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Expectations vs. Goals for Athletes:

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

At Athlete IQ, we do a lot of work with our athletes on goal setting. We educate our athletes on goal setting theory, but we also educate on having expectations. Having expectations in particular contexts is healthy. But knowing the difference can be of huge benefit to the athletes and coaching staff moving forward.

You see, before going into a competitive season with a set realistic goals adds both internal and external motivation. It simplifies and narrows direction and purpose for an athlete or a team.

However, heading into a competitive season with unrealistic goals, excessively high expectations just adds pressure, amplifies anxiety and piles on distractions for an athlete.

If you also throw adversity and set of unforeseen challenges into the equation, things change drastically and can snowball into something that can’t really be dealt with unless certain professionals are sound at crisis management.

It is so important for an athlete to have goals. So, let’s observe exactly what goals are and how adversity affects the athlete psychologically.

Firstly - A goal is a well-defined, measurable, attainable objective. The point is that it is very clear, one can measure it and at that point in time, the belief is there to attain it.

Goal-setting theory refers to the effects of setting goals on subsequent performance – this was developed by Researcher Edwin Locke who found that individuals who set specific, yet difficult goals performed better than those who set general, easy goals. Locke offered five basic principles of goal setting: clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback, and task complexity.

Locke who is the brainchild in researching Goal Setting Theory, suggests that goals have to be adjustable. Thus, if you or your team reach your goal prior to the end of the season, you can simply set a new objective to work towards with the same guiding principles.

Similarly, if an unavoidable circumstance strikes, e.g. an injury, it’s important for the athlete to adjust their goals accordingly… things like, time or extensions in progress measurements may want to be implemented.

Athletes need to be well versed in Goal setting theory as it is a widely used and evidence-based approach to assist people in their own journey.

Whilst goals do not need to be ridiculous, far-reaching or extravagant, the goals do need to be set realistically at an attainable level while still being challenging.

Setting goals within a timeframe and or skill ability progressions are the best goals to set because they can be measured, and their improvement or gradual complexity develops more motivation.

Athletes must have awareness of their level and progress. Being honest with themselves will result in better and more accurate goals. Once goals are set, a successful athlete creates a plan to reach those goals in a timely manner.

The athletes know that they can only be met through commitment, resilience and a plan. Know that one of the most effective ways to stay motivated is to set goals for yourself. However, the type and quality of goals you set affects how well they will work.

Expectations on the other hand are rigid. Expectations are usually written in statements such as, “I have to…,” “I must…” and “I need to…”

When it comes to expectations, there is no flexibility. No matter the circumstance, the expectation remains the same.

Expectations generate tension, anxiety and added pressure of which some athletes have not developing coping mechanisms or have the education or mental skill set to handle pressure and perform with anxiety.

Coaches must know that expectations wreak havoc with some athletes. These are the very things that interfere with performance. Expectations cause athletes to feel that they constantly fall short or constantly have to exceed standards.

When an athlete with unrealistic expectations experiences adversity, they become devastated and feel like a failure. This is the worst thing to happen for an athlete as confidence and trust can disappear in this space.

It is healthy for every athlete to experience small levels of expectations and it is healthy for an athlete to experience some degree of adversity. It does make athletes mentally stronger. But goals setting rather than expectation setting as far as the research suggests is a better way to achieve common goals.

It comes down to control. Humans biologically want certainty and also uncertainty. They want routine yet variety. Thus, with athletes with realistic goals being set, they feel they still have some degree of control and can alter their objectives in a way that keeps them working towards something positive. It has to be positive and constructive. It’s the same with coaches against executive management.

The research is in. Athletes and coaches working towards a well-defined, measurable, attainable, adjustable objective helps athletes and coaches stay motivated, confident and positive through a wide range of circumstances that inevitably pop up. None more so than injuries. Injuries are common problems for clubs and individual athletes.

High expectations and injury derailed Philadelphia Sixers’ small forward Zhaire Smith in his 2018-19 rookie season. There are countless other examples, but this paints a great narrative in what sound goal setting theory can do to the psyche of an athlete.

Selected with the sixteenth overall pick by the Phoenix Suns, in the 2018 NBA draft, Smith then immediately was traded to the Sixers. The Sixers had high hopes that he would be able to contribute to a playoff run.

Of course, the media and the franchise had high expectations. But so, did Smith on himself. As he and others had high expectations on himself for his first year in the NBA – the added pressure caused him to play tight and hesitant in that pre-season. He had to live up to the expectation that was set up on him externally. Smith was further derailed by a fracture in his foot and an allergic reaction.

These external, unforeseen challenges compiled on to him psychologically and his performance and mindset subsequently suffered.

Smith played in only eight games during that year.

Being a professional athlete, you sign up for adversity, challenges and expectation. That’s the reality of the industry. However, Smith made some simple changes, but one major intervention changed his perspective for the upcoming year and simply focused on doing the little things to help the team and the things he could control.

SMITH: “I’m coming in, 16th pick, first-rounder. I’m coming in like, ‘I’m going to drop 30.’ But this year, I’m like, ‘Let’s just have fun and have the game come to me, do the little things and help the team win.’”

Most athletes have what at Athlete IQ we call a one-dimensional mindset.

Thus, with each of our athletes - It is important, prior to each season, to sit down and write your goals for the season, they typically do this with their team, coach as well.

We make sure those goals are realistic and attainable by the end of the season.

We educate to our athletes that life is fluid and so should be your goals and expectations. Understand that your own goals are fluid and unique to you – not anyone else.

That means your goals are not etched in stone and can be adjusted, if necessary. It doesn’t make you a failure, nor does it make you a bad athlete or teammate. It makes you human.

The inner game is all about achieving confidence and then maintaining confidence. The latter being the hardest.

Therefore, with sound goal setting, you can maintain high confidence, stay focused and sustain your motivation throughout the season and importantly find creative and novel ways to keep you motivated and disciplined as your career unfolds.

The KEY takeaway.

Focus on your Goals AND YOUR INTENTIONS, Not others’ expectations of you.

The first step is to challenge what you want to accomplish during the upcoming season or up-coming training block:

And be honest with yourself and your team.

Ask yourself, “Realistically, can I accomplish THIS within the time constraints of this season?”

At ATHLETE IQ we encourage you to consult with our team to assist you with goal setting and managing expectations. In reality, an athlete needs to remove all expectations and focus solely on working as hard as possible to reach their goals. Know that continuously writing down specific, attainable, measurable goals for the season, or training block and creating a plan of action is a great first step.

As stated, – If unforeseen challenges and adversity strikes, re-evaluate and re-assess with your coaches and adjust your goals if necessary. But keep moving forward and keep the language positive.

Lastly, start to identify the expectations that lead to you feeling negative. Identify the specific expectations that build pressure and frustration and commit to parking your expectations in the locker room and for others. In its place, focus on what you can control, what you need to do daily and consistently to get better with small manageable steps.

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