Learning How to Reframe Your High Expectations as an Athlete

Every time you step on the field or court, you should aim to be the best you can be.

From an early age, you’ve likely had coaches and parents tell you that you need to try your best. But does that mean you have to be perfect?

Absolutely not! Yet…for a lot of athletes, that’s how they see it.

They demand perfection from themselves and expect to make no mistakes.

One simple mess up means they weren’t perfect, which, if you have such high expectations for yourself, can result in intense feelings of frustration. And when you get this upset at yourself during a game, it can quickly result in even more mistakes.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do your best each and every day. In fact, I’d be concerned if you didn’t have that goal. But there’s a big difference between striving to be the best you can be and demanding perfection from yourself.

One actually leads you closer and closer to your potential, while the other continually holds you back from being the player you’re meant to be.

In this article, you’re going to learn how high expectations can hurt you, how they can sometimes help you (in very rare instances), and a way you can reframe your high expectations and demands to be perfect in a way that actually puts you in the best position to succeed.

How High Expectations Hold You Back as an Athlete

Here are some of the main expectations and demands I see athletes place on themselves:

  • I have to play perfectly.
  • I need to make every shot.
  • I can’t get out.
  • I have to make every kick.
  • I have to lower my time every single race.
  • I need to be better than the guy/girl next to me.
  • I have to start every game.
  • I can’t make any mistakes.

Have you ever placed any of these expectations on yourself?

At first glance, they don’t seem like such bad goals to set…wanting to make every shot, improving your time, making no mistakes, those all sound like great things to have happen!

And they are…but here’s the thing, you need to let them happen.

When you set them as demands and expectations, more often than not, they hold you back. They hold you back due to the fear/anxiety they lead to, along with the difficulty these expectations cause when it comes to managing mistakes.

High Expectations Increase Fear & Anxiety

The fear and anxiety I’m referring to are fear of failure and sports performance anxiety. Both are major mental blocks I see in the athletes I work with.

Playing with fear of failure means you are afraid of making mistakes. Playing with sports performance anxiety means you are worried about what may or may not happen, and typically this will involve worrying about mistakes.

With both of these mental blocks involving a concern about mistakes, it makes sense that high expectations would increase the fear and anxiety you feel. Since high expectations usually involve a demand you’ve placed on yourself not to make any mistakes.

So going into a game, rather than being completely focused on what you’re doing, your mind will be filled with thoughts about the outcome. The more you think about the outcome, the more fear and anxiety you will play with.

The reason fear of failure and sports performance anxiety hold you back is because of the way they cause you to play. They both lead you to play tight and timidly.

You will not be performing as freely and confidently as you need to be to truly play your best.

Instead, since you are demanding no mistakes be made, you will worry about making such mistakes, causing you to tense up and play with fear, which actually increases your chances of making mistakes in the first place.

High Expectations Make it Difficult to Manage Mistakes

Along with fear and anxiety, placing high expectations on yourself and your performance will increase the difficulty of managing mistakes.

Moving past a mistake is hard enough. You don’t want to make it even more difficult. But that’s exactly what happens when you go into a game demanding to be perfect.

When you expect yourself to be perfect, and you make a mistake, what does that mistake signify? It signifies that you weren’t perfect, plain and simple.

If you already know you aren’t going to live up to your own expectations for the game, it’s going to be easy to lose motivation and get overly frustrated at yourself.

I’ve been working with an athlete recently who’s been struggling with staying composed following a mistake. One of her main challenges is that she goes into games demanding perfection from herself.

By expecting herself to be perfect, she is setting herself up for failure. Since perfection is not truly attainable in sports, she is giving herself an opportunity each day to get angry at herself and feel like she wasn’t good enough.

Knowing that mistakes are going to happen, the most important thing for you to do is manage those mistakes and move on from them quickly during a game. Something that is difficult to do when you place extremely high expectations on yourself.

How High Expectations May Help You

Now, before we get into ways you can reframe your high expectations, it’s worth mentioning how expectations may actually help you.

I will say that this is a very rare occurrence. The majority of athletes I’ve worked with have been at a disadvantage due to the demands and expectations they set for themselves.

However, there are some who demand perfection from themselves and it actually turns out to help them perform better. And it’s worth noting why this is, as the behavior they exhibit and the way they think about expectations can be helpful to you.

They Use High Expectations as Motivation

Athletes who set high expectations and demands for themselves and play better as a result have a very different way of looking at these expectations.

Instead of having them lead to fear and anxiety, they use the expectations as motivation to work harder and to focus more during games.

That’s the key difference — the expectation is a driving force for them during training, as well as a trigger for them to hyperfocus during games.

When high expectations hold you back, your focus during games is on the outcome. You’re worried about what’s going to happen if you don’t play perfectly.

But when high expectations help you, your focus is completely centered on what you’re doing. The reason being, you know that in order to reach your high expectations, you must do all the little things as well as you can.

So for yourself, as you begin to reframe your high expectations, think about how you can use them as motivation to turn your attention more onto the process that will actually lead to you attaining the outcome you want.

Reframing Your High Expectations as an Athlete

If high expectations are holding you back right now, leading to fear, anxiety, and making it difficult to bounce back from mistakes, then you need to reframe the demands you place on yourself.

To do so, we’re going to use a few of the principles learned from athletes who use high expectations to their advantage, along with some sport psychology tips you can apply.

Always Think About How

Athletes who play well with high expectations use the expectations as motivation to train and to hyperfocus during games. You can take a similar approach by always asking yourself how?

Think about the expectation you have for yourself of, I need to be perfect. Okay, what do you need to do to put yourself in the best position to be perfect? In other words, how do you play perfectly?

This way of thinking will allow you to begin reverse engineering your performance, all the way down to the drills you need to be doing on a daily basis to continue to improve.

This helps if you’re someone who really struggles with the idea of not striving for perfection. I’m still giving you the opportunity to want to play as close to perfectly as you can, but you need to truly think about what all you need to do to make that happen.

This will help take your attention off the outcome and place it more on the process. That’s what athletes who play well setting high expectations do. They use the expectations as motivation, and you can too.

Set Objectives NOT Expectations

Now we get into a way you can reframe what you’re focused on during a game.

When high expectations and demands hold you back, it’s due to your attention being fixed on the outcome. Throughout the game you’re thinking about what may happen and how much you don’t want to make mistakes.

What you want to do is take your attention off the outcome and place it onto the process. This will go off what I discussed in the previous section, because you’re going to need to know how you put yourself in the best position to play your best.

What you want to do is set objectives. These are targets you will focus on that are part of the process. The little things you need to do well that give you the best chance of getting the outcome you want.

Try setting objectives on the physical side of the game and the mental.

For your physical objectives, think about cues you can use, like follow through on every shot, or focus on good contact. Simple targets you set for yourself that will help you perform well.

On the mental side, you want to set objectives that involve your focus, how you’re thinking, and your emotional state. Such as, focus on my process, or feel confident and successful during the game.

The more attention you give to the small details, the better you will perform.

Use Mistakes to Learn

A major hindrance to athletes who set high expectations for themselves is how they respond to mistakes. Since mistakes mean they weren’t perfect, they will beat themselves up and become overly self-critical following the mistake.

During a game this holds you back and leads to more mistakes moving forward. After a game, it keeps you from actually learning something from the mistake and lowers the confidence you’ll have in yourself going into the next game.

You want to change the way you view mistakes. Don’t see them as a reason why you’re not good enough. Instead, see them as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Because here’s the truth…the mistake already happened. There’s nothing you can do about it and beating yourself up over it isn’t going to change the fact that you made the mistake.

All you truly can do in that moment is learn something from the mistake to improve moving forward.

When you do make the shift and begin viewing mistakes as opportunities to learn, this will reduce the fear and worry you have surrounding mistakes.

Since they will no longer signify that you’re not good enough, they won’t be something you need to fear.

This will also help with the expectations you set, because you won’t be thinking so much about needing to be perfect. Instead, your mindset will have shifted to one that is always looking for ways to improve.

It is through this continual improvement that you grow as a player. Not by trying to be perfect.

Final Thoughts

It’s natural to set high expectations for yourself as an athlete. Of course you want to play perfectly! You’re not out there hoping to make mistakes.

But the problem is, these demands typically lead to increased fear of failure and anxiety, and make it difficult for you to move on from mistakes during games.

So we see this desire to be perfect be the very thing that keeps you from playing your best.

What you must do is reframe the expectations you set for yourself. This can be done by thinking about how you actually go about playing your best. What are the small elements of your game you need to focus on?

Then, set objectives for games focused on the process. This will take your attention off the outcome and the demands you set to be perfect.

Lastly, you want to completely change the way you view mistakes. Do not see them as reasons why you’re not good enough. Instead, view mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve as a player.

If you have any questions about high expectations, mental performance coaching, or any other sport psychology topic, please fill out the form below.

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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