In the fall of 2020, Iga Świątek emerged from relative obscurity to capture the women’s singles title at Roland Garros. During the tournament and afterwards, Świątek talked about the importance of keeping her expectations low in matches, and simply focusing on playing one shot at a time. She wasn’t going onto the court “expecting” to win. She narrowed her focus down to something she could control – hitting the ball. This was her recipe for success and staying grounded in the process of claiming her first major title.
Keep Your Expectations Low, But Your Standards High
Świątek and her sport psychologist adopted the perspective of low expectations from two-time Olympic gold medalist and four-time World Cup champion skier, Mikaela Shiffrin. From an early age, Shiffrin talked about keeping her expectations low, but her standards high.
“My biggest challenge was to keep my expectations low but my standards high, pushing my skiing, doing my best with my turns, having good tactics and being aggressive but not to expect that I would win the race because anything can happen.” -Mikaela Shiffrin
When most athletes enter the arena of competition, they hold some expectation of the outcome and/or about how they will perform. They may expect to win. They may believe that others expect them to win or play well. Unfortunately, such outcomes are beyond their full control. As Mikaela Shiffrin noted, anything can happen.
Having expectations often leads to feeling pressure to perform and pressure to win. The fear of not fulfilling these expectations can be detrimental to performance. Anxiety and nervousness hijack your body chemistry and you can’t perform the way you want to. It’s uncomfortable and there is no joy. It’s safe to say that you’ve been there at some point in your career. So, while you want good outcomes, what do you need to do to have a chance of achieving them? Answer: Expect nothing – it’s a waste of energy.
What Are Standards?
Instead of having expectations of winning or playing well, you need to focus on what you can control. And for those items you can control, you want to maintain a high standard on your execution of them. That’s what “high standards” means. It is a critical component of competing well.
To illustrate this point, consider a basic controllable behavior like your effort. You should have a standard of excellence for effort that you want to maintain throughout the competition, and your goal is to maintain that high standard of excellence no matter what is happening. Unfortunately, many athletes unknowingly lower their standards during a performance because of the score or other things occurring around them. They haven’t consciously separated their standards from the difficult emotions that emerge when expectations are not being met. The result is that controllable behaviors like effort and attitude become dependent on the score or quality of performance. You want to move beyond that; you don’t want your effort and attitude to suffer because you are losing or not performing well.
In tennis, one of the most dangerous expectations that you can have is the expectation of playing well or needing to play well. This probably sounds counter intuitive. However, when you step on the court with the expectation that “I need to play well,” you have saddled yourself with additional pressure to perform. What will happen to you emotionally if you get off to a slow start? For players who think this way, not playing well becomes an excuse for losing.
- “My forehand wasn’t working today.”
- “I couldn’t get my serve in.”
- “I was tight.”
Do these excuses sound familiar? When you start thinking about all of the reasons you’re not playing well, you stop thinking of solutions to the problems facing you on the court. In a combat sport like tennis, you are not in complete control of your level of performance. You do have some influence over it, but so does your opponent. And your opponent is trying to execute a game plan that will not allow you to play well. So, don’t EXPECT to play well. It’s not as important as you think it is. Expect the match to be a struggle and a challenge, and know that if you can maintain a high standard on your controllable behaviors, you will give yourself a chance to win in the end.
Now that you have learned to set your expectations low (or more realistically), it is time to shift your thinking to your standards of excellence. Here are some controllable behaviors that you should define your standard for, and then practice maintaining that standard at all times:
- Body language
- Focus (watching the ball, looking at your strings between points, routines)
- Communication (doubles)
Some of these behaviors may trigger good performance in other areas. It is helpful to know which of these behaviors drive your best competitive self. To aid you in maintaining a high standard on your top behaviors, consider developing a short and concise self-talk script that you can use between points. An example script is “breathe, watch the ball, reset.” Your script may include other reminders such as “great/confident body language, upbeat/positive attitude at all times, active feet, great energy, etc.” Try to keep your script to three items – the three items that drive your best performances.
When you’re playing, review the script on change-overs, and repeat the script between points. It will serve as a constant reminder of what is most important in helping you to perform well, to compete well, and to give yourself a better chance of winning. Use your script in practice so that it feels more natural during a match.
Apply the Mantra
Keeping your expectations low and your standards high is not only a mantra, it should be part of your competitive philosophy. Repeat this phrase to yourself often. It will help you shift your focus to the things you can control. It will become part of your standard operating procedure as a competitive tennis player.
When you play with this philosophy, your performance will unfold naturally; you won’t be forcing it and you won’t be focused on meeting “expectations.” You will also remain competitive no matter what the score is or how you are playing. In fact, you may find yourself winning matches in which you didn’t play your best because your high standards gave you a chance to snatch victory in the end. Regardless of the result, you can be proud of how you competed when you live by this philosophy.
This article was first published on Performancextra.com.