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How to set reasonable athletic expectations

By Greg Chertok, Director of Mental Training at CourtSense, a high performance junior tennis academy in Bergen County, NJ, as well as private consultant with Telos Sport Psychology in the greater NY area. Greg has a Masters of Education in Counseling/Sport Psychology from Boston University and is a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. He has worked with athletes from the junior to Olympic level.

In the context of sports, if one expects a certain result, the athlete may be underwhelmed in response to it being achieved (“Hey, I expected to run this time, I was supposed to do it, nothing surprising here”) and completely demoralized in response to it not being achieved (“I can’t believe I didn’t do it…I never thought this would happen, what’s wrong with me?”). An athlete with outcome-oriented expectations has no opportunity to enjoy that youthful exuberance that accompanies success – an exuberance, I contend, that’s a prerequisite for maintaining motivation in sport – and may not fully appreciate that success.

But aren’t some expectations helpful? Can’t we expect, for instance, to be properly energized for a race, to adopt a positive and relaxed attitude three minutes before the meet, or to maintain our focus mid-way through the race if passed by an opponent? Well, these factors are personal, process-oriented, and lie within the power of our own control. If we recognize that focusing on such factors are the ingredients to success, and we develop strategies and purposefully set goals to commit to these factors, then yes, we certainly may set expectations. “In tomorrow’s meet, I expect to stay focused on my running rather than on everything else going on and expect to push myself to maximum intensity after the third lap. To ensure this happens, I’ll leave reminders in my gym bag, read my mental notes on the bus ride there, and spend 3 minutes pre-race creating that mental image of what my perfect race feels like.” A concrete plan, a few strategies…why not expect that which you’re planning on working hard to accomplish?
I say above we MAY set expectations because, as is typically the case in sport, it ultimately depends on the athlete. For runner #1 who expects to run with a certain intensity level (“I really should push it hard tomorrow”), doing so may produce unnecessary pre-competition pressure, muscular tension, and an excess of unhelpful mental chatter. For runner #2 who expects to run with a certain intensity level (“I really should push it hard tomorrow”), doing so may act as fuel, increasing motivation and focus levels and pump him up beyond belief. We’re all idiosyncratic, and that makes the field of sport psychology so addictively challenging.

Leave behind expectations that are result-driven, as it’s something we very seldom have full control over. Focus on the process, develop a plan for how you’ll achieve those process goals, and, whether or not expectations are set, allow yourself to be appreciative and gratified once they’re accomplished.

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