Letting Go of Expectations

“Positive expectations are the mark of the superior personality.”

“Winners make a habit of manufacturing their own positive expectations in advance of the event.”

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.”

“Expectation feeds frustration. It is an unhealthy attachment to people, things, and outcomes that we wish we could control, but can’t.”

When it comes to the many different aspects of human psychology, one of the concepts I’m most fascinated by is the concept of expectation. I think the reason I’m fascinated by it is mainly due to its extremely dualistic nature. In one sense, it can act as a powerful catalyst for productive action and positive change. In another sense, it can act as a debilitating weakness that impedes maximum performance and creates constant worry and stress.

It’s an interesting concept to explore and conceptualize for competitive swimming. Is it better to go into a meet expecting certain results or not expecting certain results? Is it beneficial to approach competition expecting yourself to achieve a specific outcome or to let go of expectations altogether? These are important questions to ask and worth trying to figure out, because ultimately, how you handle expectations going into your meets is undoubtedly going to impact how you perform and the results you ultimately experience.

How so? Well, I’ll give you a couple of examples.

Let’s start by saying you head into a championship meet expecting to PB all of your events. In one sense, that expectation can be a good thing. If you’re expecting to do that well, then that shows that you have confidence in yourself and your abilities. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t expect yourself to PB all of your events. The more confident you are in yourself and your abilities, the better you can perform and the better your results can potentially be. On top of that, expecting a certain result can give you a source of motivation – something to drive you and a purpose to focus on.

However, in another sense, expecting to achieve a certain result can certainly be a bad thing, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, when you head into a championship meet expecting to PB all of your events, whether you realize it or not, you’ve taken that meet and turned it into a “do or die, succeed or fail” scenario. Your mindset has now shifted into “I need to achieve this outcome that I’m expecting to get, otherwise I will have failed.” When that happens, the pressure to avoid failing is instantly introduced into the equation, and you’ll have that pressure weighing on you every time you go to swim. That’s a heavy unnecessary burden to carry on your mind when swimming.

Secondly, any challenge, obstacle, or setback that you experience during your swims throughout the meet can cause you to panic and overreact in a negative way. Because you’ve set up a result expectation in your mind going into the meet and turned that meet into a “do or die, succeed or fail” scenario, anything that happens to you along the way that you recognize has the potential to prevent you from achieving the outcome you’re expecting to get can tilt your mindset and negatively impact you moving forward. A mistake can cause you to panic during a race. If you fail to achieve a new PB in your first event, that can eat away at your confidence and have a domino effect on your future swims at that meet.

Now, let’s say you head into a championship meet without expecting to achieve a certain result. In one sense, not expecting to get a certain result is absolutely without question a good thing. When you don’t expect to achieve a specific outcome, your mindset doesn’t get shifted into seeing that meet as “do or die, succeed or fail” any longer. Because you don’t see that meet in that way, the pressure you’d normally feel is instantly relieved, and you’re able to go into each of your swims with a clear mind that’s not weighed down by the burden of expectation. That’s only ever a great thing, and will allow you to swim your best more often.

On top of that, it makes it much easier to have fun and enjoy yourself at the meet, and while having fun and enjoying yourself may seem cliché in nature, for competitive swimmers, enjoying oneself is too often sacrificed for the sake of a competitive drive for results. It’s fine to want to win and you should have that desire to do well, but if your desire to win is so intense it causes you to sacrifice having fun and enjoying the sport, it’s gone too far and you’ve lost the right balance. The sweet spot is always balancing having fun while being competitive, something that is much easier to do when you remove results expectations from the equation.

However, in another sense, not expecting to achieve a certain result can have its potential downsides as well. Firstly, when you go to swim in a meet, you need an aim to shoot for; a purpose for swimming that will give you the necessary drive and motivation to want to compete. Without a specific result to aim for, that lack of a target to focus on can leave you purposeless and unmotivated when you go to swim. Secondly, not expecting a certain result can cause you to swim carelessly and without any real consideration. If you don’t expect to get a certain result and if you have no fear of losing, then what’s the point in trying your hardest and playing your best?

This all brings us to the crux of today’s article – Which approach is better? Is it better to approach a meet having expectations, or is it better to approach a meet not expecting anything? To answer that, we have to look at both approaches, their upsides and their downsides, and decide whether or not their downsides outweigh their upsides. And, when we do that, the answer becomes very clear: It’s far better to approach a meet with without having any results expectations. And, here’s why.

When it comes to going into a meet having results expectations, the downsides of doing that far outweigh the benefits. The benefits of that approach can be gotten through other means, and the downsides are impactful enough and real enough to warrant not using that approach. Having a result target to aim for giving you the motivation to swim doesn’t matter if the pressure and stress that accompanies that is going to derail your ability to swim your best anyways.

When it comes to going into a meet without any results expectations, the benefits of that approach far outweigh its weaknesses. The weaknesses of this approach can be fixed by focusing on one single thing (Which I’ll get to in a bit) and the benefits of this approach make it worth using. The motivation and drive to do well and be your best simply comes from a different source, and on top of that, you’re now free to swim without the pressures and stresses that expecting certain results carry with it and you’re able to have fun and enjoy playing the sport more, both of which enhance your ability to swim your best.

So, having said all of that, here’s how you want to approach every meet when you go to perform in:

1) Go into every meet with ZERO expectations.

We’ve analyzed the two different approaches and the best approach is clear: You always want to approach every tournament with zero expectations in terms of results. What this means is that you essentially approach the meet from a mindset of, “The results are completely beyond my control and whatever happens, happens.” And, that’s a fact. As a swimmer, you don’t have any direct control over whether you win or lose a race. As we know, you can do everything right, swim really well, and still lose due simply because someone else was just faster than you. You can’t control the outcome. All you can control is the performance and the process that creates that outcome.

Now, having said that, it’s really important to make something clear – Going into a meet with no expectations is NOT the same as going into a meet with low expectations. People have a tendency to confuse those two. Going into a meet with low expectations means you’re still expecting an outcome. The outcome you’re expecting is simply lower. That’s not the same as having no expectations where you don’t try to predict an outcome whatsoever. That’s an extremely important distinction to understand.

Without any expectations, and when you don’t try to pre-plan a certain result, then as I mentioned earlier, you’re free from the pressure, tension, stress, and nervousness that accompanies the need to fulfill expectation. You’re able to have more fun and enjoy yourself more. All of that is extremely beneficial and highly conducive to high performance.

2) Instead of having a result expectation, set a high performance standard.

We talked about how one of the downsides of going into a meet without any expectations is that it gives you nothing to aim for; no purpose or motivation to make you want to do your best and swim as well as possible each and every race. That weakness is alleviated by setting a high performance standard for yourself.

What this means is that, in every swim and in everything that you do, you demand from excellence from yourself. You demand your absolute don’t allow yourself to settle for less than the maximum of what you can do, everything from how you approach your dry land warm-ups, how you warm-up in the pool, how you prepare behind the block, and how you apply yourself during your races. You don’t allow for mediocrity and you take great pride in what you do.

The benefit of setting a high performance standard is twofold. First, it fills the gap in terms of motivation and purpose. Demanding that high standard and taking pride in how you perform gives you the drive you need to do your best and swim as well as you possibly can and gives you something to aim to achieve each race.

Secondly, it’s a great habit to get into in general, because demanding your best from yourself every time helps prevent the issue of rubber-banding performances where you raise or lower your level of performance based on external circumstances such as who you’re swimming against, how prestigious the meet is, what’s at stake, etc. You should be demanding your best from yourself in every situation, regardless of external circumstances, and that’s just an important habit to form anyways.

One of my all-time favorite swimming quotes is from Anthony Ervin. He said, “Having an expectation for a result is meaningless. It can only work against you.” Expectations are meaningless for two reasons. First, expecting a result you don’t have any control over is a pointless exercise. Second, you can’t ask any more of yourself than your best effort, and if you’re expecting something that’s greater than or less than your best effort, that’s equally as pointless. You should be demanding your best every time, and if you are, then you don’t need any expectations if you’re doing that. Lastly, expectations can only work against you because they lure you into being distracted by unnecessary burdens and create enormous amounts of pressure that you don’t want or need.

Many swimmers are going to be competing at US Nationals and Junior Nationals in the coming weeks. If you’re swimming in those meets, or any other meet, don’t have any results expectations. As Anthony Ervin said they’re meaningless and can only work against you. Just go in there with the intention of doing the absolute best that you can give each of your swims everything that you can. Have fun, enjoy the experience, and simply aim to be the best version of yourself that you can possibly be in everything that you do. Just let your results come to you as opposed to trying to chase after them. Approach every race with, “What happens will happen” mentality. If you do that, great things can happen.

Thanks for reading, and all the best!

About Will Jonathan

Will Jonathan is a sports mental coach from Fort Myers, Florida. His clients include athletes on the PGA Tour, the Web.com Tour, Major League Baseball, the UFC, the Primera Liga, the Olympics, and the NCAA, as well as providing numerous talks and presentations on the mental aspect of sport and peak performance to various sports programs and organizations across the country. He’s currently the official mental coach for the Florida State University Swimming & Diving team. He provides private, 1-to-1 mental coaching sessions for swimmers on location or through Skype, as well as providing talks and presentations to swim teams on the mental aspects of swimming.

Website – https://willjonathan.com/

Email – [email protected]

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4 years ago

Wow, this is A LOT of reading. I think I’ll wait for the bullet-points-only version but maybe the solution begins by awarding each olympian a participation medal made of zinc.

4 years ago

Okay but here’s the problem. Athletes don’t give their best every time. Whether it’s coming up early on a pullout, taking an extra breath in a 50, or easing into a flip turn, it happenes. People aren’t perfect and we don’t race perfect (Lezak lifts his head on the relay in Beijing, Phelps takes a bad stroke into the wall but still beats Cavic by .01, Le Clos beats the Phelps in the 200 fly and turns his head every breath to do it). Without an expectation we become complaciant with not giving our best. It removes all sense of Failure. Without knowing you failed, what drives you to make a change? And even if you have the perfect meet,… Read more »

Reply to  Nonameswimmer
4 years ago

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that we tell athletes to expect 1st place finishes and personal bests every time. An expectation can be as simple as “do well.” The key in my mind is to recognize when you don’t “do well” and accept the race/meet/workout as a failure. Learn from the failure, and do something different in preparation next time.

Will Jonathan
Reply to  Nonameswimmer
4 years ago

“Without an expectation we become complaciant with not giving our best.”

It’s important to understand that, when talking about letting go of expectations in competition, we’re talking about the importance of letting go of results expectations, not performance expectations. Instead of having a results expectation, you replace that with a high performance standard, demanding excellence from yourself and maximum effort in everything that you do. So, no, complacency doesn’t become an issue, because even though you’ve removed the results expectation, you have that high performance standard that you’re demanding from yourself, and that is what gives you the impetus avoid complacency and be your best.

“It removes all sense of Failure.”

Not expecting or predicting specific results doesn’t mean… Read more »

4 years ago

Fantastic article, but no need to reiterate every detail over and over making it a burden to read after page 2. Well done Mr. Jonathan.

Will Jonathan
Reply to  Nationals
4 years ago

Thank ya! Hope things are well and have a great rest of the week!

About Will jonathan

Will jonathan

Will Jonathan is a sports Mental Coach from Fort Myers, Florida. His past and present clients include athletes on the PGA Tour, the Web.com Tour, Major League Baseball, the UFC, the Primera Liga, the Olympics, and the NCAA, as well as providing numerous talks and presentations on the mental aspect of …

Read More »