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Aspirations vs expectations: What sports coaches need to know

Aspirations vs expectations: What sports coaches need to know

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

Having high aspirations and high expectations is talked about a lot in sport for success. And both can be very important for coaching athletes.

But these words can often become confused – there is a subtle, yet important difference between them. If both coach and athlete can understand the nuance, it can make a huge impact on performance and results. So, what do you need to know about the difference between aspirations and expectations in sport?

What is the difference between aspirations and expectations?

Aspirations relate to wanting to perform better and getting to a better standard. In comparison, expectations are the beliefs we have about the likelihood of succeeding.

Essentially, aspirations are what you want to happen – expectations are what you believe is likely to happen.

Raising expectations has been proven to help, but this is not the case for aspirations. In education research, raising aspirations was found to have little positive impact as many students already had high aspirations. The same can be said for athletes: most hold high aspirations of where they want to get to in their sport.

However, just wanting to be better doesn’t just lead to that. This is where expectations are helpful. Using expectations, coaches can help their athletes get a clear picture of what they should be doing to reach their goal.

So, how can you use expectations to help your athletes?

The four-step expectation-performance process

At InnerDrive HQ, we like this simple four-step process, which gives great guidelines for a coach to use expectations to impact their athlete’s performance:

  • Step 1: Establish high expectations.
  • Step 2: Act in accordance to the expectations that you set.
  • Step 3: Your behaviour will influence the behaviour of your athletes.
  • Step 4: Your athletes may act as you do, matching the expectations that you set.

The power of expectations

Coaches’ expectations of their players’ competency can largely determine the level of performance and overall achievement that these players can eventually reach.

A word of warning: expectations are impactful and can affect athletes in different ways – not just positively. Research has seen expectations lead to performers reacting in a positive way, but also in negative way.

To try and avoid the latter, remember that expectations that are too low can reduce motivation, while expectations that are too high can hinder confidence, increase fear of failure and increase nerves.

There are two cool psychological effects which explain the power of expectations:

It’s important here to consider: what type of environment are you creating? The answer to this question may determine the performance that you see from your athletes.

Train your mind as well as your body. Unlock your full potential with sport psychology coaching.

So, how can coaches use the power of expectations better?

Encourage high self-expectations

High expectations are also useful coming from within. Teaching athletes about why having their own high self-expectations is important and encouraging them to do so will be really helpful.

When athletes have high self-expectations, they often take responsibility for their actions, ask for feedback more and tend to have a more internal (and thus more enduring) motivation.

More expectations isn’t always the answer

It is important though to be cautious when it comes to expectations. More is not always better. In fact, evidence suggests that unrealistic expectations can lead to a decline in performance and become a source of stress.

Keep it simple

There is a time and a place for conveying your expectations.

At InnerDrive, we suggest to all of our clients to focus on what they need to do to play well. There seems to be a middle ground to find here: think too much about expectations and performance can be harmed by stress – think too little about expectations and athletes may not know what to do.

So, when coaching your athletes, breaking down key parts of their performance into simple, controllable objectives will be really helpful.

Remember the wins along the way

Although winning and losing are part of sport, it may be worth taking a step back to look at the bigger picture every now and then. Zooming out and seeing their progress towards matching your expectations is really important and can help athletes to develop their motivation and their confidence.

Be proactive

Inevitably, there will be times where athletes’ performance or behaviour won’t match your expectations. This can cause conflict and frustration for both the athlete and you, which can lead to low morale and poor motivation. Therefore, keeping the athlete inspired and motivated is important, as well as taking action when it isn’t working.

Communication is key when it comes to this. Having an honest conversation with your athlete can help identify and improve any issues so you can work on them together.

Final thoughts

It’s hard to flourish if no one believes in you. Equally, it’s hard to perform when people demand too much from you.

If expectations are pitched at the right level, it will help your athlete perform at their best. As a coach, you have a big impact on the athlete and their motivation to succeed. It can make the difference between an athlete fulfilling their career versus never reaching their potential.

Take time to set your expectations, thinking carefully about the athlete and their needs.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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