The power of goals and the risk of expectation?

As Velocity coaches, our job is to help our athletes reach their goals. In order to do this, we have to know if an athlete has a goal or if it is really an expectation. The difference is subtle but profound.

I explain the difference this way:

A goal is something about my performance that I want to improve but I know I can’t achieve right now. Because it’s currently outside of my ability, I am motivated to work hard to improve. On any particular day of training, if I don’t yet reach my goal, it’s okay because it just means I need more time to get there.

An expectation is something I think I should be able to do right now.

Before going further, let’s stop to notice the difference in language. Goals are motivational, but expectations are always attached to the judgmental language of “should.” As adults, I think many of us have the experience of “should-ing all over ourselves,” as a therapist friend of mine would say. “I should be eating better”; “I should be excelling more at my job”; “I should be in better shape.” Whatever the statement is, it is never positive and motivating but is always negative and judgmental.

How motivated you tend to feel to work harder at a particular task when you have those kinds of thoughts? Now think about how that changes if you transform your expectation into a goal (the more specific the better).

“I want to cook a meal with fresh vegetables at least twice a week.”

“I want to do one thing every month that will help advance my career.”

“I want to get a really good workout in twice a week.”

For the athletes we coach at Velocity, I like to ask how they feel about themselves when they don’t meet an expectation (e.g. “I should be the fastest in my class”). Almost without fail, their answers are negative: “I’d feel bad,” “I might want to quit,” etc.

I then ask how it would feel if their goal was to be the fastest, but someone else was faster on a given day. The answers here are always more positive and include some thought or feeling about the desire to keep working to eventually achieve their goal.

Simply asking these questions helps bring awareness to our athletes that the way they think about themselves and the words they use when talking about themselves (out loud or in their own minds) makes a difference.

I encourage you to watch out for the words you use when talking to your young athletes about their goals and achievements. Consistently using goal-oriented, effort-praising language (instead of outcome-praising) can be a first step in building a person – not just an athlete – with a mindset that is not only resilient to setbacks but can learn from and embrace them.