Shackled Potential: The Consequences of Coach Expectations on Athlete Performance

coaching mental skills training Jul 17, 2023

In the world of sport, coaches play a pivotal role in shaping an athlete's performance and development. However, the expectations and labels that coaches have and apply to their players can have profound consequences. It is not uncommon for coaches to utilize labels with their athletes such as "star player," "underachiever," or "team leader", and these labels are often used to quickly categorize and make sense of the diverse talents and characteristics within a team. Coaches may assign these labels based on observable skills, past performances, or even personal biases. While the intention behind labeling athletes may be to simplify communication and better understand their potential roles, it is crucial to recognize the potential negative impact that such labels and their subsequent expectations can have on the athletes themselves and ultimately, their performance.

This article dives into the detrimental effects of labels and coaches' expectations on athletes and explores the underlying psychological theories so coaches are better equipped to cultivate an environment that unlocks the full potential of their athletes.

The impact of labels

Labels are everywhere and we often use them as mental shortcuts to categorize because they provide a sense of order, simplifies understanding, and helps make sense of the complex world around us. They provide a framework for organizing information, allowing us to form generalizations and subsequently, expectations about individuals based on observable characteristics or behavior. However, it is important to recognize that relying on or using labels can be limiting and lead to stereotypes, biases, and unfair judgments.

The labeling theory in psychology asserts that the labels assigned to individuals significantly influence their self-perception and, consequently, their behavior, emotions, and overall mental health. These labels can be both positive (e.g., "talented") and negative (e.g., "underdog," "choker"). In the context of sport and performance psychology, these labels can play a crucial role in shaping athletes' performances by influencing their self-efficacy, motivation, self-concept, and expectations (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). They also can result in self-fulfilling prophecies, where the expectations created by the label lead to behavior consistent with it. For instance, labeling an athlete as "talented" might lead the athlete to put in more effort and display more perseverance in training and competition, believing they have a natural advantage. Conversely, labeling an athlete as an "underdog" might lead them to underestimate their abilities, which can negatively impact their performance.

Confirmation Bias: Reinforcing Limitations

Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that influences people to seek or interpret information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs. In the context of coaching, confirmation biases can be seen when coaches perceive and interpret information that confirms their initial expectations of an athlete's performance.

When a coach holds positive expectations about an athlete, confirmation bias may lead them to interpret the athlete's performance, behaviors, and potential through a positive lens. The coach may selectively focus on evidence that supports their positive expectations.  This bias can result in the coach providing more attention, encouragement, and opportunities for the athlete, which can enhance the athlete's confidence, motivation, and performance.

On the other hand, when a coach has negative expectations about an athlete, confirmation bias may cause them to interpret the athlete's actions and abilities in a negative light, and result in the coach selectively noticing and emphasizing information that confirms their negative expectations, such as mistakes or underperformance. This bias can lead to reduced attention, opportunities, and support for the athlete, which can then negatively impact their self-confidence, motivation, and performance.

This bias can further the self-fulfilling prophecy, where the coach's expectations influence their behavior towards the athlete, which, in turn, influences the athlete's beliefs and performance in line with those expectations.

The Consequences for Athletes

Several examples of the impact that labels and athlete expectations have been shared, but let's highlight some key points:

  • Self-Perception and Self-Concept: Coaches' expectations can shape athletes' self-perception and self-concept. When athletes consistently face low expectations, research by Wilson, Cushion, and Stephens (2006), suggests that they may internalize these beliefs, leading to reduced self-confidence, self-esteem, and a limited belief in their abilities. This negative self-concept can hinder their willingness to take risks, explore new skills, and reach their full potential.
  • Motivation and Effort: Coaches' expectations directly impact athletes' motivation and effort. Positive expectations foster a sense of self-efficacy and inspire athletes to work diligently towards their goals. In contrast, research by Buning (2016) demonstrates how low expectations can diminish motivation, leading to decreased effort, reduced commitment, and compromised performance. 
  • Performance and Development: Coaches' expectations can either unlock or shackle an athlete's potential. When coaches believe in their athletes' abilities and communicate high expectations, athletes are more likely to perform at their best and achieve exceptional results. Research by Dweck (2006) has also demonstrated that low expectations can demotivate athletes, leading to decreased effort and compromised performance.


Coaches possess significant influence over their athletes' performance and development. The detrimental effects of coaches' expectations, rooted in confirmation bias, the Pygmalion effect, and expectancy theory, should not be overlooked. By understanding and acknowledging these consequences, coaches can take steps to create an environment that fosters the growth and success of their athletes. Through self-awareness, open-mindedness, and intentional communication, coaches can help athletes break free from the shackles of limited expectations and unlock their full potential. By nurturing belief, providing support, and fostering a positive mindset, coaches can empower athletes to soar beyond imagined limitations and achieve greatness in their athletic pursuits.


Are you a coach who is ready to level up your coaching game and take your team to new heights?






Buning, M. M. (2016). The relationship between coach expectations and female softball athletes’ motivation and perception of coach behavior. Women in Sport and Physical Activity, 24, 43-53.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2015). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (6th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Wilson, M. A., Cushion, C. J., Stephens, D. E. (2006). “Put me in coach … I’m better than you think I am!” Coaches’ perceptions of their expectations in youth sport. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 1(2), 149–161. doi:10.1260/174795406777641311

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