Should you set high expectations or be realistic?

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A student in my Champion Mindset Series recently asked me this question:

“I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Should I set high expectations or is it better to be realistic? Will being realistic cause me to sabotage myself and not meet my expectations?”

This is always the push-pull of the competitive realm. On one side, we are told we need to have high expectations to drive ourselves to win, to reach perfection. We should believe we will win every event we go into.

Or on the other side, we’re told to be realistic, not get too big headed or we’ll set ourselves up for failure.

Is any of this useful thinking?

Perfection is an inherently limiting thought-process

Perfection implies an end point.

A ceiling that cannot be broken and a standard that cannot be improved upon no matter how hard you try or how much you experiment. A single ultimate standard.

There are no other answers but one. Any divergence from that impossible standard is wrong—a failure.

This isn’t useful thinking from a competitive standpoint—in training or in competition.

As soon as you make a slight deviation in performance, no matter how small, the perfectionist inner critic leaps in with criticism, breaks your concentration and stifles your creativity.

And who knows? You might have saved the run or may have actually discovered a better training choice had you been able to stay focused and play it out, rather than succumbing to the ranting of your inner critic.

Perfectionism a no-win situation and is absolute poison to your confidence, motivation and creativity. 

And, after all, we all know we can always get better. There is never one answer, one endpoint. Many different paths can achieve an outstanding result. 

Don't chain yourself to a non-existent perfect ideal that will be out of date in a matter of months or years.

In the beginning of your career, think in terms of excellence.

Discipline, hard work, attention to detail, repetition and so on. This structure is useful in developing skills. But even this thinking can become limiting if you become too structured and too outcome-driven, stuck in patterns and recipes.

Instead, as you get better, think in terms of mastery. 

Mastery is an attitude, not an outcome. It frees you from comparison. Mastery allows for curiosity, creativity, experimentation and exploration, thinking out of the box and breaking norms.

Mastery is a journey of learning and evolving.

There is no endpoint to mastery.

The trap of high expectations

High expectations may be even more insidious than perfectionism because most of us recognize subconsciously that we can’t be perfect per se, and at least we feel like we have some control over our own mistakes.

And I completely understand the idea of holding yourself to a high standard.

High *expectations*, however, usually imply an expected outcome, such as winning or placing in the top 10 or getting your dog competing by a certain age or being better than your last dog.

It is your ego getting involved.

Anything less than the expected result is a failure in your mind. But the result is very much out of your control because of the variables of other competitors, the nature of animals, etc. 

This creates an incredible amount of pressure and and causes the fight or flight response to kick in to counter-productive overdrive. 

The opposite of this is being realistic. But being realistic has its own pitfalls.

[High expectations create pressure. Check out my Pressure Proof webinar series here.]

On being realistic

Realistic isn’t generally* a useful thought-process either.

In my experience, being realistic is the term handlers use when setting themselves up for failure, trying to avoid feeling disappointed. 

Trying to hide from disappointment is what makes you hesitate or pull up short, sabotaging your dreams and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you want to compete to your full capacity, you eventually need to have the courage to face your fears. 

*However, being realistic is a VERY useful strategy in two cases:

  1. It's important to be realistic about how long it takes to get to a high level of performance. It takes a LONG time. Most people underestimate how long it takes to become truly masterful (competence comes fairly quickly, mastery does not). So being realistic about the length of time it takes to build real expertise can take the pressure off you in terms of your short-term development.
  2. Being realistic (or pragmatic may be the better word) in terms of how luck plays into competition. You can be the best in the world and never have the odds go your way in the big competitions. It's out of your control. But the opposite is also true. Someone has to win the lottery. Remember, train and compete like you have a chance. If you don't at least approach your craft that way, you won't train or prepare to a high enough standard to have a chance.

Just make sure you aren't using *being realistic* as an excuse for preparing poorly or for competing before you are ready.

I can’t see the future. Unforeseeable things can happen that tilt the odds in my favour. Who knows what level I might reach and what innate talent might blossom with enough time and dedicated practice? 

Instead of thinking of being realistic, just remember your odds might be higher or lower in any given event and that's out of your control, but if you are at the line, there is always a chance, and you should go to the line with that attitude and run like you belong there. There is always an element of luck in any competition. And with time, like many flips of the coin, your odds just keep improving.

After all, no upset ever happened by being realistic. 🙃

Upsets are fuelled by hope and belief, a determination to keep fighting and a fierce focus on doing the small fundamental things well.

In other words, don't sabotage yourself before you start.

Mastery is a journey

It is not perfectionism or high expectations or being realistic that gets you results. Those things do not predict outcome.

Whether you have high expectations or are trying to be realistic, those thoughts cloud your mind and prevent you from being in the moment.

So don't focus on winning or failing. Focus on on being in the moment and learning how to react from the cause and effect of what happens.

As the saying goes:

“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.”

It's true. Each event teaches you more and makes you better. The wins feel good, but the losses teach you a lot more than any win.

Wins rarely change you. Failures do.

So that’s your mantra, “who knows what I can achieve if I keep showing up?”

Winning one event does not make you a master (although many people act like it does).

Losing one event does not make you a loser (although many people act like it does).

Not every successful competitor starts out as a prodigy. They got to the top because they kept showing up even when they were falling flat on their faces at the start of their career. They kept building expertise regardless of outcome.

A brilliant musician once said to me: "I hate it when when people tell me I'm a natural. I worked my butt off to get where I am. If I have a talent, it's my passion driving me to put in the time."

Mastery is long-term thinking. If you want to be in the game a long time, you can't escape the fact you're going to win some and lose some, make some brilliant moves and make some bonehead mistakes. 

Mastery isn't about being the best at everything (ie the best dog walk, the best turns, etc). It’s about the total package of how you as a team work together. You keep getting better and you keep showing up and you increase the chances the odds will go your way.

Most of the people I know have won major events when they weren’t expecting it, whether it was their first big event or later in their career.

And that is the key. No expectations at all. Have goals, but don't cloud your thinking with baggage. Let your mind be clear.

Just train. Just run. Answer the dog’s questions. Hang on and survive.

And see how the cards fall.

Reassess. Do better the next time.

It’s not about high expectations, perfection or being realistic. 

It’s about focusing on the job right in front of you and doing the best job you can in that moment.

It’s that simple...and that hard.

So how do you get to that place?

Bring yourself fully to every training repetition. Leave your ego at the door.

Train the details. Train under pressure. Train for the unexpected.

Don’t just train the skills, train the performance.

Train in a way that performance is so automatic you can let go and react without thinking.

That’s what the best of the best do. They don’t train to get it right, they train so they can’t get it wrong under any conditions.

You can learn to do that too.

So you can let go and just do without getting up in your own head.

That’s the difference under pressure.

That’s mastery.

Don't know how to train for mastery? 

Check out the main page of The Agility Coach! Programs for both novice and experienced teams.

Kathy Keats is a 3-sport international competitor and has won multiple world, national and regional championships and has helped thousands of people develop more empowering mindsets, including national and world champions in a variety of dog sports.


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