How expectations can lead to disappointment and unhappiness in sports

English writer William Shakespeare

Source: Drawing attribute photo of John Taylor, courtesy of Wiki Commons

“Expectation is the root of all heartache,” said William Shakespeare.

While it is doubtful that the British literary icon had sports in mind when he made this observation, it certainly applies to athletic and other performance endeavors.

Buddhist philosophy agrees. One of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism states that unfulfilled expectations cause suffering.

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To paraphrase from a sports perspective, expectation is the mother of distraction, disappointment, poor performance and ultimate heartache. Whether expectations are positive or negative, they get in the way and don’t work.

How so? Let’s explore.

Too much focus on results

Success in athletics and any other endeavor is achieved by executing the skills and actions necessary for optimal performance. This requires a focus on the process rather than the outcome (expectations). A series of quotes from Alabama head football coach Nick Saban illustrates the point.

Alabama Crimson Tide football coach Nick Saban holds 2018 press conference

Source: Photo by Thomson200, public domain, courtesy of Wiki Commons

“Good process leads to good results,” Saban said. “You want to focus on the process of what it takes to be successful. Success does not come from helpless thinking (desired outcome—expectations). It is the result of consciously doing something every day that will add to your overall excellence.”

That approach may explain Saban’s 201-28 win-loss record at Alabama and his seven college national championships with the Crimson Tide. Take note of Ohio State, Michigan and other college football contenders.

A strict focus on the outcome – what you want to happen – is like desiring desired results; the “pie-in-the-sky mindset” mentioned by Saban. Might it be more productive to focus on the “process” – practicing the skills needed for the task?

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Bad pennies

Anticipation is like a coin. Chapters, the presumptions of an easy win against weak competition. Tails, a projection of hopelessness against quality opponents. The first expectation leads to overconfidence and carelessness. The second perspective leads to pressure, fear and suppressed effort.

Both approaches will result in failed execution and performance.

Many athletes look at their opponents’ win-loss record and jump to one of those sides of the coin in their pre-competition thoughts, conversations and banter on social media.

You lose heads, you lose tails.

How about tossing that poor penny and just focusing on executing the skills and actions required to compete – the process?

Perfectionist unrealism

A swing and miss in baseball, a missed basketball shot or a dropped football pass are inevitable events in the sports experience. Watch a youth sporting event when these kinds of imperfect things happen, and you’re sure to witness how the kids act like the sky is falling when these things happen. Head hanging, throwing tantrums, stomping the bench, crying, throwing equipment, complaining, blaming, etc. are obvious.

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Such reactions undermine subsequent performance because of thoughts and emotions that carry over into the next play(s). The game goes on, but athletes who experience such an emotional hangover do not.

Preconceived thoughts and fears of not achieving desired results can also disrupt performance. Perfectionistic expectations of oneself add pressure and anxiety, thereby impairing performance due to the weight of this self-imposed stress.

Expectations of team composition, playing time, coach-assigned position, and other routine aspects of the sports experience will lead to similar frustrations and reactions when things do not go the way the athlete desires.

They haven’t understood that there are things in sports that are beyond their control – just like in other endeavors in life – and that they won’t always get what they want or anything else in life.

Essential reading for sports and racing

Control the controllable and let the rest go.

Unrealistic, perfectionistic expectations lead to long-term destructive stress, misery, and eventual burnout. Many young people give up a sport they once loved to avoid the resulting stress and suffering. A case of what contextual behavioral science calls “experiential avoidance,” a psychological term for actions that seek relief from pain.

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Many young athletes have unrealistic career expectations of receiving an athletic scholarship to college or a professional sports future. There is no space here to fully address the devastating frustration and distress experienced when this does not happen.

These wishes are so far off the charts of reality that they are the stuff of fairy tales. Only six percent of high school athletes go on to play in college. The chances of a professional career are microscopic. It’s one thing for a 9- or 10-year-old to think this way, but a teenager or young adult? They are like a three-year-old who believes she is a princess.

Someone — especially moms and dads — has to prompt them.

Parental expectations

Today’s athletic parents can fall into the same trap as their athletic children.

Frustration and anger when their kids aren’t in the starting lineup, don’t get the playing time they want, or make a mistake in the competition. This can lead to unnecessary parental pain and bad side behavior. Such immature antics are poor role-playing and create unnecessary pressure and embarrassment for their children.

Parents pour a lot of money into their children’s sports careers, paying for expensive equipment, instruction and youth sports programs. They have also spent countless hours driving to and from sporting activities, watching practices and competitions, and attending countless meetings.

This large investment can create unrealistic expectations of end results, such as college scholarships and potential professional careers, fueled in part by youth sports personnel who spin such expectations as a marketing ploy to lure gullible families into their sports network of deception. hungry for money.

When such expectations are not met, parents can be just as surprised, disappointed, and devastated as their children. You would hope that adults would know better and provide guidance for their young athletes to enable them to successfully navigate these murky waters of expectation to the safe shores of reality.

Unfortunately, they often don’t, getting lost in those same polluted seas.


Even sports fans can fall into the expectation trap. Take the hapless Cleveland Browns football fans as a prime example.

Every year, those poor sports enthusiasts in Cleveland latch on to public relations and media hype, including predictions of the Browns’ first-ever trip to the Super Bowl, only to have their hopes dashed in despair.

Could this be the year the Browns make the Super Bowl? Sure. But Cleveland has one NFL championship (1964) in the last 68 years.

An antidote to sports psychology

Take it from the unlikely trio of William Shakespeare, Buddha and Nick Saban. Expectations can lead us down a path of disappointment, suffering and failure.

Whether your expectations are unconditionally positive, downright negative, or perfectionistic, what’s the point? These are all pointless lines of thought and emotion that have nothing to do with the game and are major obstacles to optimal performance.

Instead, focus on the process of improving and applying the skills necessary for successful competitive performance.

Leave your predictions, desired outcome of your performance, high hopes, perfectionism and other expectations out of the realm of sports and turn your attention to what you actually control – your actions, focus and effort.

By doing this, you will reduce tension, frustration and unhappiness. It will also improve your ability to perform the skills required for your sporting activity.

How about forgetting the hype, predictions and expectations?

Just relax, enjoy and let the games and the season play out. If their team makes it to the Super Bowl, great! Otherwise, it will be a manageable disappointment minus the painful disappointment and suffering that Cleveland fans have endured through the seemingly endless barren years.

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