Managing Expectations (From Yourself and Others)

“Pressure can burst a pipe, or pressure can make a diamond.”

~Robert Horry


One of the major challenges that athletes face is dealing with pressure. It is pretty much par for the course in a performance-based industry, and some people are definitely better at managing it than others. Some people thrive in pressure situations, while others just want to crawl under a rock and escape it. Something that I think is related to pressure, albeit not necessarily quite so “in the moment,” is managing expectations, both from ourselves and others.

Like pressure, managing expectations can be a great thing, or a very difficult one. In my opinion, every healthy, self-aware person needs to have expectations of themselves. It fosters growth, and is the basis of integrity; there is no point in having a personal value system if you don’t live your life to uphold those values. Athletes need to have certain expectations of themselves too, especially in the spheres that are within one’s control, such as attitude, effort, and communication, if they want to be successful and play at the highest levels.

It is completely normal to deal with expectations from other people as well. At school, teachers expect their students to finish their homework. Some parents expect their kids to clean their rooms. It is a regular part of life. The tricky part of managing expectations as athletes, though, is when they are related to performance. Much like pressure, some people can totally shrug off expectations from coaches or managers or even themselves, while others put too much emphasis on them. In those instances, expectations can become debilitating.

I am no stranger to managing expectations. Being a perfectionist, I expect a lot from myself, and I am extremely hard on myself if I feel like I haven’t lived up to those expectations. This is great in the fact that it has provided me with an endless supply of internal motivation and drive to be better. I wouldn’t be who I am, and I wouldn’t have had the career I do without it. On the other hand, though, I have created this beast that will never ever be satisfied, and for whom nothing will ever be good enough. I have matured a lot, but when I was young, it was very difficult for me to let go of errors, or to move on after a loss. I would beat myself up for things that I didn’t do perfectly, and I would blame myself for everything that went wrong on the court. I would replay every single mistake in my mind, and completely dismiss all of the good things I did. I expected myself to be perfect, and I always expected to win. If that didn’t happen, I was very disappointed in myself.

It is clearly impossible to be perfect, and that is where being a perfectionist becomes very dangerous. I think that the pursuit of perfection is a quality seen in all top athletes, but the realization that it won’t happen, and managing reality with what we expect of ourselves is a very important skill.

My perfectionist tendencies have also made me hyperaware of what I perceive other people’s expectations to be of me. As I progressed to higher and higher levels of the sport, I noticed that I started worrying more and more if my coaches and people paying my salary were happy enough with my performance. These people were making huge investments in me in the form of time, resources, and money, and I found myself being anxious about whether they thought they were getting an adequate return on their investment from me. I would leave practice knowing very well that I worked hard, but wondering if my coach was happy enough. I would go into professional games putting immense pressure on myself to score X number of points so that the bosses would feel that they were getting their money’s worth from me. It is a very stressful way to live.

So how have I trained myself to manage the expectations I have of myself, and those of other people? It all comes down to mindset.

1. The only things I can really worry about are what is under my direct control.

No matter what expectations I have for myself, or what other people expect of me, the only things I have 100% control over are my effort, my attitude, and my communication. If I go into every training session and game and work as hard as I can, I have a positive attitude and work to improve, and I am communicating effectively, that is all I can do. I might make some uncharacteristic errors, or I might have a day where nothing goes right, but as long as I am consciously working on those three things, I can leave the gym in peace, knowing I did my best.

2. I set aside time to reflect on my training session or game.

I think that taking time to self-reflect after practices and games is a very valuable tool. I typically do this with my husband, who often sees things in a much more positive light than I do, but athletes can talk to their coaches, parents, teammates, etc. Talking about what I thought went well, and what I thought I could have done better brings closure to the session, and allows me to move on quicker than I typically would. It is important for me to discuss both positive and negative aspects of a session. Otherwise, I would only focus on the negative things because that’s how I am wired. I acknowledge successes, whether physical or mental, and work to continue that behaviour. I then talk about things I could have improved, learn from what I did wrong, and take it as something to work on next session. As long as I am learning from my mistakes, and make it a priority to improve, I am taking steps forward.

3. No one notices my mistakes as much as I do.

It took me a very long time to believe this, but whenever I start to find myself worrying about living up to other people’s expectations, I remind myself that absolutely no one notices my mistakes as much as I do. For so long, I had created this unrealistic idea of what other people were thinking (usually negative things) about me, but it really only represented what I was thinking about myself. I was so hard on myself that I assumed that everyone else should be too. If you are a perfectionist, believe me when I say that you are the only one noticing 80% of your mistakes.

Once I started telling myself that no one notices or cares about my mistakes as much as me, I felt so much more free. A weight had been lifted off of my shoulders, and I was able to just do me, and focus on the things I needed to in order to help my team.

4. Ask questions.

If I ever get really concerned that I am not doing enough, instead of letting it fester and make me panic, I just ask. I will ask my coach if he thinks there is anything I should be doing differently, or if there is anything that I need to change. That way, instead of worrying that I am not doing enough, I get a direct answer that I am able to take action on.

Again, having expectations of ourselves is not a bad thing. It allows us to get better, and gives us a push to go to the next level. We just don’t ever want to feel paralyzed or anxious about those expectations. By focusing on things that are within our control, and utilizing effective strategies, we can manage those expectations while continuing to hold ourselves to a high standard.

xo, Sarah


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