The Plateauing Program: 8 Lids That Can Limit Your Program

by Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

Has your program leveled off?

Does it seem like you are stuck at a certain level of success that you just can’t move beyond?

Continuing our in-depth look at the 5 Stages of Program Development, we turn our attention to the Plateauing Program.

A Plateauing Program is one that attains a certain level of success – but just can’t seem to move beyond it. The Plateauing Program seems to hit a ceiling and almost gets stuck at particular success range and can’t seem to progress beyond it.

These are the teams that win roughly half of their games each year and do enough to keep their administrators somewhat content. Or, these are the perennial NCAA bubble teams that are always hoping to get into the tournament but somehow seem to be on the outside looking in. Or these are the programs that may make it to the tournament but can’t seem to progress beyond the initial rounds. Plateauing programs just never seem to get over the hump.

Programs can level off at various points for a variety of subtle and not so subtle reasons. In the end, Plateauing Programs usually end up defeating themselves from within because of limiting mindsets and practices that have taken hold within the program. Let’s take a look at 8 limiting factors that can put a powerful lid on a Plateauing Program and limit its potential.

8 Lids that Limit Your Program and Cause It to Level Off

1. Talent Lid

Obviously, one significant limit that many Plateauing Programs face is a lack of Elite level talent. As many coaches have bluntly lamented after finishing another difficult season, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t.”

To compete with the Big Dawgs and break into the Elite level, you must have a strong level of talent. You can’t expect C and B level athletes to consistently win against A players.

Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams says, “Recruiting means everything.  I know that I am only as good as the players I can put on the court.  In the summer of 2000 I went to visit the legendary UCLA coach John Wooden and he said something that has always stuck with me: “Roy, you can coach talent. Some guys can’t. Nobody can coach no talent, but you can coach talent.” That has driven me ever since to make sure that I have talent to coach.”  Top talent gives you an opportunity to compete with the best, but it doesn’t always guarantee championships.

Do you have the talent necessary to compete at the Elite level?

2. Expectations Lid

While insufficient talent can be a big barrier for many teams, another challenge that Plateauing Programs face are insufficient expectations. For example, I was speaking recently with a coach of a perennial NCAA tournament team and she said one of her leaders asked the team, “How mad and upset would you be we didn’t make the tournament?” The teammates told her they would be extremely upset, absolutely beside themselves, and that would just not be acceptable for the program.

Then she asked the team, “How upset would you be if we didn’t make it to the championship round?” The team responded with, “We would be sad but it wouldn’t be as big of a deal.” It then dawned on them that the reason they probably hadn’t progressed to the championship rounds over the last few years was that it wasn’t as much of a genuine expectation for them.

Your and your team’s low expectation level can put a powerful lid on your program’s potential and cause you to plateau. Where you set your expectations as a coaching staff and team has a big impact on your ultimate success.

Do you and your athletes truly expect to compete for and win championships?

3. Confidence Lid

Some teams plateau because of a lack of confidence. They may perform well against teams they are supposed to beat and even ones that are perceived to be at their same level. But when it comes to playing higher ranked teams, they mentally don’t think they can match up and perform below their potential. They just don’t see themselves as a highly successful team capable of beating other top teams. Confidence is such a huge part of sports so your team will absolutely need it to breakthrough to the Elite levels.

Does your team have the confidence necessary to go toe to toe with the Elite Programs?

4. Commitment Lid

In addition to insufficient talent, low expectations, and a lack of confidence, another reason why many teams get stuck in the Plateauing stage is that they don’t have the commitment and drive necessary to win at a higher level.

To reference my Commitment Continuum, you are not going to win consistently if you have a team of primarily compliant athletes versus one with committed and compelled athletes. A compliant team might work hard during the season and when a coach is watching – but offseason training is basically nonexistent, working out in the weight room is seen as a sacrifice and not an investment, few come to open gym, the athletes are in decent but not dominating shape, and not many come early or stay late after practice for extra work. The team basically gets what it invests: nothing much above the ordinary.

Have you and your athletes invested the quantity and quality of work necessary to be an Elite Program?

5. Competitiveness Lid

How badly does your team want to win? Sometimes a team doesn’t advance to an Elite level simply because it just doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to their opponent. They don’t prepare and compete with the high level of intelligence and intensity necessary to win at the Elite levels. As an example, in our Develop Relentless Competitors Drillbook, I share the following story from the book High Hopes:

“There was a high school team that practiced near a small lake. Across the lake lived Coach Jones, the winningest coach in the history of the state, and he was retired.

Every day this high school team would come out and practice and practice hard, as hard as they could practice. But no matter how hard they practiced, they couldn’t win. Every day, the retired coach would sit in his lawn chair and watch them.

One day the quarterback of the team decided he was going to go talk to Coach Jones and ask him what he sees, why they can’t win. So the quarterback went around the lake and said, ’Coach, I know you watch us practice every day. I know you know how hard we practice. I know you know how to win. Is there anything you can tell us that will help us win?’

Coach Jones put his arm around the player and walked him near the edge of the lake. Suddenly, he grabbed the quarterback, thrust his head into the water, and held him down under the water…

So the kid is about to drown, and Coach Jones pulls him up and says, ‘When you want to win as much as you wanted that next breath, then that’s when you’ll win.’

How badly does your team want it? Are you and your athletes willing to compete for championships as if it was as important as their next breath?

6. Comfort Zone Lid

Einstein is often credited with the quote: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Similarly, Tony Robbins has said, “If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten.” Some programs plateau because they don’t look to innovate and get locked into a comfort zone of making the same program-limiting mistakes over and over gain. They are unwilling to take a hard and honest look at themselves and what they are doing to contribute to the Plateauing.

Others eventually realize something is amiss but they aren’t willing to innovate, improve, or change. It’s too scary or uncomfortable for them. Year after year they intentionally or unwittingly keep doing the same things over and over again, yet get frustrated that they can’t break through to the next level. They get locked into a comfort zone, which only perpetuates the cycle of mediocrity and disappointment.

Are you and your athletes willing to make some significant and necessary changes (and even transformations) that could make a major difference in your program?

7. Leadership Lid – Coaches

In his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, author John Maxwell writes: “Leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s level of effectiveness. The lower an individual’s ability to lead, the lower the lid on his potential. The higher the leadership, the greater the effectiveness. Your leadership ability – for better or for worse – always determines your effectiveness and the potential impact of your organization.”

Unfortunately, sometimes a particular coach can only take a program so far. Sometimes they just max out on their technical, organizational, and/or leadership skills necessary to take the team any higher.

In the business world, this concept of “maxing out” of a manager’s leadership skills is often referred to as the Peter Principle, which states that people are promoted to higher levels until they eventually reach their career ceiling and incompetence level. They, in effect, max out their skills and eventually become incompetent in their current position. For example, a really good assistant coach gets promoted and just isn't cut out for the head coaching role. A championship-winning college coach struggles to win games at the professional level.

We all know of coaches who have advanced to higher levels in the coaching profession until they got in over their heads. They then figuratively drown in these deeper and more turbulent waters or become shark bait and are replaced. Others are allowed by administrators or owners to keep treading water while their program’s ship is adrift, or worse yet, sinking. Sometimes coaches just plain max out and don't currently have the skills to take their programs any further.

Do you as a coach need to improve your leadership to have the ability to take your program to a higher level?

8. Leadership Lid – Captains

Sometimes the coaches are stellar leaders but they struggle to get the same kind of effective leadership from their captains. They either have weak captains who don’t embody and enforce the team’s standards, or worse, the captains are actually leading the team, but in the wrong direction. As a coach, you are only around your team so much. The people who often have the biggest around the clock influence on your team are your team leaders. So you need to ensure that they are both positive and effective.

As North Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams says, “Leadership is extremely important. I tell every team that it's the leaders' team. If they do a good job leading, then we're going to have a great year. Regardless of how much I give them, I cannot be in that locker room after practice, before practice, after games, before games. They're going to spend more time with their teammates than they are with me, so the teammates have to take care of each other.”

Without effective team leaders who are positively influencing your team on a 24/7 basis, especially when you are not around, you will struggle to develop the kind of championship culture necessary to succeed at the Elite level.

Do your leaders effectively embody, embrace, and enforce your team's culture and standards?

Other Perceived Limitations and Lids

Sure, there are several other potential limiting factors that coaches like to refer to as the reason for their program’s plateau. Instead of looking inward and focusing on the things they can control, many coaches like to blame their poor facilities, inadequate budgets, a less than ideal location, etc. for their Plateauing Programs. While these certainly can be challenges, there are numerous examples of coaches who have won big with poor facilities (John Wooden), comparatively inadequate budgets (Butler men’s basketball), and cold weather locations (Michigan Softball).

If you are a Plateuaing Program, invest the time to take an honest look at your program and determine which of the eight previously mentioned lids seem to be limiting you and your program. Take it a step further and rank order which of the eight lids might be most responsible for your current program’s ceiling. Then, read part two of this article called the 12 Steps to Blow the Lid Off Your Plateauing Program So You Can Get to the Elite Level, exclusively available for our Championship Coaches Network members, to develop an effective plan to “Blow the Lid Off” your lids, liabilities, and limits.

In summary, if you are going to go from being a good program to being a great program, you have to be able to create a new level of thinking for yourself, your staff, and your athletes. As Einstein said, "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

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