The Important Difference Between Goals and Expectations

The Important Difference Between Goals and Expectations

Karen Quigley, LMFT, BCPC, BCC, ACC

Goals are not expectations! It is important to have goals, particularly as an athlete. Goals can motivate us to push forwards through challenging training and encourage us to improve our abilities over time. However, when goals slide over into expectations, they become problematic and hinder our sport performance.  

Let’s explore some of the differences:

Goals:Reaching goals

- Help you strive for excellence

- Structure your attention and focus

- Provide direction for training

- Can be changed or modified easily or often

Goals are not permanent. We all can agree that it feels great to achieve our goals. It is important to realize that goals are wants, not needs. Learning to amend your goals, based on new information, may generate a need to reprioritize your life and thus your goals. This is an appropriate approach to having and maintaining athletic goals.

When keeping a goal focus, you will need to work to stay focused in the moment, involved in the process of achieving your goals. This will help you to become more mindful, flexible and capable of optimal sport performance. Becoming over-focused on goal achievement will likely cause performance problems.

Keeping a long-term perspective of becoming a better athlete over time, and using your goals as stepping stones along the way to your ultimate goal of self improvement will enable you to remain flexible and avoid expectations.  When you can embrace the process of becoming a better life long athlete, steer clear of expectations, you will have greater satisfaction and better sport performance outcomes.

When do goals turn into expectations?

Typically, rigidity or inflexibility will move goals towards expectations. Strict expectations can undercut confidence, increase pressure, and enable you to over-focus on results or outcomes. This will hinder your experience and sport performance outcomes.


--Expectations can generate frustration when you feel you aren't performing up to your potential. Frustration interferes with optimal sports performance and can become part of a downward cycle of negativity that degenerates your performance outcomes.

--Expectations can cause you to be judgmental about the quality of your performance. When we judge ourselves or others we are comparing ourselves to others and usually measuring ourselves as “less than.” This process of judging and comparing ourselves to others interferes with our sport performance. Other athletes are a distraction from giving your best and smartest effort to each moment of your race, event or game. Learning to eliminate this distraction will enhance your experience and your performance outcomes.

--When your expectations are too high or too low, there are problems. When you expect too much from yourself, you create a negative cycle of disappointment, and reduced performance due to fueling the fires of “I’m not good enough.”

--When expectations are too low, you may make yourself feel bored, under challenged, and have settled for less than your best. Both of these will negatively affect your self-confidence and your sport performance.

It’s a paradox that, to enhance the outcomes of your sports performance, you must let go of the outcome focus and learn to become present to each moment. Mindfulness for athletes is not necessarily about spiritual principles; rather it is about being optimally focused in each moment such that you can apply your best and smartest effort.

Avoid being an athlete who fails to set goals altogether. You are not escaping your own expectations by failing to set goals; you won’t protect yourself from feelings of failure to reach your goals by not setting any.

Here is my view: athletes need to understand how to set goals, not expectations. Staying flexible, and in the process of self-improvement are the keys to successfully learning to perform optimally in your sport.  When athletes become overly concerned about failure, it’s likely you’ve set expectations rather than goals. If a goal is not met for one reason or another, be certain to learn everything you can from the experience, release any feelings that remain around not achieving the desired result, and move forwards.

It is important that athletes understand the value of setting goals without the burden of expecting or needing to reach those goals. Allow goals to be in the service of self-improvement and not be the burden that leads to despair.

Karen is a Part of the ProActive Health Care Team.  For private coaching and consultation services about how to be at your best: Email:


Phone: 520-955-9503