How to Keep Success From Leading to Expectations

It's easy to have your success turn into expectations as an athlete. What you want to do is make sure you keep your focus on what's helped you succeed in the first place.

A common theme I see in athletes I work with is success leading to expectations, which develops into stress, resulting in them underperforming in games.

But shouldn’t success lead to more success? Shouldn’t it generate high level feelings of confidence and trust, knowing they’ve done it before so they can do it again…yeah, sometimes.

But other times success leads to fear and worry. They need to prove to themselves and others that it wasn’t a fluke. That they can play like that again and again.

They may also feel like they can’t go backwards, otherwise they’ll never get to that level of success again.

Instead of allowing the success they’ve experienced to increase their confidence and lead to trust, the athlete can feel as though they are walking on eggshells.

It’s not a matter of, I know I can perform well, as much as it’s, I hope I can keep this up.

Why Success Leads to Expectations

One athlete I’ve been working with recently has dealt with this challenge of success turning into expectations. And really, the reason it happens has to do with focus.

Yes, we can talk about an underlying fear of not being good enough that’s present, or confidence that’s too reliant on immediate success. But when it comes to the direct reason why the success he’s experienced transforms into expectations, it’s due to a change in his focus.

Before we began working together, he thought a lot about the outcome and how his kicks would go (he’s a kicker in football).

Before each kick, he spent time worrying about whether he’d make it or not, and after, he focused a lot on if he did make it or not. If he didn’t he would get very angry with himself.

We talked about shifting his focus. Taking it off the outcome and placing it onto the process. The steps that lead to a good kick.

And that’s where he found success.

By changing what he was focused on, he removed a lot of stress from his kicks. But also, he allowed his body to kick more naturally.

However, by the end of that first training session implementing this new way of thinking, suddenly he felt expectations.

His kick offs had been going much farther than usual. So on that last kick, he gave it his all and tried to kick the hell out of it. Only, he didn’t. It was one of the worst kicks he’d had all day.

Why? Because he took his attention off what was helping him kick far and tried to force a good kick.

That shows just how success can lead to unhelpful expectations. You start to play well, and your attention shifts from the process onto the outcome.

Now you’re expecting yourself to keep performing at a high level. And a lot of the time, this sort of expectation shifts into fear and worry that you won’t be able to keep it up.

What Happens When Your Success Turns into Expectations

After that frustrating kicking session, the kicker and I talked about the importance of focusing on the process and how his attention to the small details of his kicks were what led him to kick so well.

After that talk, he had a couple really great training sessions. But, the more he succeeded, the more that underlying desire to demand expectations from himself crept up.

Until, he had two frustrating training sessions in a row. These were due to the demands he placed on himself to keep up the success he’d been experiencing.

Now why is it that expectations limit performance? Shouldn’t it be good to demand perfection from yourself and have your focus on succeeding?

Well, yes, it’s good to want to play well, but doing so very rarely happens by worrying about the outcome or demanding perfection from yourself. It happens by focusing on what will help you play well.

But when you place high expectations on yourself, especially following success, your attention shifts onto the outcome. This can lead you to lose sight of the small aspects of your game you were doing so well that led to the success in the first place.

When you focus too much on the outcome, this can also result in you playing tight and timidly. Especially if your focus is more on not wanting to mess up, rather than wanting to succeed.

Keeping Success From Turning into Expectations

Your goal is to continue to succeed. But that doesn’t mean you need to place the expectation on yourself that you must play well. There’s a big difference in the attention and focus that’s involved.

As I said earlier, when you focus on expectations, this limits your performance. But when you focus on what will actually help you succeed, that’s where you find yourself playing your best.

So, how do you go about wanting to play well without actually placing the expectation on yourself that you must play well (especially if you’ve been experiencing success recently)?

It all comes down to your focus during training and games.

Remember What Helped You Succeed in the First Place

When you start playing well, it’s easy to lose sight of what got you there.

The kicker I mentioned earlier lost sight of the small details of his kicks he’d been focusing on. And that’s a very easy thing to do.

It’s something I see happen in a lot of athletes. They start to play well, and so they naturally feel good about playing well, then their attention shifts from the process onto the desire to keep playing well.

What you need to do is keep reminding yourself of what helped you play well in the first place.

With the kicker, I reinforced the importance of his pre-kick routine, and keeping his attention on his objective for each kick. Focusing on those details (which are things he can control, by the way), were what helped him kick well in the first place.

And by once more focusing on those details, his kicks went well again.

So for yourself, if you are struggling with placing high expectations on yourself as a result of success, just keep reminding yourself of what led to that success in the first place.

Set Clear Objectives Based on the Process

Whenever it comes to what leads to your success, we can sum it up by two words: the process.

It is the process of your performance that leads to whether or not you play well. Therefore, it is the process you want to focus on.

To stay focused on the process, especially when you’ve been playing well recently, you must set clear objectives for yourself.

Objectives are targets, or cues, that are based on the process. They should be 100% in your control. Meaning, you can make sure they happen.

That’s an important piece to this. The outcome is not fully in your control. So you want to be sure what you’re focusing on is.

To set objectives for yourself, you want to think about the act itself (kicking the football, for example), but also what you do before the act and your approach.

Set objectives to focus on your pre game routine or warm up routine. Set objectives to focus on having a good attitude and mindset. And also set a clear objective to focus on while you’re actually performing the act.

All of this keeps your attention centered on the process. The process that has led to your success, and will give you the best chance of succeeding moving forward.

Final Thoughts

Success is a great thing. It’s what you’re after as an athlete. But what happens when your success is the very thing that keeps you from playing well in the future?

A downside of performing well is that you may then set expectations for yourself to keep playing well. These expectations then turn into fears and worries about not being able to keep up your successful play.

And when you perform with fear and worry, you limit yourself and will underperform.

To help, and to make sure you can continue your success, you must remind yourself of what got you there in the first place. What’s led to the success you’ve been experiencing?

What leads to success is the process of your performance. And so that’s what you want to focus on. To focus on the process, you want to set clear objectives for both practices and games.

By doing so, you keep success from turning into unhelpful expectations. Allowing you to continue playing well moving forward.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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