The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and Coaching Behaviors

After watching a team for several games, one can see the effect of the coach’s behaviors on the team and the individual players. One frequent issue is a coach who lacks confidence in his or her post players. I have watched several coaches like this in the last couple years; regardless of what happened, the coach blames the post player. 

This is what happens:

First, the coach develops a perception about the post player that “predicts the level of performance and type of behavior that athlete will exhibit over the course of the season” (Horn, Lox, & Labrador, The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Theory: When Coaches’ Expectations Become Reality). In this case, the coach perceives the post player not to be as good as the coach would like.

Next, the expectations influence the coach’s treatment of the players (Horn et al.). When the coach has a negative expectation of the player, the coach is quick to blame the player for mistakes or to substitute the player for a perceived mistake. For instance, the opponent gets an offensive rebound, so the coach quickly blames the post player. However, if the coach looked at the cause of the offensive rebound, the mistake can be traced back to a guard who allowed dribble penetration which forced the post player to rotate to stop the penetration, leaving his or her opponent undefended. However, in good team defense, when the post player rotates to stop the ball, a weak side defender should rotate to the undefended offensive post player. Therefore, the offensive rebound could be attributed to the guard who allowed dribble penetration or the weak-side defender who did not “help the helper”. Unfortunately, because the coach has a perception of the post player as being slow or lazy or not good enough, the offensive rebound is attributed to the post player, and the post player is removed from the game.

Eventually, the way that the coach treats the player affects the player’s learning (Horn et al.). In this case, the post player may learn not to help on dribble penetration and simply block out his or her own player. The player may become dejected on the bench and play with less enthusiasm when returned to the game. The player may not practice as hard, as he or she learns that nothing is good enough to please the coach, and all mistakes are blamed on him or her.

Finally, since the player reduces his or her effort or changes her approach, the performance tends to conform to the coach’s initial expectations (Horn et al.). Because the post player does not play as hard or does not rotate to help or does not practice as hard, the post player is not a very good player or is lazy on the court.

Coach’s initial judgements come from many areas. Often, other coaches affect one’s assessment of a player, and that assessment affects the coach’s behaviors. When I took over a women’s professional team in Europe, the former coach took me to lunch and told me about all of the players. In particular, he described my power forward as a troublemaker who was lazy and out of shape, and he described my shooting guard as the best defensive player in the league.

From the beginning, I maintained the same starting line-up as the previous season, except at center where the starter had retired. I did not allow the coach’s comments about the PF to affect my judgement; it was clear to me after one practice that she was the best player on the team. I interacted differently with her than the previous coach, who had a negative perception of the player, and she had career highs in points and rebounds, started in the all-star game, and was a legitimate player of the year candidate. I don’t think that I did much to make her a more skilled player; it was not player development that led to her career highs. It was her fitting perfectly into a system that I prefer, and my empowering her with confidence through my positive belief in her ability, rather than the previous coach’s negative perceptions.

On the shooting guard, however, I did allow his comments to affect me. When the player missed a shot, I ignored the misses. When her player scored, I ignored the baskets. He had flavored my perceptions of this player in a positive direction. When a coach has a positive perception of a player, he ignores mistakes as aberrations or normal mistakes that everyone mistakes. When the player makes a positive play, it confirms the coach’s perception of the player.

After a couple games, I watched our game tapes over and over. I noticed that this player was not our best defensive player, as the coach had said, but probably our worst defender. She tried hard, but she was beaten off the dribble frequently and was often out of position on rotations. Worse, she was shooting 23% from the three-point line as our “best shooter”.

She was a popular player and important for team chemistry, so I did not want to bench her. I also liked our better SG coming off the bench to give us a lift, and I felt it suited her personality better as a rookie. But, I started to reduce the starter’s minutes. I also experimented with two younger players who the former coach had nearly ruined the previous season. They did not set the world on fire, but they shot better than 23% and played better defense.

Finally, it became apparent that it was time not to start her. She came to me to complain. The former coach had gotten in her ear. She was not mad about the new starter, as she was a borderline all-star and our second-leading scorer, but she complained about the younger players who were getting a chance. The veterans disliked these players and did not rate them at all because the former coach never played them (combined 36 minutes the entire previous season) and did not give them opportunities in practice. He decided that they were not good and his perceptions were inflexible. However, the former starter missed a game due to illness even though she knew we were down to eight players, and the younger players played and acquitted themselves well against the best team in the league. Her absence gave me a chance to play the younger players prolonged minutes, and they did well. I explained to the former starter that she was not shooting well, she was not defending well, and the other players had been outperforming her in practice and games. It was nothing personal, but it was time to give other players a chance in games to see if their performance matched their practice performance. In retrospect, I could have handled the situation better, but that story is for another day.

My perceptions were flexible. I gave chances to players who were deemed originally not to be good enough to be in the rotation, and I reduced opportunities for the player who was originally perceived to be our best defender. Typically, however, coaches tend to be inflexible in their judgements. Once they deem a player to be important, they rarely change their perception despite objective and subjective evidence.

I watch a team where the 7th best player on the team starts and plays 38 minutes a game. The coach acknowledges that this player is the only one who the coach trusts. The other guards are better passers, better on-ball defenders, and better shooters. How does the coach’s perceptions affect the coach’s behavior of the player? How do they affect the coach’s behavior toward the other players? How do they affect playing time, feedback, etc.? When this player makes a mistake, the coach ignores it. When another player makes a mistakes, the player is pulled from the game immediately. How does that affect the other players’ confidence when they have one eye looking over their shoulder at the bench after each play? Alternatively, when the player knows that she is going to play 38 minutes a game regardless of mistakes, how much more confident is that player? Every good play confirms the coach’s perceptions of her importance, while every bad play by the others confirms the coach’s lack of trust. You can see the difference in body language between the players, and its affect on performance. For confirmation, the team should have finished first or second in its league (based on talent), but instead finished next to last.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is one of the biggest issues in coaching. I am aware of it and always attempt to avoid inflexible perceptions. I regularly have a coaching associate watch a practice or game simply to assess my behaviors toward the players to make sure that I treat players fairly. Personally, I do not take out players for a mistake. Some coaches do. However, either way, it should be consistent or you are telling your players something. If you take out one player for a mistake, but not the other, the players learn who the coach trusts. The one who gets take out loses confidence, while the one who plays through mistakes gains confidence. The coach’s behaviors affect their development, much like my behaviors affected the PFs development and performance.

Often, these perceptions affect practice coaching too. A coach will spend extra time with a good player or a player perceived to be good or to have potential, but not with a lesser player. All these actions send signals to players. A coach may tell a bad player “Good” after every play, even a mistake, which may tell the player that the coach has a very low opinion of his ability. Meanwhile, the coach gives the good players informative feedback after a mistake because he expects them to perform better.

These actions and behaviors are often subconscious and with no malicious intent. It’s just what a coach does when trying to win games. However, a coach needs to be cognizant of the effect of these behaviors and actions on the players, and work to avoid the inflexible perceptions. No coach is perfect 100% of the time. However, those who are aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy and its effects can avoid becoming a coach who is ruled by his or her initial perceptions.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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One Response to “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and Coaching Behaviors”

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