04096 Avoiding Mental Sabotage Part 2 Overcoming Strict Expectations 700x394

Avoiding Mental Sabotage Part 2: Managing Performance Expectations

In part two of our ongoing series on ways athletes sabotage their own performances, we discuss how to overcome unrealistic performance expectations heading into a race.

We know that having strict or high performance expectations in sport can undermine and suck the life out of a participant’s confidence. Let’s start with some definitions. First, self-confidence and performance expectations have uniquely different meanings. Expectations are needs or demands that you have regarding the quality of your performance or desired outcomes, such as a triathlete might think, “I should be leading the race after the swim.”

In contrast, confidence represents how strongly you believe that you can perform. When competitors have confidence, they know they can do it. Think of expectations as what you think you “should” and “shouldn’t” do when you’re performing in a competition.

What’s the problem with expectations for racers? Having strict performance expectations leads you to lose confidence when you don’t achieve them. Expectations are also pressure-packed. Lastly, many racers can become frustrated when not performing up to their desired expectations. Keep in mind that expectations are not GOALS.

Examples of Triathletes’ Strict Performance Expectations:

  • Having a specific time/pace as a goal in mind.
  • The feeling that they have to improve every race.
  • The feeling that they should beat this or that person.
  • An expectation that their performance should always feel good.

Let’s talk confidence. Confidence is the strength of your belief to perform well in races. Confidence precedes your performance. For example, a triathlete who has confidence believes he can swim well and has all the skills to compete well. But confidence is void of expectations.

Your Mental Toughness Success Formula

Your objective is to perform without the pressure and judgment that is caused by your own high expectations (surrounding performance or outcome). Instead, your objective is to perform with (1) high self-confidence, and (2) simple objectives (or what we refer to as mini-goals).

Elite athletes, when in the zone, focus on how they’ll execute each moment of the race. For example, as a triathlete, you don’t want to think about the swim you just completed when you enter the transition—it’s over! Instead you should focus on the routine you need to perform next. Locate your transition bag, run to the transition tent, remove your wetsuit, put your helmet on, etc. These actions need to be performed in the moment without any baggage from the swim or getting ahead of yourself mentally.

How to Uncover Your Performance Expectations

The first step is to uncover your hidden expectations—ones you might not be aware of.

  1. What expectations, such as, “I should be on the podium,” or, “I should never run slower than 35 minutes for 10 kilometers” do you place on your own performance?
  2. What absolute demands do you maintain about your performance, such as, “I MUST run under 35 minutes for 10 kilometers,” that cause you to feel pressure during training for an event?
  3. What other demands do you place on your performance? Do you have expectations based on past experiences, such as, every race should result in a podium or win?
  4. What names do you call yourself (also referred to as negative self-labels), such as, “I’m weak on the run.”
  5. What expectations do you feel from other people (coaches, sponsors, supporters, or family) such as, “I have to be on the podium,” or, “I must come out of the water first.”

How to Manage Your Performance Expectations

How will you let go of your expectations and not judge your performance when racing? That’s the problem with expectations: you judge your performance at every turn of the race.

You want to replace your expectations with performance cues that help you focus on the process instead of the outcome or how well you are meeting your expectations. For example, you might focus on perceived exertion when racing or maintaining a steady pacing when running within your heart rate zone. This not only helps you focus on the process of racing, but also takes your mind away from judging your performance.


Your first step is to become aware of expectations that hurt your performance and then learn to focus only on execution. Your confidence and composure will improve when you can do this. Keep in mind that your process goals may change each day depending on the type of event and what you are trying to improve each week in training. The main idea is that whatever you focus on, you’ll improve.

Stay tuned for part three of our “Avoiding Mental Sabotage Series”, which will touch on how to build race-day confidence. 

Avatar1505329653 7
About Patrick J. Cohn, Ph.D. and Andre Bekker 

Dr. Patrick Cohn is a master mental game coach with Peak Performance Sports in Orlando, FL.
Andre Bekker (pictured here) is a 12-time Age Group winner in Ironman and 70.3 events / former professional bike rider, and owner of 5th Dimension Coaching.

Download their free audio program, “Mental Toughness Skills in Racing for Triathletes”.