Expectation is defined as ‘a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future’. Expectations can affect athletes in various ways and can lead performers to react in positive ways (Mothes et al, 2017), although often the reaction is negative (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017).

Expectation and confidence…

Often in sport it is assumed that these two concepts go hand in hand – if athletes expect to win or expect to play well, they are confident they can win or play well. But this is far from the truth. It is often the case that expectations hold athletes back from developing high levels of confidence. (For more information on confidence, see my previous article ‘Why is Confidence important for Young Athletes?’).

Some points to remember with these two concepts are that:

  • Strict or high expectations can undermine and suck the life out of confidence
  • Confidence is a belief that proceeds execution but, is void of strict expectations
  • Confident athletes don’t judge their performance quality based on prior expectations
  • Expectations usually concern results, or personal statistics
  • If athletes don’t meet these demands (expectations) they feel unsuccessful

Expectations in Youth Sport…

The increased focus and time commitment in one sport (specialisation), can often come with the expectation that young athletes will experience a lifelong, highly successful journey in their respective sport. However, this is not always the case. To maintain an involvement in sport, young athletes need to have high levels of confidence (based on past performance and training) without the judgmental behaviour that comes with expectation.

Young athletes that feel the pressure of expectation will have started to imagine negative outcomes that are yet to occur (Cohn, 2017); ‘my parents and coaches have invested a lot of time and money in my sport involvement so they expect me to keep going and perform well but I am going to disappoint them if I don’t do well’. In this instance, the player has imagined that they will perform badly before they even set foot on the field.

Helping young athletes manage the pressure of expectation (Process focus)

Often athletes focus upon the outcomes of matches or competitions such as the result, which they have almost no control over, or they get too fixated upon outcome goals such as scoring goals, winning points or getting high scores from judges. Instead, athletes should focus upon the simpler processes of their sport which, when attained correctly, will eventually add up to playing well, competing effectively, winning games or competitions and maintaining participation.

Too many athletes forget that goals, tries, personal bests and medals are made up of lots of little competencies completed correctly again and again. Once athletes focus upon perfecting these small movements, better performances follow and subsequently better results after that (Schunk & Schwsartz, 1993).

Manageable objectives can be used to help young athletes focus on specific tasks during their performance. No judgments are involved. Objectives create a process-oriented focus that helps athletes concentrate on execution. Furthermore, once these objectives are fulfilled, the athlete will gain confidence, rather than feel disappointed. An athlete that is perfecting the processes of their performance is very rarely an athlete that feels the weight of expectation upon them.

Identifying your process focus…

  1. Process goals are completely under your control. They are the small things you should focus on or do to eventually achieve your outcome
  2. Be aware when your mind drifts to outcomes. Look for warning signs such as increased anxiety or your mind wondering to your own or others expectations
  3. Refocus your attention on your current situation. Take a mental time-out and pause.
  4. What are the processes you need to focus on for the next few minutes of your match, competition or routine?

Process goals provide one facet in establishing a “live in the moment” attitude