How to Set Healthy Expectations for Your Young Athlete

If you’re a youth sports parent, setting expectations for your young athlete is key. Expectations help young athletes focus on what’s important and establish a standard toward which they can strive.

However, the wrong kinds of expectations can be detrimental to a young athlete’s growth. And because of our culture of hyper-achievement, more and more parents are developing the wrong kinds of expectations.friendly handshake on white background

Unhealthy Expectations of Success

What sorts of expectations should you avoid? For starters, don’t establish ability or outcome expectations. Ability expectations are those in which children are expected to succeed solely because of natural ability, “We expect you to win because you’re the best athlete out there.” Problem is, children can’t control their own their ability. We’re all are born with a certain amount of ability which we utilize as best we can. But if your young athlete isn’t living up to your ability expectations, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. You didn’t give them good enough genes!

Outcome expectations should also be avoided. Since our hyper-achievement culture prioritizes results over all else, parents often expect their young athletes to produce defined outcomes—“We expect you to win this tennis match.” Just like with ability expectations, the problem here is that young athletes can’t always control these outcomes. Even when they do their best, they might not meet your expectations because another young athlete just had a better day. So they would consider the game a failure just because they didn’t attain your goals.

But results still matter!

Now you might be thinking, “Wait a minute! I can’t push my kids to get do their best in sports (or school)? No way I’m buying this one.” Before you jump all over me, give me some latitude to bring all these ideas back to the real world.

Here is a simple reality that we all recognize in the sports world: results matter! No two ways about it—your children are judged by the results they produce. Though it would be great if everyone got rewarded for their good intentions or efforts, that is not the way the world works.

Unfortunately, this societal focus can cause parents to place their desire for their children to succeed—as defined by our sports culture—ahead of doing the right thing for their children.

I would recommend that you give up outcome expectations altogether and instead give them outcome goals. What’s the difference between goals and expectations? Outcome expectations are often set for children without their “buy in,” and kids often feel dragged—sometimes kicking and screaming—toward those expectations. When I ask children about expectations, they usually grimace and say things like, “That’s when my parents get really serious and I know they’re gonna put pressure on me” or “They’re telling me what to do and I better do it or I’ll get into trouble.” Not exactly “feel-good” parenting, is it?

Effort Expectations

If you want your children to be successful, try establishing effort expectations, over which they have control. If your children feel that they have the tools to achieve their goals, they are much more likely to embrace and pursue them. Try something like, “Our family expects you to give your best effort.” Regardless of the abilities they inherited from you or with whom they might be compared, children have the capacity to use effort expectations and the tools associated with them to be the best they can be in their sport.

Finally, make sure effort expectations are established in collaboration with your children. This cooperative approach ensures that your children have ownership of the expectations rather than feeling that you have forced the expectations on them. You can talk to your children about the value of effort, how it will help them achieve their goals, and that they have complete control over their effort. You can share examples with your children of how notable people used the skills associated with effort to become successful. Most importantly, you want to help them make the connection between their efforts and success.

Dr. Jim Taylor is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of performance in business, sport, and parenting. Dr. Taylor has been a consultant for the United States and Japanese Ski Teams, the United States Tennis Association, and USA Triathlon, and has worked with professional and world-class athletes in tennis, skiing, cycling, triathlon, track and field, swimming, football, golf, baseball, and many other sports. See more of his blogs at

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