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Posted 11/14/2020 in Category 1

Fear of Failure in athletes: Facing your demons

Fear of Failure in athletes: Facing your demons

Failing is a familiar aspect of most athletes’ careers and despite common misconceptions, it can be extremely important. Throughout life we strive to learn from and overcome failure, with learning from our mistakes commonly proving to be an essential ingredient for success.

Nine times out of ten, you won’t be punished for not winning that gold medal you’ve trained for…the world won’t end…life goes on, right? So why do we still see so many athletes fearing failure? 

What is Fear of Failure?

We all know the sporting world is competitive. It inevitably creates the desire to win and succeed. When these goals are reached a huge sense of reward and accomplishment is experienced. However, what happens when an athlete considers the undesirable prospect of not attaining their goals? Fear. Fear of not winning that all important race, fear of not being selected for the big match coming up. Ultimately, the development of fear of failure and the consequences that comes with it. 

Fear of failure is the motive to avoid failure associated with anticipatory shame.” (Conroy, 2012)

The consequences of failure that an athlete experiences come in many forms, from personal shame and embarrassment, to the fear of letting other people in their support network down. The loss of social value and the idea of having an uncertain future are other common feared consequences of failure. Here we see the Fear of Failure predicament rooted deeper than simply being afraid to lose the all-important race…and this is the real issue. 

Why talk about Fear of Failure?

While talking openly about fearing failure can often be a daunting possibility, it’s importance should not go unrecognised. Of course fear of failure can sometimes be a powerful motivator, and on sometimes provide the drive to succeed. But there are also negative effects to fear of failure and these can include:

  • Headaches, negative mood, depression, stress
  • Eating disorders
  • Interpersonal problems
  • Dropout
  • Drug abuse
  • Performance decrements
  • Increased desire to cheat
  • Burnout

So, why exactly are athletes afraid to fail? Where does it come from?

Fear of failure can stem from a number of life domains, from both the athlete and their environment in the form of pressure from:

  • Family- “Pushy parents”, wanting to “make them proud”
  • Coach- fear of “letting them down”, criticism, punishment 
  • Self- perfectionism, exceptionally high goals and expectations
  • Opponent- their reputation and success may stimulate anxiety and fear of failure 

Six different steps to staring failure in the face: overcoming the fear

Overcoming a fear of failure is no easy task and certainly doesn’t happen overnight. The first (and usually hardest!) step is usually identifying and accepting the fear. When an athlete recognises where their fear originates from and why, there are a number of ways it can be addressed. Sagar (2009) suggested that the athlete:

  • Mentally disengage yourself from the situation "this won't affect me", think of the positives. Could it be worse?
  • Physically disengage yourself: create distractions, use humour, or don't talk about it at all!
  • Confront your fears: Do exactly what makes you afraid. Normalise it and overcome it. Put yourself out there.
  • Be realistic: Lower your goals and expectations. Allow yourself yo make mistakes and learn from them.
  • Ask for help: Seek emotional support from people around you. Coaches, parents and friends will want to help. 

Overcoming any kind of fear is different for everyone. Athletes and their fear of failure is no exception. After all, we’re all human. This is not a “one size fits all” kind of scenario! 

To summarise…

Fear of Failure is an important consideration within Sport Psychology. Any athlete who fears failure risks being caught in what seems like a never-ending cycle of anxiety and disbelief. Choosing to ignore it can have serious long-term repercussions, both on their performance and areas of their personal life. So instead of shying away from the concept of failure, we should embrace it. Stare it in the face and normalise it. Change the negative mindset. 

Think: How can I learn from this? Could others learn from my mistakes too? 

Instead of battling with your mind, use it to your advantage.

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” - Michael Jordan

Guest Blog written by Ellie-May Storr  

Image by Jonas Hasselqvist from Pixabay