Leadership in Athletics: Expectancy Theory

Coaches are always looking for ways to get the best performance or championship effort out of their athletes. There are hundreds of tactics and tricks to influence athletes into putting forth determination. A well-known motivation theory can improve performance and help motivate athletes to give that championship effort on a consistent basis.

The expectancy theory of motivation  was first proposed by Victor Vroom of the Yale School of Management. There are three key parts:

  • Expectancy - The EFFORT has to lead to good RESULTS
  • Instrumentality - The RESULTS must lead to a REWARD
  • Valence - The REWARD must be VALUED

This model provides some great insights for coaches.

For expectancy, it is critical to understand how you want to train players to give great effort. The coach must know when and where they want that effort to be given, how it will be measured and the results that will validate a championship effort. Coaches can tie this to self-efficacy or the athletes own belief in their abilities. If an athlete believes they will win, they will put more effort toward preparing to win. If an athlete feels like they have no chance at winning, then a coach has to make them believe they are the underdog, have a chip on their shoulder, they are competing to be the best athlete that they can be or they give great effort for their teammate. “A true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” Expectancy can also be applied during the off-season and grueling pre-season workouts. Coaches need to constantly remind their athletes that the effort they put forth on a daily basis in the off-season shows up in the win column during the season.

For instrumentality, coaches apply this by focusing on big goals like conference or league championships. This sense of optimism and hope is important. Athletes need to know that their effort will produce results and the results will show up as wins — and those wins will lead to conference championships. This helps athletes understand the importance of drills and workouts. This also helps the team align with a common sense of purpose. However, this principle is not something that should be only used for accomplishing big team goals.  Instrumentality should be utilized and trained all year. All athletes have different genetic potential, yet they all can give great effort. It is critical that, throughout the year, championship-level effort is given and rewarded in front of their peers and coaches. The key is knowing how you will objectively reward effort. The more the coach can promote, test and validate that the effort all athletes give will help accomplish the mission at the end of the season, the greater chance all athletes are enhanced instead of a select few.

For valence, coaches need to remind athletes how great it is to win. Participation trophies have their place, but there are few things better than being handed a trophy you earned. A third-place trophy that was hard earned is far better than the generic participation trophy given to everyone. Coaches should help athletes envision themselves holding up that trophy, making a personal record, seeing their name in the newspaper or, best of all, the joy their teammates will feel by them putting forth their best effort and winning the competition. Valence is something that should be done during every workout, every practice and every test (school, off-season, in-season). Athletes and others alike need to know how to win and what winning feels like. Valence is not something that you train during the season and tell your athletes, “It feels good to win.” What if you are 1-9? That win stinks because it is no one’s goal to be 1-9. The goal is to win the championship, league, state and beyond. The goal is to win the sale, win the quarter and have the least amount of failures or setbacks on the assembly line. Winning is awesome and failure is not. It is the coach’s responsibility to make sure the effort and the reward are validated all year. Everyone needs to be trained how to win and that their effort is a direct correlation to their success.

Keeping athletes motivated through all seasons can be difficult. That is why coaches need to apply the principles of the expectancy theory. Consistently reminding, training and reinforcing that their athletes’ effort will lead to good results, and those good results will lead to rewards can help coaches keep their athletes focused and motivated.

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