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Posted 10/03/2022 in Category 1

How fear of failure might affect a forward in hurling

How fear of failure might affect a forward in hurling

Many years ago, two psychologists, David McClelland and John Atkinson, suggested a link between two basic achievement motives: – need for achievement and fear of failure. Alongside these two basic achievement motives were some associated emotions – pride and shame. You can guess that pride joins with achievement and shame with failure, but is it true that these are the feelings you feel when you hold a need to achieve and a need to avoid failure? 

I don’t think David or John ever played Gaelic games, but these basic needs follow us wherever we find ourselves – in school, on the pitch or among people. What does it mean to fear failure? When we think about failure more broadly, we realise we do something with the possibility of success or failure. Fear of failure is a self-evaluative process, so a person defines and experiences failure in achievement settings – like Gaelic games – according to their own standards. Some people argue that this evaluative process comes from parent-child relations and how a child experience failure and success around their parents. One researcher (Teevan, 1983) found that children high in fear of failure had mothers who punish failure but react neutrally to success. Another study showed that mothers with a high fear of failure set high achievement standards for their sons, but did not believe their sons held the ability to achieve these standards. 

The accumulated research to date suggests that those high in fear of failure are socialised towards the possibility of failure. They also feel the pressure to succeed beyond their capacity, and there is a relational cost to that failure. So what does this mean? It means that children learn about the possibility for failure in tasks, but there is pressure to succeed regardless of their ability and parents, for example, might withdraw their love following failure. These events might take place without a parent or child knowing what is going on. So many of these events occur unbeknownst to the parent because they just don’t know how they are behaving around their children. For this reason, we can observe what is going on and learn from it for the future. For the child, however, what they learn is that failure is unacceptable, and it influences their self-worth and the security of their relationship with their parents. 

The one emotion that is ever present in relation to failure is shame. Shame is an unwanted feeling we associate with avoiding and withdrawing. The missed tackle, the missed free-kick, the point you kicked with an open goal at your mercy – all these events might one might experience as shame with a tendency to avoid and withdraw thereafter. In the hurler’s head, he might think, “I missed that easy point; next time I will lay it off to the centre-forward”. After repeated misses, two wides, in a row, he might withdraw from being available to take the pass for a score. 

We, as players and coaches, need to see what is happening on the pitch. Can you see what happens with repeated failure? Can you see what happens when a hurler is avoiding chances to score? Can you see confidence in action or a player avoiding opportunities to succeed? The least we can do as coaches is to switch things around for the players. Encourage the ‘have a go’ attitude at all times. Reward the player for every attempt on goal. Cherish the player who moves to take a pass. Count the attempts on goal as the player learning and improving. 


McGregor, H., & Elliot, A. (2005). The Shame of Failure: Examining the Link Between Fear of Failure and Shame. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(2), 218–231. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167204271420

Teevan, R. (1983). Childhood development of fear of failure motivation: A replication. Psychological Reports, 53, 506.