Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Burden of Expectation: A Lesson From an Olympic Champion

Can you shoulder the weight of expectations?

Mikaela Shiffrin, the 19-year-old ski racing phenom, has certainly put herself between a rock and a hard place. Let’s start with the rock, which is the expectations she has created from the remarkable successes she has had during her short, though illustrious, career.

Shiffrin has, over the years, built a veritable Mt. Everest of expectations for herself by so dominating slalom racing since her early and overwhelming dominance as a junior racer followed by her trifecta of success the last three years with her World Cup, World Championship, and Olympic titles.

Shiffrin has set the bar so high in the minds of the ski racing community that anything less than a win is somehow seen as a disappointment by many. Case in point. Following her first World Cup giant slalom victory in Solden, Austria, last October, Shiffrin "struggled" through the next few races in which she finished 11th, 6th, and 5th. For any other World Cup racer, that would be a nice demonstration of consistency and a good collection of World Cup points. But for Shiffrin, because of her consistently incredible success the last few years, that string of results has been a cause for real concern among many in the ski racing world.

Now to the hard place. I’m talking about the 2015 World Ski Championships that not only is being held on American soil but will be contested in Shiffrin’s home town of Vail, Colorado. All of the expectations that Shiffrin has had to carry, and the accompanying media attention, just get ratcheted up.

Yes, I think it is safe to say that the expectations for Shiffrin to win championship gold on her home hill can’t get any higher. Of course, she’s not the first great ski racer (or athlete in any sport) who had the hopes of a nation or the attention of the world resting on their shoulders. But, another fact is that some of those in the past have soared to the highest heights despite that burden of expectations while others have crumbled and failed under that weight.

Though I know Shiffrin pretty well, I’m not Mr. Spock from Star Trek, so I can’t do a Vulcan mind meld and see what she is thinking or feeling about all of these expectations on her. I’m also not a psychic, so I can’t predict the future any better than anyone else. At the same time, there is a saying in psychology: “The best predictor of future performance is past performance.” And the reality is that Shiffrin has demonstrated over and over again that she can ignore, let go of, or redirect that pressure (I don’t know which) and rise to the occasion under the brightest of spotlights. I have no reason to believe that she won’t do it again. So, if you’re a betting person, bet on Shiffrin.

Despite this article’s early focus on Shiffrin, my intention isn’t really to write just about her. Instead, the World Championships provide yet another amazing lesson that all athletes can learn from her: namely, how to deal with that burden of expectation before a big competition.

It’s very likely that you may feel those same expectations in your own version of the World Championships. The stage may not be as grand for you, but it is also no less pressure packed.

Why Expectations are Bad

Expectations aren’t a guarantee of bad performance and poor results, but it increases the chances dramatically because expectations create pressure on you to fulfill them. No way you can perform well when you’re feeling that weight on your shoulders.

Expectations can hurt you both physically and psychologically. They can have a harmful physical effect on you, causing muscle tension, restricted breathing, a decline in coordination, and a general sense of discomfort. You feel weighed down and you just don’t feel good.

Expectations can redirect your focus away from performing your best and onto the results, most notably, any results that don’t live up to those expectations and the possibility that you will fail to meet them.

They can cause you to question your ability to fulfill those expectations, leading to a loss of confidence, doubt, and uncertainty.

Lastly, expectations can cause a host of unpleasant emotions including fear, frustration, worry, and anxiety, all of which can prevent you from performing at your highest level.

The bottom line is that unless you do something to change your perspective on expectations or to help you let go of those expectations, you have very little chance of doing your best and getting the results you want.

Where Expectations Come From

Expectations can come from outside of you or from within. Typical sources of external expectations come from family, coaches, and friends. Here’s a line I often hear being said to young athletes by friends and acquaintances that strikes absolute terror into their hearts: “I just know you’ll win.” Though such an expression of confidence is well intentioned, it is also painfully misguided because it creates a situation where anything less than victory will mean failure and disappointing others.

You may also create your own expectations. You may be so driven to achieve your goals that this determination causes you to focus too much on results creating self-imposed pressure, for example, “I better win or this will have been a total waste of time.”

At a deeper level, expectations arise from forces within you that you may not even be aware of. The most common source of expectations is fear of failure, in which you absolutely must meet those expectations or else something terrible will happen. What are those awful things that might happen? The most common ones include your parents won’t love you, your friends won’t like you, you’ll be a total loser, all of your efforts will have been wasted, and your athletic dreams will die. Now that is pressure!

How to Deal with Expectations

If the expectations are coming from others, you have several options. First, you can avoid those people like the plague. If you’re not near them, you won’t be able to hear those well-intentioned, though misguided, expressions of confidence in you (“You’re going to win for sure!”). Also, if you’re good enough to receive media attention, stop reading about or listening to it. Second, you can tell those people to just “Shut up!” (in a nicer way, of course). Third, you can change the way you think about their expectations. For example, you can say “I really appreciate their support and encouragement.” The key is to distance yourself from those expectations because they don’t do you any good.

If the expectations are coming from within, there are several steps you can take. In an ideal world, you would let go of any and all outcome expectations and just focus on what you need to do to perform your best. That, however, is easier said than done because the causes of the expectations are often unconscious (e.g., perfectionism, conditional love, fear of failure) and it usually requires some pretty intense work with a sport psychologist to exorcize them from your mind.

So, what can you do right now to lift that burden of expectation before the big competition? Here are a few ideas:

  • Focus on the 5 Ps: Perspective, process, present, positive, and progress. If you focus on them, you won’t be focusing on the expectations.
  • Change your physiology. Expectations inevitably create anxiety and tension. By actively taking steps to relax, for example, with deep breathing and muscle relaxation, you remove the physical symptoms of the expectations.
  • Distract yourself. Talk to other people or listen to music, anything that will keep your mind off of the expectations.
  • Create good emotions. Expectations can cause you to feel frustration, worry, and fear. To counteract those, do things that are fun and will inspire good emotions such as excitement, pride, and joy.
  • Do mental imagery. See and feel yourself performing your best. This will redirect your attention away from the expectations, give you confidence, and refocus you onto what you need to do to achieve your competitive goals.
  • Shift your view of the expectations away from being a threat to avoid and onto a challenge to be pursued.

Ultimately, the degree to which expectations impact how you perform in big competitions will depend on how you finish this statement: “If I don’t do well, ________.” If you say, “If I don’t meet my expectations, it’s the end of the world,” you’ve turned those expectations into a life-or-death situation, and you’re pretty much doomed to a poor result. But, if you say, “If I don’t meet my expectations, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll be OK,” you have relieved yourself of that burden of those expectations and freed yourself to perform your very best when it matters most.

More from Jim Taylor Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Jim Taylor Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today