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How to Overcome Your Expectations

An expectation is a belief that an outcome should or must happen. In a sports context, high expectations often become judgments and/or demands that an athlete places on their performance.

Athletes who struggle with high expectations have beliefs such as “I can’t make any mistakes in this game.” Or “I must score x number of goals today.” However, setting these high expectations can make success more challenging, because they create additional pressure and destroy confidence.

Where do expectations come from?

A common source of high expectations in sport is the personality trait of perfectionism. It’s important to note that perfectionism can be both helpful and hurtful to athlete development and performance. High standards for oneself can motivate an athlete to train hard and adapt to adversity. Perfectionists who strive towards reaching their high standards experience satisfaction and enhanced self-esteem while pursuing and achieving their goals.

Perfectionist beliefs negatively affect athletes when the standards they set for themselves become unrealistic. When this occurs, athletes fear making mistakes and how they are judged by others, for instance coaches, teammates and parents. When this happens, an athlete will often feel like they’ve failed, because their unreasonably high standards are so rarely achieved.

While perfectionism is an individual trait, how others interact with athletes can create and reinforce unhealthy perfectionist beliefs. Youth athletes are especially susceptible to adopting the expectations they believe others have of them, such as their coaches and parents. This can happen unintentionally when a coach or parent tries to build the confidence of an athlete by telling them the result they believe they are capable of achieving. For instance, a coach may say to a young golfer “go out and shoot under par today.” This may be intended to motivate and instill confidence in an athlete, but it often feels like an expectation is being imposed on them.

How do expectations impact athlete development and performance?

As mentioned, when an athlete enters a competition with high expectations for themselves, it creates a fear of failure and not meeting those expectations. This will usually lead to increased levels of performance anxiety before the game starts.

When a mistake is made during the game, the athlete will interpret this as a sign that their expectations are not being met, which triggers negative emotions/thoughts such as anger, frustration, and self-criticism. These can persist and make it more challenging to perform the rest of the game.

Our strongest source of self-belief is experiencing success at a given task. Since athletes with unreasonably high expectations so rarely have performances that meet their expectations, they struggle with developing confidence. This is illustrated in this graph, where the red lines indicate expectations v.s. actual performance. When performance is consistently below expectations over a series of games a “confidence gap” develops. When this gap is experienced game after game, it can lead to not only low confidence, but also decreased motivation to train and less enjoyment of sport.

Steps to Overcoming Your Expectations

The good news is that shifting how an athlete relates to their own expectations is entirely within their control. What is required is awareness of their beliefs and an understanding of what to focus on instead.

Here are few tips for better managing expectations:

  1. Recognize if your expectations are unreasonable. If you’re judging each performance based on the best performance you’ve ever had, this is unreasonable. For instance, expecting a shutout as a goalie in every game is an unfair expectation. This is setting yourself up to be disappointed. No one is capable of perfection. Even the best athletes in the world make mistakes.

  2. Instead of expectations, focus on process goals. Expectations are related to outcomes, such as wins/losses, statistics, rankings. The issue with focusing on these outcomes is that they are not entirely within one’s control. Instead of focusing on outcomes, create small, specific goals based on the things you want to do during your performance. These are known as process goals. As a golfer, process goals would be going through your pre-shot routine before every shot, visualizing your swing and each shot before you hit it, and staying present instead of thinking about your score. The key part of this is that you have full control over each of these steps and if you execute each one, success will be more likely to occur.

  3. Change unhealthy self-talk. An athlete who struggles with high expectations can often be heard saying “should/shouldn’t”, “have to”, “must”, and “can’t”. Each of these words indicate judgment and demands placed on yourself. We play sports because they are fun and exciting, so change this language to reflect gratitude and enjoyment. For instance: “want to”, “get to”, “can’t wait to”, etc.

  4. Understand where your expectations are coming from. Are your expectations coming from parents, coaches, or teammates? Are you potentially making assumptions about what you believe your coaches or parents expect of you as an athlete? It can be helpful to either talk to them about it or consider if there are other ways you can interpret what they are saying.

  5. Remind yourself that the best lessons in sport (and life) come from making mistakes. While mistakes are painful, you can choose to focus on the lesson learned instead of being self-critical. This can help you be more accepting of yourself, develop confidence, and fully embrace and enjoy the journey of striving towards your potential.

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