Not-So-Great Expectations

Working recently with a high school cross country runner, the theme of “expectations” has been a frequent discussion point.  Similar to many others, cross country is, without argument, a numerically-driven sport.  This runner bases his perceived competence, his athletic enjoyment, his post-race mood, his sense of self-worth, his family stability, even the soundness of his sleep on running time.  And I doubt he is unique in this outcome-glorified school of thought.  Time, after all, is so measurable, so final.  We can clearly see and understand numbers.  Especially for the high school athlete, mentally and physically rehearsing the actual result is more alluring than rehearsing the process by which the result is created.  It’s also often easier to image an outcome (the visual experience of running a 5:20 mile), than a feeling (the multi-sensory experience of running with confidence, purpose, and consistency).  One’s tendency to focus on the outcome can make running a certain time appear more easily attainable.  And what’s easily attainable should be expected, right?

Well, can a runner fully control his or her running time?  Weather conditions may play a factor, as may the quality of the track or running shoe, or the presence of other runners.  A runner does have total control over the amount of effort put forth, over his quality of preparation, over his sleeping patterns & eating habits, over his breathing patterns, his mid-race focus, and his attitude.  Beyond that, there’s very little over which he has complete power.  So how can something not fully within an athlete’s control – for instance, the outcome of a track meet – be expected?  When it comes to results and other uncontrollables, expectations have no place in sports.  Perhaps this real-life off-field example will demonstrate my point.

Imagine you are in the doctor’s office for your routine physical.  Expecting a clean bill of health, you’re surprised when the doctor tells you he’s detected an odd growth by your abdomen.  A bit concerned, a biopsy in conducted, the results for which will be available in 5 days.  After 5 days of unrelenting torture and thoughts of various worst-case scenarios, you receive a phone call reporting that the growth was benign.  You’re perfectly fine, the doctor says.  That moment, immediately following the phone call, may feel like the best of your life.  Nothing’s changed since 5 days prior – you have the same health, you’re in the same position in which you previously were – but you’re grateful for your health now.  Why?  You were hoping for it, yes, but you weren’t expecting it.

We typically go about our lives expecting health, taking it – among other things not completely within our control – for granted rather than being thankful and grateful every day for it.  Wouldn’t we experience greater happiness if we were to wake up every morning acknowledging and appreciating that which we seldom acknowledge and appreciate? “Wow, I feel great and healthy, I have warmth and food and vision and love – I’m so lucky for this.  I’ll make today a special one.”

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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