Great expectations: Expect more, get more!

What we learn from raising the bar in sport performance

One of the more interesting things that I remember from my thirty years as a swimming coach is how the power of high expectation works. How expecting athletes to rise to the challenge of whatever they are training for quietly helps them focus their efforts on exactly where they should be and what they should be doing.

I witnessed high expectations in action while working with my sport association in hosting the annual swimming championship. The competition was an age group meet and there were qualifying times for each event that swimmers had to meet before they could enter. But over the years the number of athletes attending the meet grew to the point where the meet became almost unmanageable. There were too many athletes and the competition was simply taking too long to complete.

One year we decided that we had to reduce the number of athletes attending. Since it was a championship it wasn't possible to simply cap the numbers, everyone had to have a chance to qualify. Our only option was to lower the qualifying times, thus making it harder to qualify for the meet. Adjusting the qualifying times was really the only tool we had that could do this.

So, we lowered the qualifying time in every event. Athletes would now have to swim faster than they did the year before if they wanted to earn the right to compete in next year's championship. This, we thought, would reduce the number of athletes qualified to enter the competition and the meet would be back to a more manageable number of competitors. Or so we thought.

The following year, when the entries started coming in I noticed something strange. Team entries were bigger, not smaller as we expected. Teams that had only 10 swimmers in the meet last year now had 20. Teams with 80 swimmers the previous year now entered 110. We ended up with a meet that was even bigger than previous years. But the athletes in the meet were swimming faster than ever before. Every coach was talking about how making the times more challenging somehow motivated young athletes to greater heights.

This response to 'raising the bar' reinforces how behaviour of large groups can be influenced through structural frameworks. The qualifying times were part of the swimming championship structure. As coaches we believed that we were simply controlling the size of the championship meet when we made it tougher to qualify but the athletes saw it differently. They saw it as a challenge, one many responded to in exactly the way we hope athletes would. By training harder and swimming faster.

The lesson is that in sport we should always have high expectations because that's the best way to motivate athletes. Expecting anything less than what they're capable of disrespects their efforts and dooms them to mediocre performances. As Steve Prefontaine said, "To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift." Never underestimate the power of expectations.