Helping Young Athletes Manage Fear of Failure

Eli Straw
Helping Young Athletes Manage Fear of Failure

I'm working with a young athlete right now who plays baseball. He's a strong player and has a lot of confidence in himself. But there's one thing he's been struggling a lot with recently...making throws to first base.

Not because he doesn't have any accuracy or because his arm isn't strong enough to make the throw from shortstop to first base. But because there's something in his mind that's holding him back.

Fear.

He's worried about making a bad throw. And so he tries to be too accurate, taking a little off his throw, which only ends up leading to a bad throw.

His fear of making a mistake is the very thing causing him to make mistakes. Have you seen this happen to your young athlete?

Fear of failure is common among youth athletes because no one wants to make mistakes. They're not fun, and most of the time they're embarrassing.

What can happen, though, is that the young athlete starts to grow afraid of making mistakes, causing them to play timidly, lack confidence, and underperform in games.

If that's the case for your young athlete, keep reading, because I'm going to go over tips I use when working with a young athlete to help them manage the fear of failure.

Fear of Failure in Youth Sports

The fear of failure is defined by being afraid of making mistakes. The young athlete is afraid of what may happen if they make a mistake or mess up during a game.

It's not the mistake itself they're necessarily afraid of, rather, it's what happens after the mistake.

Let's take a look at the example I gave in the introduction. It wasn't the bad throw itself the young baseball player was afraid of. No, he was worried about the embarrassment he would feel knowing he let his team down.

The bad throw may mean a run or two would score. It at least would mean there's an extra runner on base. Maybe he's afraid of his coaching getting mad at him, benching him, or making him move positions.

All of these consequences that result from the bad throw are truly what he's afraid of.

Another example comes from a young basketball player I was working with. Much like the baseball player, he was afraid of making a simple mistake. For him, it was missing a shot.

He wanted to score more, but he was afraid of missing shots and getting judged by his teammates. Once again, we see that it is not the mistake itself that the athlete fears, but the consequence (or perceived consequence) of that mistake.

Why Young Athletes Develop the Fear of Failure

There are two main reasons youth athletes begin fearing mistakes. It all has to do with the past and the future.

Typically there will be a single event or a string of mistakes that triggers this fear.

Going back to the young baseball player, when I asked him if there was any time he could think of that was extremely embarrassing that stuck out in his mind, he immediately told me about a game he played last year where he made an error to lose the game.

That mistake left him feeling embarrassed, frustrated, and like he let his entire team down. From that point forward, he felt more fear when it came to making mistakes.

The more he held on to that memory, the more he grew to fear mistakes.

Now we come to the second part of why young athletes develop the fear of failure...thinking about the future.

If there has been a negative past experience, like the example I just gave, what can happen is that the young athlete worries a lot about making sure they don't feel that way again.

This is where the fear truly strengthens going into a game and during a game. Because they are thinking too much about the future, the only option they have is to feel fear in the present.

The combination of a negative past experience and thinking about what they don't want to have happen is the main driving force for the fear of failure in young athletes.

How Fear of Failure Holds Young Athletes Back

If you've noticed that your young athlete is playing with a lot of fear, would you say they've looked nice and relaxed recently, or a bit more tense during games?

My guess is they look more tense. You may even say they look stiff or rigid. Definitely not as relaxed and free as they have in the past.

That's because the fear of failure causes young athletes to play tense and timidly. Since they're so focused on what they don't want to have happen, they'll play tight due to fear.

When an athlete plays tight and timidly, they are not able to play as freely as they need to and their performances will suffer.

One common theme among young athletes who are dealing with the fear of failure is that they'll play better in practices than games.

During practice they feel like it's okay to make mistakes. It's practice, mistakes are meant to happen. But come game time it's an entirely different story.

Mistakes now become something to fear. They hold much more consequence and can result in them getting yelled at, benched, or feeling embarrassed. As a result, the young athlete's focus will be on not messing up, instead of playing well.

By playing timidly, they actually increase their chances of making mistakes, leading to a vicious cycle of fear. Which is why, if this is something your young athlete is struggling with, there are steps you can take to help them overcome this fear of failure and play freely.

Tips to Help Your Young Athlete Manage the Fear of Failure

Playing with fear is no fun! It's a terrible feeling in the first place, and the way it causes young athletes to perform is incredibly frustrating. Luckily, there are specific tips you can apply to help reduce their fear.

Tip #1: Help Them Recognize Their True Fear

Do you remember how I said it's the consequence of the mistake, not the mistake itself that the young athlete fears? Well, one of the things you can do is help them get clear on what specifically they're afraid of.

The reason I like this step when it comes to reducing fear is because it allows the athlete to begin talking through why they're afraid, what they're concerned may happen, and then create strategies for if it does happen.

Uncertainty leads to fear. So, if the young athlete doesn't know how they'll react if they get benched or how they'll be able to manage their feelings of embarrassment, then it's going to be much more difficult to let go of their fears.

However, if they can identify what they're afraid of, and then create a strategy for if that happens, it can make them feel more in control of the situation.

I performed this exercise with the baseball player I mentioned earlier. One of his main fears was the coach moving him to another position.

Once we identified that's what he was truly afraid of, we began talking through a plan of action if it did happen. By doing so, he realized that if he is moved positions, he will work to play that position as well as he can.

Through planning and coming up with a strategy, he was able to reduce the fear he felt while playing, because he knew how he would handle the negative consequences if it did occur.

Tip #2: Teach Them the Importance of Focusing on What They Want to Have Happen

When a young athlete is dealing with the fear of failure, it's going to be natural for them to focus on what they don't want to have happen.

Their fear is focused on mistakes. So, it's easy to have their thoughts revolve around not wanting to make mistakes. But even though they're thinking how much they don't want to make a mistake, they are still thinking about mistakes.

This creates a negative image in their mind, resulting in them playing the game with the thought of messing up. To counteract this, you can help your young athlete focus more on what they want to have happen.

For example, if they're afraid of double faulting on a serve, get them to think about acing their serve.

If they're afraid of dropping a pass, have them focus on the thought of making a nice catch and scoring a touchdown.

The idea is to have them imagine their performance going well, instead of worrying about it not going well. This works wonders when it comes to the level of confidence they play with. And the more confident they are, the less fear will be present.

A mental training tool I love that can help with this is visualization.

A young athlete can use visualization to imagine themselves performing well. What this will do is build the memory of success, and increase their confidence.

Visualization can be used on a daily basis, and also before the game as part of a pregame routine. I've also seen success with having a young athlete use it during a game.

For example, with that baseball player, I had him briefly imagine himself making a good play between each pitch. This worked to counteract the thoughts he typically had between pitches surrounding not wanting to make an error.

So what you can do is get your young athlete to begin visualizing themselves performing well. That way they focus more on what they want to have happen, instead of what they don't want to have happen.

Tip #3: Get Them to Focus More on the Process

Worrying about the outcome is a main driver of fear of failure. To help, you want to teach your young athlete to focus more on the process.

Now, what is the process of their game?

Think of the process like the pieces of a puzzle. The finished puzzle is the outcome they want (whether that be scoring a basket, acing a serve, scoring a goal, getting a hit, or winning the game).

What does it take to finish a puzzle? Well, you have to put all the pieces in their proper place, one at a time. Exactly! The same approach needs to be taken to a young athletes game.

They need to focus on all the small pieces that lead to the outcome they want. To help get them to focus more on the process, a great exercise you can do is have them list out everything that's in their control.

The process is going to be in their control, while the outcome is not fully in their control. Therefore, if they focus more on what they can control, you know they're focusing more on the process.

So have them list out all they can control in their sport. Here's an example of what a list may look like:

  • My attitude
  • My preparation
  • My work ethic
  • My pregame routine
  • My warm up routine
  • My evaluations after games
  • Watching the ball into my glove
  • My mindset
  • How I react to mistakes

Once you have them outline what they can control, talk to them about the importance of focusing on those small pieces, instead of the large outcome.

If they give full attention to the pieces, that's what gives them the best chance of getting the outcome they want. And the more they focus on the process, the less thought they're giving to the outcome, and so the less fear they'll feel.

Mental Coaching for Young Athletes With Fear of Failure

When a young athlete has the fear of failure, this will cause them to underperform, since they're worried more about what they don't want to have happen.

The more they think about not wanting to make mistakes, the more timid they will play. This is a very frustrating situation for them to find themselves in.

Luckily, there are certain tips you can use to help them reduce the fear of failure and play freely and full of confidence.

Now, if you're interested in a more in-depth and personalized approach to helping your young athlete overcome the fear of failure, then you need one-on-one mental coaching.

With mental coaching, I will work with your young athlete to identify the main fears they have, and then come up with a custom game plan to strengthen their mindset and overcome the fears that are holding them back.

To learn more about mental coaching for young athletes with fear of failure, please fill out the form below or schedule a free introductory coaching call.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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