Goals versus Expectations

By Hunter Swanson | Monday, May 14, 2018

In athletics, there is a fine line between setting goals for one’s performance versus holding oneself to strict expectations. When appropriate goals are set, it helps track progress and provides feedback about what areas of one’s game needs to be strengthened. However, setting strict expectations does not allow for areas to be weak. Often times performance is labeled as either “good” or “bad”, and this even carries over to labeling oneself as a whole.

Strict expectations are the “have to’s,” “must’s,” and “should’s” in an athlete’s mind. This type of thought process creates an exceptional amount of pressure placed not only on the performance but on the athlete’s self. Far too often athletes base self-worth on their performance outcome. Here lies the danger of strict expectations: you are not defined by how you perform in your sport.

Imagine a sophomore basketball player steps up to free throw line during the last 30 seconds of a game. She believes she has to make that shot in order to play in college. Instantly, her chances of sinking that shot are lowered. Her body is going to be tense and her mind is focused on the future consequences of that basket, rather than being in the moment and preparing for the shot. Kobe Bryant, NBA star, recently said in an article for The New York Times, “Whether you make the shot or miss it is inconsequential…I love the process. The results come later.” Accepting the process for what it is allows athletes to let go of strict expectations and focus on what needs to be done in the moment.

Athletes should not strive for less but rather be realistic in their expectations. Sports are all about the highs and lows. If outcomes were guaranteed, why would we play? Athletes must understand that struggle is part of the process. Many athletes who do not accept this process cringe at the very mention of goal setting. They fear that doing so will mean there is potential to feel like or be labeled as a failure. When one feels constantly bad at something it leads to easily giving up, procrastinating, and losing love for the game.

Many times, athletes and even parents and coaches are unaware of the strict expectations they have set. It is important to review one’s expectations and ask yourself, is this pushing me to be a better player or holding me back from being the best I can be?

Here are a few tips to keep your expectations in check:


  1. Focus on the PRESENT → If you find yourself getting caught up thinking about the outcome out your performance, gently bring yourself back to the present and ask yourself “What can I do right now to help me reach my goal.”
  2. Accept that failure is part of the process → When you look at the most influential people, they are constantly talking about their failures. Why? Because it was a part of their story that helped them get where they wanted to be. Success is an added bonus for athletes who enjoy the simple process of getting better every day.
  3. Set small manageable goals → It’s great to have big dreams and aspirations. Keep those in mind, but remember to ask yourself how you can go into each practice and grow as a player. Setting daily, weekly, or monthly goals allows us to track our progress towards the bigger dreams.


  1. Make your expectations clear→ When players understand what is expected of them, it allows for their intensity to be more focused and deliberate.
  2. Promote a healthy learning environment→ Remind players that failure is part of growth and can be used to ignite motivation and intensity instead of fear or anxiety.
  3. Communicate→ Check-in with players and help direct manageable expectations regularly.


  1. Be conscious of your words→ Often times parents will push their athletes as they see great potential, however, this is often perceived by the athlete as pressure to be at a higher level than they are currently at.
  2. Don’t hold your child to your personal expectations→ Be aware of the expectations you’re placing on your athlete. Are they what you wish you had accomplished or what your athlete wants to accomplish?
  3. Process NOT result-oriented → Recognize and support your athlete for the things they did well, not just for a win.

For more information regarding burnout and how to prevent it, please contact Kat Swanson or Devin Markle at mindset@sportsacademy.