Self belief is one thing, but how do you deal with the burden of expectation, either from yourself or others? Dr Josephine Perry gives some top tips

Listen to any post-race interview with an elite athlete and they are likely to mention how thankful they are for the support and confidence of everyone around them. What they are highlighting is the power of others believing in you and it is relevant to sports people of all levels and abilities.

This belief can give you self-confidence, banish anxiety and show that the hard work and dedication you have put in is acknowledged and recognised. But, when the belief is shown in the wrong way or you perceive it as a pressure, it can feel like an expectation. And expectations take away the fun, create stress and give performance responsibilities that can switch your aim from trying to win to trying not to lose.

For elite athletes, the expectations from others will be clear. You will read them in the paper, be asked about them in press conferences or have them thrust on to your screen as you scroll through social media feeds.

This can be distracting and upsetting. While amateurs don’t have the same exposure of what is deemed to be expected of them, they can still feel the weight to perform well from their coaches, other athletes and their families. So what can you do to help ease the psychological load?

Here are my top tips:

Grasp useful expectations

Don’t assume that all expectation is negative. Expectation can be helpful when they come from physios and medics if you are returning from injury.

Athletes can often be too keen to get going again, or hold back because they fear re-injury. Research published last year in the Sport Psychologist Journal found that, for athletes coming back after being injured, it was vital they were realistic about how long it would take to reach previous performance levels and coaches and physios can be valuable in setting the right expectations which do not create pressure.

Take a reality check

When expectations are not helpful, your performance can really suffer. Athletes can ‘choke’, psychologically speaking, becoming unable to perform their skills correctly or can develop high levels of anxiety.

These factors have been found to lower their chances of success. Jennifer Savage, an English Institute of Sport performance psychologist and lead psychologist for British Athletics, has helped lots of athletes deal with these unhelpful external expectations. She says the first thing is to understand if an expectation is real.

“I sometimes challenge an athlete’s perception of the expectation as it can be that what you think you are feeling from others is actually the expectation you are putting on yourself,” says Savage.

“I will say to the athlete ‘have they actually told you that?’ Did they say that? A lot of the time it is just their presumption.”

Set your own realistic expectations

When we are feeling the weight of expectation from others, taking control and setting our own goals can take the pressure off. But make sure you only set goals that are specific and achievable within the time available.

Dr Michael Sheard, a sports psychologist and author who specialises in helping athletes achieve mental toughness, advises that “having a really clear goal and a timeframe that is within sight tends to reduce any difficulties.”

And your goals need to be your own, not imposed on you by a coach, partner or parent. This means you are more likely to stick to them and your personal expectations will be set at the right level.

Take on the challenge

Once you have established if the expectations are real and taken control by writing realistic and achievable goals, the next stage is to take responsibility for achieving them.

“Soak it up and deal with it positively,” advises Dr Sheard. “Use the responsibility you feel to become accountable, most often to yourself but also to the various people who have assisted you in your progress.”

Dr Mustafa Sarkar, a lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Nottingham Trent University agrees. “If you see it as a privilege your actions become less of a sacrifice and threat and more of a choice. You have actively chosen to put yourself in these situations to test your limits,” says Sarkar.

Everyone is human

Savage says a lot of issues she sees from dealing with expectations come from a fear of failure.

“I will ask the athlete to tell me about another athlete they look up to,” she says. “I will ask them if that athlete has ever made a mistake. They invariably will have. I will then ask if as a result they think less of them? They always say no.

“When we discuss why they don’t think badly of them they say it is because they have seen how that athlete handled things. They realise that when something goes wrong there are ways to handle it so they shouldn’t be afraid.”

Highlighting this takes some of the fear and pressure away. So, if you are worried about the expectations others have of you, ask yourself if they are real, or just assumed, set goals you feel comfortable with, feel privileged to be able to have those goals and realise that even if you don’t hit them you can still learn from them and take something positive away.

» Dr Josephine Perry is a consultant sports pyschologist at performanceinmind.co.uk

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