teams we beat?” This is a much more accurate assessment of how good a team is than their record, or in some cases, how far the team advanced in the playoffs.  Soft scheduling is the simplest way to be perceived as meeting expectations. However, that’s a very low bar and not the point of this writing.

As a coach, if you want to develop a championship program, one of the first steps is to develop the mindset of embracing expectations rather than fearing them.  You want to be expected to win…you want to be the favorite. Like most things of any substantial value, this is a step by step process with the goal of eventually being able to consistently compete to your talent level and beyond.

The first step in this process of moving from being the constant underdog to being a perennial favorite is being able to consistently beat the people you are supposed to beat.  Who is that? It’s the teams that have inferior talent to yours…you don’t lose to the underdog. During my tenure at White Oak, I believe we rarely lost to teams that were less talented than us.  My team’s heard me say constantly, “In order to win, you must first eliminate the things that make you lose.” By eliminating those factors, a team is less likely to beat itself. In other words, you don’t lose, the other team must beat you.  In the grand scheme of raising expectations, beating less talented teams must be a constant.

The second step of this process is being able to beat teams that have more talent than your team. Whether it is through execution, work ethic, intelligence, toughness, coaching, or a combination of these factors and others, your team doesn’t cave in just because the other team is more talented.  The problem for some programs is they never get past the first step in the process because they are scared to lose and this is normally indicated by non-district scheduling. The rationale that is normally given for this is not wanting to crush your players or team’s confidence. Your team will not meet its potential unless you push the limits and the coach must believe in his players and team enough to do this.

One of my goals with scheduling was to make sure we played opponents in non-district that were capable of exposing our weaknesses. Usually for us, that meant playing teams with speed and quickness. If we wanted to be able to defeat these types of teams when it counted, we had to play them in non-district. Consequently, I wanted to play a handful of games against teams that put us in the position of having to perform at a high level under the toughest conditions for us and, if we didn’t, then we would lose.  

Teams that don’t get challenged enough usually lose to the first team with equal talent that is more battle tested.  No doubt, there is an art to scheduling and, obviously, you don’t want to play a vastly superior team every night but a coach must challenge his team to make them better. If I had ever had a team go through non-district undefeated, then I would have considered it to be my fault. If your goal is to raise your expectations to a championship level, then a coach must be willing to challenge his team. A culture of being scared to compete is not a championship culture.  

The third step is being able to defeat teams that are equal or slightly better than your team.  To me, this is different than teams with just superior talent. By talent, I’m referring to mainly physical superiority in strength, speed, quickness, height, and jumping ability.  So in step three, I’m referring to teams that are as talented and skilled, for the most part, as your team. At this level, I believe there are 3 difference makers…toughness, defense, and coaching.  As the coach, it’s my job to have my team prepared to perform their best and a big part of this is training them to be tough (later blog entry) and that happens in various ways, one of which is being battle tested going into district play and the playoffs.  

I also believe that in equally matched games, the best defensive team normally wins and for this reason, the defensive end of the court is where most championship programs hang their hat. There will always be nights when the shots just don’t seem to fall or the offensive execution is just not there and it’s these nights when defense keeps a team in the game.  I also firmly believe that putting an emphasis on defense always heightens awareness and concentration which leads to better offensive execution. I always wanted our teams to play with a “defense first” mentality because I knew this would carry over to our concentration on the offensive end as well.

At level 3, I believe coaching becomes much more of a factor.  To me, most of this took place in preparation beginning with practice as well as scouting, game planning, and being prepared for special situations.  However, a coach’s in game decision making is also heightened during games at this level. Without a doubt, players have the most dramatic effect on the outcome of a game but coaching is a difference maker when teams are evenly matched.

Also, at this point, there is the element of being able to perform on a bigger stage.  The underdog has the luxury of playing loose and free because of a lack of expectations.  The favorite learns to play loose and free by embracing the expectations and having developed the mindset of playing one way all the time regardless of the opponent or circumstances.  

During our state championship seasons of 2012 and 2013, at times, I would get questioned as to why I would continue to push our team hard during some of our district games in which the opponent was clearly over matched.  We would be up 40 points or more and I would still be coaching them just as hard as I would if we were in a nip and tuck game. The reason for this was to develop our mindset. We were going to play to the best of our ability for 32 minutes regardless of the opponent or circumstances.  

We wouldn’t press and we played all our kids but we didn’t change the intensity level or the level of expectation for execution.  Though we were criticized by some for beating some of these district opponents by large margins, I was willing to take the criticism for the sake of developing the mindset I believe we needed.  More than anything, especially in 2012 when we were the playing the defending state champions in the state semi-finals, I wanted us to have the security of knowing we didn’t have to change the way we played just because we were at the state tournament.  We had trained to play at a championship level all year and the state tournament would be no different. I believe it was this mindset that helped us the most going into these unchartered waters.

So, in conclusion, once a program has gotten to the point of being able to perform consistently beyond its talent level and on the occasions when your team is the underdog, there is not the element of surprise when they pull out a victory, then I believe the program is at the point of embracing high expectations.  There is only one type of underdog that is able to make this transition…the one that is tired of being the underdog.

Thanks for reading and Coach With A Purpose!