Do you ever feel like you carry a weight of expectation on your shoulders, but you’re not sure where it came from? As if you’re supposed to achieve something, but you don’t know exactly what or how?
As a mental coach for athletes, I work with players in this situation quite often.
In the sports world, even at the youth level, it is easy to collect expectations from others without realizing it.
Parents expect things. Coaches expect things. Teammates expect things. Scouts, grandparents and teachers expect things. And of course, athletes have standards for themselves, as well.
When an athlete comes to me feeling like they’re being crushed by the weight of expectations, I usually start by asking them this:
“What is the difference between an expectation and a goal?”
First, they look at me like I’d put on clown makeup that morning. When they realize I’m serious, they think on it. Answers vary, but the general consensus is, “well, a goal is what I work toward achieving, and an expectation is what I or others want me to achieve.”
In essence, they are exactly right.
Merriam-Webster defines “Expectation” (ek-ˌspek-ˈtā-shən) as “the act or state of expecting; anticipation.”
It defines “Goal” (gōl), however, as “the end toward which effort is directed; aim.”
To really distinguish the function of expectations from goals, let’s envision a racetrack. Any racetrack works—whether it’s from NASCAR, horse racing or athletics.
Consider where you’re headed on the track. If you know how to drive or have any sense of coordination, you’re probably going more or less straight. You have to cross the finish line to complete the race. That’s your goal.
The side rails, the border, or the lanes in your track, though, are expectations. They help you stay in the race, but you do not drive or run toward them. They aren’t the goal or finish line. Should you hit the railing, you would bounce off them and fall behind in the race. Respecting their presence keeps you on track.
The point is that an expectation can either make the journey to the goal more difficult, or it can help guide us to the finish.
But how do we deal when expectations are dysfunctional or goals are non-existent?
Start by identifying the expectations.
Putting names to things changes their role in our lives. Athletes often struggle under the weight of expectations without even knowing what the expectation is and where it comes from.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What expectations do you feel are placed on you?
- Which expectations come from others, be it a coach, a parent or someone else?
- And which expectations come from yourself?
If you are not sure where to start, ask around. And once you have identified what you expect from yourself and what others expect of you, write them down somehow.
Seriously, do it. Writing down these expectations is important.
This simple act of identifying and putting expectations into words can be a powerful, purifying act that helps you regain a sense of control and confidence.
It’s important to filter these expectations.
Just as with any good coffee blend, we need to filter the rawness of the expectations and refine them until we find what truly matters.
Ask yourself the following questions and write down your answers:
- Do the expectations you wrote down matter to you?
- If they were your goals, would you want to achieve them?
- Are the expectations realistic and achievable?
Grappling with these questions will help you define your goals.
Create a list of tangible goals.
It is worth noting that, yes, goals need to be realistic. They can be ambitious, but should be within the stretch of imagination. Setting unreasonably high goals can lead to devastating mental and physical stress and frustration. However, while you want your goals to strike the right balance of aspirational and attainable, you shouldn’t feel that they’re written in stone.
Goals can be adjusted; Change your aim as you go!
Once you’ve got these questions answered, though, the answers will be challenged in one form or another.
The high performance world is noisy. There are lots of words and numbers, high emotions and people coming in and out of your life.
Listen to the right people.
It’s easy to slip into a habit of taking advice and criticism from just anyone instead of keeping your circle of influence small.
One good way to help sort through the noise is to consider whose advice you’d actually listen to. If you wouldn’t take advice from them, their criticism probably shouldn’t matter much to you, either. A lot of athletes get tripped up by this, allowing criticism from anyone and everyone to do them harm.
Beyond that, use the following questions as a guide:
- What kinds of feedback or rating systems matter to you? (i.e., verbal feedback or hard statistics)
- From what sources (people or systems) does feedback matter to you?
Once you have determined whose feedback and which rating systems matter to you and why, write those down. You will need to remind yourself of who matters when you start hearing those voices drifting in from the outside.
I personally advise athletes to select no more than five people whose feedback will matter to them. They need to get comfortable with the idea that they aren’t going to always please everybody, because that’s just impossible.
It can be hard to ignore criticism and commentary, but it is important to listen to people who can give constructive feedback and who have your best interest in mind instead of getting lost in the sea of voices.
Now that you have identified the expectations placed upon you, filtered out which ones matter most and decided whose feedback matters, it’s finally time to take ownership and turn expectations into a goal.
Revisit the list of goals you created.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I prepared and willing to commit to this goal?
- By when do I want to achieve it?
- What steps do I need to take to achieve it?
- Who will hold me accountable to working toward this goal?
Write down your answers, preferably in the same place you’re keeping your goals (ideally, whatever they’re written on should be placed somewhere you see on a regular basis, such as your bedroom mirror).
This final step requires that you take on the responsibility for your goal, make a plan of action for achieving it, and include others in your process.
Keep in mind that your big goal, also known as a “long-term” or “outcome” goal, is in the future, but the steps you take to get there happen now; they are “short-term” or “process” goals.
Allowing yourself to feel confident, satisfied and happy with achieving smaller goals along the way are what will motivate you as you invest time and energy in the long-term game!
Now you’re playing on your terms. Instead of feeling powerless among a storm of undefined pressures and expectations, you’ve dictated what you want to do and how you’re going to get there.
You’re in charge now.
You get to run your race or drive your car.
When you take hold of the pressure of expectations by identifying them, filtering them out, setting up feedback systems and creating a process, you take away the power from wild, unknown, scary anticipation.
You take control and responsibility. You know where you’re headed. And you know the people who will help you along the way and finish strong without running into the guard rails.
See you at your finish line!
Photo Credit: Robin Skjoldborg/iStock