Set Greater Expectations

Anson Dorrance and Tim Nash

Excerpted from Training Soccer Champions, © 1996 by JTC Sports. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Editor’s Note: Anson Dorrance is the women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina. Under his leadership, this Division 1 team has won 20 of the last 28 NCAA championships, compiling a winning percentage of .963 and at one point, a 101-game unbeaten streak. His insights in this piece, though focused on sports leadership, have clear application to just about anyone who wants to lead an effective team, organization, or family.

“¦ I think what happens to great coaches who are not as effective at the end of their career is that they lose their willingness to take the required stress and emotional confrontation that they did when they were younger. All of us have watched the press excoriate these coaching legends as they try to follow their previous successes. I don’t think there is any question about the knowledge of these coaches. I don’t think these people know any less about their sport when they are losing their edge. I also don’t think they lost their competitive fire. But what happens eventually in every professional leadership position””but maybe in the coaching profession more than most””is that some leaders no longer have the energy or willingness to make the emotional commitment to motivate people to compete successfully at the highest level. Coaches are sometimes not willing to make that commitment because it’s so exhausting

Maybe they start to lack energy, or maybe they’re sick of soliciting the combative courage necessary to fight the human tendency to be comfortably mediocre. There is an emotional battle that is constant when you are trying to take your players to higher levels, and your players are unconsciously fighting to stay at a more comfortable level. All that is such a drain on us emotionally and psychologically that after awhile we aren’t willing to make that kind of sacrifice.

We see brilliant men burn out regularly in our profession, and the editorials about these men ask the same question: What price did he pay for those achievements? Well, I believe the price high-profile football and basketball coaches pay is emotional and physical exhaustion from trying to keep themselves and the people in their programs on an impossible cutting edge. To constantly motivate players you have to be a driving force and make personal investments for which you can pay dearly.

It’s all described in a book we have named this chapter after””Greater Expectations by William Damon. The book subtitle says a lot: “Overcoming the culture of indulgence in America’s homes and schools.” Damon reviews issues about how educators and parents don’t do enough and aren’t demanding enough of the kids being taught and raised. In fact, many people have a misconstrued understanding of how to build self-esteem.

One of the things Damon talks about is that many parents and teachers want to create self-esteem, so they end up praising children for things that aren’t really praiseworthy. The parent or teacher then loses credibility with the kids in whom they are trying to build confidence. Way down deep, the kids know the adult is just not telling them the truth. So in this noble ambition to build self-esteem, we often praise them for no real reason. It’s a hallow kind of praise. We end up developing a lot of self-indulgent kids and students who don’t have any standards”¦

I’ve read a lot of books that have affected my coaching, but I haven’t read a book that comes closer than this one to what all of us should be doing when developing people. It addresses the mistakes all of us make. Part of the effort to build self-esteem gives the wrong message if we praise behavior that isn’t praiseworthy. Sometimes we aren’t willing to make that emotional investment in our kids at home or the kids we are teaching because to do so we have to be somewhat demanding and critical. It causes stressful moments of conflict, and that’s a taxing price.

Even in my own home I can see what happens when my wife and I come home from a long day at work and we are very tired. Donovan, our four-year-old son, has just been eating in front of the television and he decides to leave his dish there to go and play in his bedroom. Well, the correct behavior is for M’Liss or me to go find Donovan and say, “Donovan, your dish is sitting there in the living room and that’s not where you leave it. When you are finished eating, you bring your dish to the kitchen and put it in the dishwasher.” Then there is a moment of confrontation with Donovan which is emotionally taxing””in a very small way. He will roll his eyes, object and say he’ll do it later.

Now you’re getting a little angry because he’s trying to blow you off, and that’s not a very pleasant experience. It’s not an issue about getting the dish in the dishwasher, but we are not in the mood for this type of dispute. And if we are the sort of parent, educator or coach who doesn’t have the strength to constantly have these battles, we pick up the dish and put it in the dishwasher. Okay, now the dish is in the dishwasher, but Donovan has a lower standard of expectation.

This is what happens in the typical practice and this is what happens with many coaches I observe. They are unwilling to confront players who are not exerting maximum effort because it’s a stressful, uncomfortable situation. They end up having a practice that is easy to run and fun to coach. And there are certainly no confrontations.

Some of the young, inexperienced coaches at our soccer camp will have these happy-go-lucky practices where all the kids in their session are just having fun. Standards aren’t being set because this young coach doesn’t yet have the security to confront lower standards. So, one of the challenges I face when I gather my camp coaches every night is to get them to follow a demanding curriculum. They don’t want that conflict. They want a stress-free, fun, recreational session.

That doesn’t mean a recreation session doesn’t have its place in a soccer camp. It does, of course, and I tell that to the staff. But great coaches are not afraid to tackle emotional situations in order to get players to accept a higher standard. And those are the people to whom you pay big bucks. It’s interesting that the inexperienced coach does not see yet that the experienced coach is doing a better job. They think, “Clearly my session went so much better than his.” But they don’t realize that the goal of their session was recreation while the other coach helped the players understand and experience higher performance.

This is just like what happens in modern America, where both parents go off to work and come back exhausted. Rather than having high standards, we go the route of grabbing the dish, throwing it in the dishwasher and ignoring Donovan. And Donovan grows up being the self-indulgent, spoiled individual that has never had to do anything for himself because his parents have done things for him all his life. His parents have always told him he’s a great kid and he thinks he’s a great kid. But he also thinks his parents are weak and insincere because they praise him for whatever he does.

The lower level coach also eventually loses the respect of his team””by not being demanding enough, not insisting on higher standards and not making the stressful, passionate investment that risks a loss of popularity. They win the popularity contest but sacrifice respect, and the overall result is that the standards are lowered. Before you know it, you have a team of low achievers”¦

That doesn’t mean you should never encourage someone who has made a good effort, but you’ve got to balance it. And this ability to know when and how to confront a player or a team and when to back off and show unconditional support is that unique juggling act that leadership requires.

All of us can survive one or two moments of conflict, but it is the constant battle against mediocrity that’s stressful in coaching. Maybe that’s why we all have a tendency to gravitate toward the easier level.

You can’t be forever sensitive to their moods. Trust me, the standards most players set for themselves will usually be in a comfort zone that is far below their potential. But the successful coaches insist on higher standards, greater expectations.

Excerpted from Training Soccer Champions, © 1996 by JTC Sports. All rights reserved. Used by permission.