Unwrapping Communications: Great Expectations and why they need to be carefully managed
By Jeremy Durrant, Chief UK Media Strategist
“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” For those not familiar with this hope-filled refrain – these are the stirring words of fictional High School American Football coach Eric Taylor who oversees the fluctuating fortunes of the Dillon Panthers in the NBC television drama Friday Night Lights. It is probably one to file under guilty secrets but spread over five seasons, it’s thoroughly worth watching.
Played with gimlet-eyed intensity by Kyle Chandler, Coach Taylor talks about how when clarity of thought meets inner joy then big things can happen. It becomes the mantra of the show and the subject of infinite t-shirts and car stickers. The phrase is first, and most memorably delivered, in the opening episode of the series when Taylor speaks to his young charges about the importance of managing expectations under intense scrutiny. In High School football, it is not just your classmates who are watching, it’s the whole community.
Serving up facts to win a communications advantage
In the real world of sport, management of expectation is everything in environments where pressure can be crushing, and success is judged through the binary lens of winners and losers. Allowing a misaligned narrative of expectation to emerge around a team or individual without challenge, context or information can be highly detrimental before, during and after competition.
Take Tennis player Emma Raducanu who has more expectation than most to handle after a sensational start to what is still a fledgling career. Her exit from Wimbledon last week inevitably led to increased and continued comment about her ability to cope with fame.
However, rather than lob back a couple of well-trained responses following her second-round defeat, she took a more direct approach to reset the narrative. She reminded her questioners that far from being cowed by pressure and expectation, she was only 19 years-old and had already fulfilled what so many never get near – namely already having a major championship under her belt. Adding that the questions were a joke, her out of character terseness delivered a well-directed reminder that the facts can be a very effective return.
Women’s sport more broadly is currently at a peak of interest never seen before and potentially never even imagined even just a few years ago. With that higher profile comes the additional analysis and for two England representative teams, managing expectations will be particularly important this year. But management does not always mean automatically down-playing.
Managing expectations while keeping the goal in sight
This week England’s Women’s football team began their tilt for the UEFA Euros tournament with a 1-0 win over Austria. The competition is long awaited, and the Lionesses as hosts will rightly enter it among the favourites to win. However, listen to the team’s boss Sarina Wiegman and you will be left in no doubt she is not just a great coach but a great manager of expectations.
A recent TV interview with Wegman showed no attempt to deflect attention or shy away from the ultimate prize. It helps that she knows what it takes, having led her native Holland to victory in the 2017 tournament. However, she calmly talked of a meticulous preparation which breeds confidence and creates a high-performing culture where mistakes can be made but pressure is embraced and channelled according to the needs of the individual.
To hear her speak, there is a clear plan, and the players are being given every opportunity to execute it. Whether they win the tournament or not is to be seen but entering the competition you cannot help but believe they are confident and in the right frame of mind to deliver their best performances. And they are not afraid to talk about it.
A similar communications challenge confronts Simon Middleton, the coach of the England Women’s Rugby team who head to New Zealand later this year for the World Cup. They were utterly dominant in their recent Six Nations Championship win and are ranked number one in the world, off the back of a long unbeaten run which includes victories over the hosts. His role may be to avoid any perceptions of complacency and convince audiences of the scale of the challenge of winning a global trophy on the other side of the world.
So just like a listed company updating financial markets on performance and future outlook, today’s professional athletes and coaches require both a narrative and strategy – as well as careful communication – when it comes to managing expectations. Get it wrong and they could find themselves issuing their own performance warning.