Poor Expectations set Poor Performance Standards


Notre Dame: College Football’s Intelligent ‘C’ Students

by Noah Gentner, PhD, CC-AASP

As a college professor I have come across many types of students over the years.  There are the Type A perfectionists, the blue-collar hard workers, the disengaged text messengers, and the inquisitive knowledge seekers among others.  Students come in all shapes and sizes.  Unfortunately, one of the all-too-common types is the intelligent ‘C’ student.  These are the students who have the ability, with some hard work, to earn an ‘A’ or ‘B’ in a course but seem to settle for a ‘C’.  (Before I go further I want to point out that, in some cases, there is nothing wrong with a ‘C’…I wanted to throw a party after I got a ‘C’ in Physics.  The problem is when people settle for a ‘C’ when they could have done better).  We have all come across an intelligent ‘C’ student or its first-cousin, the average employee with great potential, at some point in our lives.  Look around your office, I guarantee there is someone who you look at and say, “S/he has so much potential but seems content to just get by.”  As a teacher, boss, or co-worker these people can be very frustrating.  They seem to float through life, never fully invest themselves in their classes (or work), and appear unable or unwilling to tap into their full potential.  They simply settle for being average.  Sometimes this is a conscious decision; in other cases people don’t realize they aren’t fulfilling their potential.  If you find yourself frustrated by such people imagine how Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco, Notre Dame’s head coach and defensive coordinator, feel about being surrounded by them.

I am a lifelong ND fan…and lately it’s been a long and hard life…and I stand firm in my belief that, while they have nowhere near the talent of Alabama or Ohio St., they certainly have enough to be better than average.  I mean seriously, is the occasional ‘B’ or ‘B+’ performance too much to ask?

College Football is littered with teams who have equal or lesser defensive talent than Notre Dame but somehow find a way to stop decent offenses.  Stanford’s defense is ranked 12th in the country yet nobody can convince me that their defensive talent is that superior to Notre Dame’s.  The final score was Standford 37 – Notre Dame 14.  In my opinion, Notre Dame’s biggest, problem was having a defense full of intelligent ‘C’ students.

For a Sport Psychology Blog – Why is that a bigger issue than a lack of talent?

To answer that, let’s delve into the power of expectations.  What we expect from ourselves can have a major impact on what we accomplish.  With few exceptions successful people across all sports and jobs are those who have the highest expectations of themselves.  Michael Jordan expected to be the best player on the court every night.  Oprah expects to be the best TV host/personality every day.  The Yankees expect to be the best team in baseball every year.  Quite simply, they won’t accept anything less and thus, more often than not, they live up to those expectations.

How does this work?  Actually it’s quite simple.  Our expectations influence our preparation, motivation, and perseverance which, in turn, impact our performance.  For example, because Jordan expected to be the best he prepared more intensely than anyone.  He knew that in order to be the best he had to prepare like the best.  His expectations also influenced his motivation.  He was famous for saying that before every game he would remind himself that there was at least one person in the crowd that night who had never seen him play in person and it was his job to perform for them.  Because of that, he never took a game off or simply went through the motions.  Finally, because of his expectations he never gave up even when things were tough.  No deficit was too big; he never gave up or accepted failure.  If you look at other successful people you will see similarities in how their expectations impact their performance.

For the intelligent ‘C’ students the exact opposite is true.  Their expectations still influence their preparation, motivation, and perseverance but in a negative way.  Since they expect to earn a ‘C’ that’s exactly how they prepare.  They often miss class and when they are there they daydream, text, or doodle.  They study for exams, usually in front of the TV or computer, and only spend enough time to get their ‘C’.  Since they only expect to get a ‘C’ they are content to bypass the difficult material because they don’t “need” to know it.  They put off papers and projects until the last minute and rarely check their work.  When they face a difficult exam question they simply leave it blank rather than taking the time to think about the answer.  In their minds missing a few questions is totally acceptable; they just want a ‘C’.  In the same regard, sloppy work on papers and projects is suitable as long as they get their ‘C’.  If they are fortunate enough to earn an ‘A’ or ‘B’ on an exam they don’t view that as a sign that they should continue that success.  Rather, they see it as an opportunity to relax (“Ok, now I can fail the next one and still be fine.”).  Very simply, they live up to their expectations.  Not because they couldn’t do better, but because they won’t allow themselves to.

Notre Dame’s defense is College Football’s version of this.  Partially because of coaching and largely based on past performances, they simply expect to be average.  Unfortunately, those expectations impact their preparation, motivation, perseverance, and performance.  Now, I’m not saying they don’t practice hard or try, but I think they practice like an average defense.  Mistakes are accepted because they are expected.  Going into games they don’t expect to shut the other team down, they simply hope to keep them under 30 points.  Missed assignments and tackles, long touchdown drives, big plays, and an inability to get off the field on third down (Stanford was 11-16 on third down) are all expected and accepted (or at least overlooked).  That’s what average defenses do.  Even when they play well they seem to view that as the exception to the rule and don’t seem surprised when they eventually give up a big touchdown.  It’s like the students who get an ‘A’ on the first exam, “Great, we stopped them a few times, now it’s totally fine if they score on the next possession.”  Based on their expectations there is little urgency to correct mistakes and, in my opinion, a general malaise surrounding the defense.  They simply want to get their ‘C’ and hope the offense wins the game for them.  I have a pretty good feeling this mentality was created by Charlie Weis who acted more like an offensive coordinator than a head coach during his tenure at ND.  His message to his defense was never, “Shut them down,” but rather, “Just give the offense a chance.”

Adding to the problem is the fact that others within and close to the program seem to be validating the defense’s expectations.  During Saturday’s game against Stanford color commentator, Mike Mayock repeatedly applauded Notre Dame’s defense for their effort.  Really?  Tell me if you think this should be celebrated:  404 total yards, 11-16 on third downs, 7 offensive scoring drives, and one punt forced.  That’s cause for a party?  After the game Brian Kelly said he thought his defense did some good things.  True they had two interceptions, but that’s like saying the Cubs have done some good things this year because they were fourth in the league in doubles.  In the movie Super Size Me if Morgan Spurlock had supplemented his McDonalds diet with an apple every Wednesday no doctor would have said his diet had some good points.  The bottom line is that until Notre Dame’s defense, and their coaches, understand the power of their expectations they are going to continue to earn a ‘C’ grade.

So how can this be fixed?  It starts with the coaches and players making an honest assessment of their abilities.  If they truly believe this is the best the defense can play then it’s probably time for them (and me) to find something else to do on Saturday afternoons.  However, if they truly believe they can be better (again, I’m not asking for an ‘A’ in every game but certainly better than a consistent ‘C’) then they need to start treating themselves like a better defense.  They need to commit themselves to preparing like a top defense and walk into every game with the objective of stopping the other team; not just slowing them down.

Words can be powerful and there is a huge difference between saying, “We know we can’t stop them but we’re going to try to slow them down,” and “We are going to dominate this team and shut them down.”  The second creates a belief and confidence while the first provides an excuse.  High expectations also create a sense of accountability.  Teams with high expectations and a sense of accountability don’t accept missed assignments and tackles; they vow to correct the problem…NOW.  They don’t look for moral victories…they look for results because they expect them.  If one player isn’t getting the job done they find someone else who will.  They expect nothing less than the best from themselves and their teammates.  They don’t settle for a ‘C’ when they know an ‘A’ or ‘B’ is possible.

As simple as it sounds merely changing your expectations can dramatically impact your performance.  As a Notre Dame fan here’s hoping they are tired of getting ‘C’s’ and start to raise their expectations.  Otherwise it’s going to be a long year.

Noah Gentner, Ph.D., CC-AASP is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Sport Psychology graduate program at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA.  He received his Ph.D. in Sport Psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2004.  Gentner served as an Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College.  During his four years at IC he helped coordinate the undergraduate and graduate programs in Sport Psychology.  In 2009 he began his current position at GSU where in addition to coordinating the graduate program he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Sport Psychology and Coaching Education.  He has published his research in several journals and has given presentations on Sport Psychology at worldwide and regional Sport Psychology, Coaching, and Athletic Training Conferences.  Currently he is completing a book on Sport Psychology Consulting techniques.  He is an Association for Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant and since 2000 he has worked with individual athletes, teams, and coaches ranging from youth sport to professional levels.  For further inquiries or information about Dr. Gentner’s services or the graduate program at Georgia Southern he can be reached at [email protected] or 912-478-7900.

3 thoughts on “Poor Expectations set Poor Performance Standards

  • September 27, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    By contrast, Jay Cutler just said, after beating the Green Bay Packers to lead the division at 3-0, that the Bears are winning but they “have to get better.”

  • November 1, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    I agree with what you wrote and think it comes down to accountability. Not only do players have to believe they can perform at a high level, but they must know that their teammates and coaches expect them to perform at that level and, if they fail to do so, they will find themselves on the bench. The Bears have been an interesting study into accountability this year as it seems that the coaches are now willing to bench/cut players not performing up to the expected level – the result has been an improvement in the defense (too bad it doesn’t make the offense any better.

    In any event, I suggest you start rooting for another College team as it doesn’t look like ND is going to change its culture anytime soon.

    • November 2, 2010 at 7:19 am

      Hi Josh,
      Insightful comment – and one that indicates the Chicago coaching staff, especially LS, may finally be feeling the heat….and be willing to do something about it. The litmus test going forward will be whether he’s willing to bench Jay Cutler in favor of anybody who won’t give 4 picks a game away. That kind of performance is disheartening to everyone and completely take the wind out of a strong defensive unit. Whats more, it breeds discontent and fosters the deterioration of team cohesion. Depending on what he’s like personally in the locker room that can happen real fast. ND’s continuing to decline as the losses to 2nd tier teams mount up. Thanks for the vine.


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