This past weekend I had the opportunity to be part of a local sports camp. In each session, the clinicians brought in taught more than the sport of focus, they also shared insights of wisdom about how to succeed and what the sport had added to their life. What I found most impressive from all of the coaches was the openess of a professional athlete and his humility about his path to world-class status. Let’s call him Jim. While talking about his path, Jim kept refering to “setbacks” and “falling short”. Nearly everyone was surprised. So often such presentations include “how to’s” for reaching your goals, how to sacrifice, why you should set goals others don’t understand, and so on. But this was different. Instead of the usual presentation, Jim revealed that he had come up short of expectations throughout his youth and collegiate career, and expressed a sincere disappointment by highlighting mistakes he had made. When asked how he got past his “failures”, Jim noted that he simply made up his mind each time to learn, improve, and move forward. This was refreshing to say the least, and it in part inspired what I want to talk about in this post; overcoming the fear of failure.
While Jim talked, what I began to see in him was a willingness to take on new challenges without worry or fear of failure. And this is precisely where so many athletes with potential struggle. Often times athletes begin to faulter when their talents elicit high expectations from others. As a result, so many of them begin to trap themselves because they do not want to disappoint others (parents, teammates, coaches, and the like). Trying to meet the expectations of others can then lead to fearing mistakes, and worrying about what could go wrong. As a result, an athlete can “lock up” or “shut down” so as not to commit potential errors.
Secondarily, some athletes put enormous pressure on themselves. In part this may come from internalizing the expectations of others. However, in my experience, there are a large number of athletes who pressure themselves so much that any mistake can now be seen as a threat to their desired achievement. These threats can then cause a similar reaction – to stop taking chances so as to not fail. This becomes an ebbing tide that errodes confidence and motivation, and if not dealt with can result in an athlete wanting out or giving up.
In order to understand this dilemma, it is important to take a look at how an athlete learns to fear failures. The first thing to understand is that it is all about thinking & beliefs. If an athlete believes that mistakes are a measure of their value, or a predictor of future succes, then she becomes afraid. Essentially, she begins to have worries and doubts which are simply a focus on the negative. These then become internal distractions that pull attention away from being able to focus on performing, and ultimately increase anxiety. As the parent or coach, you may recognize this as the athlete who seems overwhelmed and anxious when the lights go on.
Often times too, athletes who fear failure become trapped in self-evaluation. Such an athlete begins to view outcomes as a measure of his personal value. When things go well (i.e. winning), then he sees himself as worthy of other’s attention and approval. However, if things don’t go well (errors, faults, losses, etc.), he feels as though others will not like or approve of him. This pattern was likely set early based on the feedback he received as a young athlete. Reprimands, punishments, threats, and discouragement of risk taking become a stronger voice than the positive affirmations because they turn on a “threat meter” in the brain. As a species, we are hard-wired to seek ways to belong, and more importantly ways to not be left out of social circles. Thus, the negative feedback turns on the threat meter for an athlete, and he then ensures he will not get pushed out by not risking making mistakes. And if he does not make mistakes, then he is left questioning what his value is really worth, and the cycle continues.
This is typically the point at which athletes decide they want to come talk with me. And though he dye has been cast, it is possible to overcome the fear of failure. One of the first things I attempt to have an athlete do is organize and purpsefully plan risk-taking. By tapping the natural ability to set goals, I ask the athlete to set a Growth Goal or Challenge Goal by formulating something they would like to get better at or improve upon in their sport. Then, we work to establish opportunities to make attempts in practice. This simple change in focus encourages the athlete to focus on the process of growth rather than fearing negative outcomes. Mistakes are noted as an acceptable element in improving. When reviewing the growth attempts in a later meeting, I frequently encourage the athlete to ask themselves a simple question when reflecting on mistakes, “If I am in that situation again, what would I do different?” This becomes an encouraging moment, as the athlete realizes that the mistake was a learning opportunity, not simply an outcome.
For coaches and parents, teaching athletes to overcome failure is as important as teaching execution of skills. We have to remember that most of what happens in competition is completely out of our control. The best we can do is respond in a way that increases the likelihood we have success. Thus, encouraging athletes to take a calculated risk is important. Providing praise & recognition in attempts of success or growth communicates a powerful message that effort is required in order to have an opportinity to succeed. Asking athletes to reflect on different actions, with a follow-up opportunity to re-play the scenario also promotes resilience, as well as knowledge. This is different than simply demanding, “Do it again, and do it right!” Instead, have a discussion asking the athlete to share his thinking process during the play (not the mistake, he already knows it was bad), and to then ponder a different way to read or react. Getting a chance to do it different shows you have confidence in his ability to learn and perform well after mistakes happen.
Fearing failure can be devastating. Athletes who harbor this frame of mind become locked in a pattern whereby they refuse to take risks, or at worst, try. Having an approach that encourages an athlete to recover and make another attempt ensures they will continuously seek growth. Like Jim, you now have an athlete who honestly recognizes why he failed, but is courageous enough to get back to work and try again. In the long-run, you have an athlete who is not afraid and will likely be successful further down the road. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.