Letting Go of Expectations

“Positive expectations are the mark of the superior personality.”

“Winners make a habit of manufacturing their own positive expectations in advance of the event.”

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.”

“Expectation feeds frustration. It is an unhealthy attachment to people, things, and outcomes that we wish we could control, but can’t.”

When it comes to the many different aspects of human psychology, one of the concepts I’m most fascinated by is the concept of expectation, and its dualistic nature. In one sense, it can act as a powerful catalyst for productive action and positive change. In another, it can act as a debilitating weakness that impedes performance and creates worry and stress.

It’s an interesting concept to explore and conceptualize for competitive level Magic. Is it better to walk into a tournament expecting to win or not expecting to win? Is it beneficial to approach competition and expect yourself to achieve a specific outcome or to let go of expectations altogether? These are important questions to ask and worth trying to figure out because ultimately, how you handle expectations going into a tournament is undoubtedly going to impact how you perform and the results you experience.

How so? Well, I’ll give you a couple of examples.

Let’s start by saying you walk into a tournament expecting to win the whole tournament or expecting to finish in or around a certain position (Top 4, Top 8, Top 16, etc.). In one sense, that expectation can be a good thing. If you’re expecting to do that well, then that shows that you have confidence in yourself and your abilities. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t expect yourself to finish that high. The more confident you are in yourself and your abilities, the better you can perform and the better your potential results. On top of that, expecting a certain result can give you a source of motivation—something to drive you and a purpose to focus on.

But in another sense, expecting to achieve a certain result can certainly be a bad thing, for a couple of reasons.

First, when you walk into a tournament expecting to achieve a specific outcome, whether you realize it or not, you’ve taken that tournament and turned it into a “do or die, succeed or fail” scenario. Your mindset has now shifted to “I need to achieve this outcome I’m expecting, otherwise I will have failed.” When that happens, the pressure to avoid failing is instantly introduced into the equation, and you’ll have to cope with that pressure each game and each round throughout the tournament. That’s a heavy unnecessary burden to carry on your mind when playing.

Second, any challenge, obstacle, or setback you experience as you’re playing throughout the tournament can cause you to panic and overreact in a negative way. Because you’ve set up a result expectation in your mind going into the tournament, anything that happens along the way that you recognize has the potential to prevent you from achieving the outcome you’re expecting can tilt your mindset and negatively impact you moving forward. A mistake can cause you to become desperate and play too loosely. A loss can chip away at your confidence or cause you to lose hope, throwing in the towel.

Now, let’s say you walk into a tournament without expecting to achieve a certain result. In one sense, not expecting to get a certain result is absolutely without question a good thing. When you don’t expect to achieve a specific outcome, your mindset doesn’t get shifted into seeing that tournament as “do or die, succeed or fail” any longer. Because you don’t see the tournament in that way, the pressure you’d normally feel is relieved, and you’re able to go into each of your games and rounds with a clear mind that isn’t weighed down by the burden of expectation. That’s only ever a great thing, and will allow you to play your best more often.

On top of that, it makes it much easier to have fun and enjoy yourself when playing, and while having fun playing Magic may seem cliché in nature, for competitive players, enjoying oneself is too often sacrificed for the sake of a competitive drive for results. It’s fine to want to win and you should have that desire to do well, but if your desire to win is so intense that it causes you to sacrifice enjoying the game when playing, it’s gone too far and you’ve lost the right balance. The sweet spot is always balancing having fun while being competitive, something that is much easier to do when you remove results expectations from the equation.

But in another sense, not expecting to achieve a certain result can have its downsides as well. First, when you go to play in a tournament, you need an aim to shoot for—a purpose for playing that will give you the necessary drive and motivation to want to play. Without a specific result to aim for, that lack of a target to focus on can leave you purposeless and unmotivated when you go to play. Second, not expecting a certain result can cause you to play carelessly and without any real consideration. If you don’t expect to get a certain result and if you have no fear of losing, then what’s the point in trying your hardest and playing your best?

This all brings us to the crux of today’s article: Which approach is better? Is it better to approach a tournament having expectations, or is it better to approach a tournament not expecting anything? To answer that, we have to look at both approaches, their upsides and their downsides, and decide whether or not their downsides outweigh their upsides. And when we do that, the answer becomes very clear: It’s far better to approach a tournament without having any results expectations, and here’s why.

  • The downsides far outweigh the benefits. The benefits can be attained through other means, and the downsides are significant enough to warrant avoiding that approach. Having a result target to aim for giving you the motivation to play doesn’t matter if the pressure and stress that accompanies that is going to derail your ability to play your best anyway.
  • When it comes to going into a tournament without any results expectations, the benefits of that approach far outweigh its weaknesses. The weaknesses of this approach can be fixed by focusing on one single thing (which I’ll get to in a bit) and the benefits of this approach far outweigh its weaknesses. The motivation and drive to do well and be your best simply comes from a different source, and on top of that, you’re now free to play without the pressures and stresses that expecting certain results carry with it and you’re able to have fun and enjoy playing the game more, both of which enhance your ability to play your best.

So, having said all of that, here’s how you want to approach every tournament when you go to play:

Go into every tournament with ZERO expectations.

We’ve analyzed the two different approaches and the best option is clear: You always want to approach every tournament with zero expectations in terms of results. What this means is that you essentially approach the tournament from a mindset of, “The results are completely beyond my control and whatever happens, happens.” And that’s a fact. As a Magic player, you don’t have any direct control over whether you win or lose a game of Magic. As we know, you can do everything right, play really well, and still lose due to the variant nature of the game. You can’t control the outcome. All you can control is the performance and the process that creates that outcome (which I’ll get to in a bit).

Now, having said that, it’s important to make something clear—going into a tournament with no expectations is not the same as going into a tournament with low expectations. People have a tendency to confuse the two. Going into a tournament with low expectations means that you’re still expecting an outcome. The outcome you’re expecting is simply lower. That’s not the same as having no expectations where you don’t try to predict an outcome whatsoever. That’s an extremely important distinction to understand.

Without any expectations and when you don’t try to pre-plan a certain outcome, then, as I mentioned earlier, you’re free from the pressure, tension, stress, and nervousness that accompanies the need to fulfill expectation. You’re able to have more fun and enjoy yourself more. All of that is beneficial and conducive to high performance.

Instead of having a result expectation, set a high performance standard.

We talked about how one of the downsides of going into a tournament without any expectations is that it gives you nothing to aim for—no purpose or motivation to make you want to do your best and play as well as possible each and every game. That weakness is alleviated by setting a high performance standard for yourself. That means that in every game and every round you play, you demand from yourself the absolute best performance you can produce, and not for the sake of a result or an outcome, but simply because you take pride in the quality of how you play and demanding your best from yourself is simply the standard you set for yourself as a player.

The benefit of setting a high performance standard is two-fold. First, it fills the gap in terms of motivation and purpose. Demanding that high standard and taking pride in how you play gives you that drive you need to do your best and play as well as you possibly can, and gives you something to aim to achieve each game. Secondly, it’s a great habit to get into in general, because demanding your best from yourself every game helps prevent the issue of rubber-banding performances where you raise or lower your level of play based on external circumstances, such as who your opponent is, how prestigious the tournament is, what’s at stake, etc. You should be demanding your best from yourself in every situation, regardless of external circumstances, and that’s just an important habit to form anyways.

If you’re interested in continuing to learn more about the mental side of the game, I wrote an entire book about it which you can find here. Myself and a buddy of mine Lance Austin also co-host a podcast where we talk about topics related to the mental side of the game, which can be found here, here, and of course here on ChannelFireball.

Thanks for reading, and all the best in your upcoming tournaments!

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