Mindset Shifts to Overcome Fear of Failure in Sports
Fear of failure in sports can quickly turn an activity you used to enjoy into one that brings you pain.
Dread overshadows any excitement you may have to perform. And rather than being focused, your mind is preoccupied with worrisome thoughts about what may happen.
As an athlete or performer, failure is going to happen. In sports someone wins and someone loses. Meaning every time you compete there is a looming threat of failure.
Ironically, the more you grow to fear failure in sports, the greater likelihood you have of actually failing.
Fear of failure not only sucks the joy out of performing but also reduces the level of your game. Which is why, learning how to shift your mindset in relation to failure is a powerful skill for you to learn.
Fear of Failure in Sports Explained
Fear of failure is defined as a deep rooted fear of making a mistake. It’s not that you simply don’t want to make a mistake…of course everyone has this wish. With fear of failure, the feelings are much more intense.
When you exhibit this deep fear, all your mind can focus on is the avoidance of failing. Failure has become a threat, much like being attacked by a wild animal. While your rational mind can tell you nothing so bad could possibly happen from failing, the fear still remains.
This is due to the negative association you’ve linked to making a mistake.
Perhaps it came as a result of being yelled at in front of the entire team as a young athlete. Or maybe it’s due to a nasty fall you had that left you in a cast. Whatever the reason, your unconscious mind now associates failing with intensely negative emotions.
As you move forward in your sport with this fear, there is only one focus present within your mind: avoiding failure.
What this leads to is playing timidly and drastically holding yourself back. It can be likened to driving a car with your foot pressed halfway down on the break. No matter how hard you try, there is an underlying force slowing you down.
"Fear of failure is defined as a deep rooted fear of making a mistake. It’s not that you simply don’t want to make a mistake, of course everyone has this wish. With fear of failure, the feelings are much more intense."
What Causes Fear of Failure
In the last section, we said that fear of failure in sports typically springs forth from associating failure with negative emotions. For example, you make a mistake late in the game that causes your team to lose. Or you fail during a performance you’ve trained for for many months.
Both of these situations are moments. Ones that create something like an anchor in your mind that links intense negative emotions to failing. Moving forward, the rational response of your brain is to work to avoid making a similar mistake in the future.
However, these moments, while traumatic, are still only singular situations. They are products of the past and have no influence on your current game…unless you allow them to.
So while the fear may have been triggered by a certain event, it’s an ongoing frame of thought which is perpetuating this fear. Which is why, when looking at the cause of fear of failure in athletes, one mindset stands out among the rest: outcome-oriented thinking.
Fear Thrives on the Outcome
What is failure? Well, you may say many things based on what this word signifies to you. But simply stated, failure is an outcome. It’s a moment in time where you judge whether or not your practice or performance was a success.
There is no denying the presence of success and failure within sports. Equally so, there is no overlooking the desire for athletes to succeed and the aversion they have to failing. However, a question that I challenge you to consider is, does focusing on failure keep it from happening?
No, and as much as you try to will failure away by either fearing it or desiring success, it will do little good. In fact, the more you focus on not wanting to fail, the greater your chances of failing. This all revolves around the concept of outcome-oriented thinking.
Outcome-oriented thinking is a frame of thought where your mind is focused on the outcome. Before a game, you’re already thinking about how it’ll go, what people will think of you, or what your stats will look like.
This is okay, IF you don’t struggle with fear of failure. However, when one spark of fear is lit within your mind, this type of thinking will only add fuel to the flame.
As you think about the outcome, worries grow about what will happen if you fail, then you worry even more, and now you are fully under the control of fear.
Though, if there’s a way of thinking that perpetuates fear of failure in sports, there must be a frame of thought that does the opposite.
"Outcome-oriented thinking is a frame of thought where your mind is focused on the outcome. Before a game, you’re already thinking about how it’ll go, what people will think of you, or what your stats will look like."
Mindset Shifts to Reduce Fear of Failure in Sports
As with anything, there are multiple ways of perceiving failure. Right now, you see it as a threat. One which is strengthened through the focus you have on the outcome.
But what if you could see failure in a completely different light? Does that even seem possible to you?
Luckily, it’s definitely possible, and actually necessary. You fear failure as an athlete because you don’t want to experience the negative emotions that are associated with failing. By shifting your perspective on failure, you free yourself from such negative emotions.
In doing so, what will happen is your fear will be reduced. But more than that, you will actually gain more skills and tools you can use to increase your game. So you must ask yourself, “Is my ultimate goal truly to become the best player that I can be?”
If the answer is yes, then the first step is to begin shifting your mindset. Freeing you from fear and adopting a focus that will lead to greater success in the long run.
Become Process Focused
The first mindset shift I want to introduce is a cure for the above mentioned outcome-oriented thinking. It was made clear that focusing too much on the outcome going into a game will only worsen your feelings of fear.
So what can you do instead?
You want to shift your attention onto the process.
Saying trust the process is an easy catchphrase, but does little to help explain what all this actually involves. So what does it take to truly shift your attention off the outcome and onto the process during a practice or game?
Well, first and foremost it takes some thinking. You must think for yourself, what is the process within your game?
For example, let’s say you’re a second baseman. Automatically, the process can be broken down into two different sections: a fielder and a hitter.
As a fielder, your process involves checking the runners on base and going over what you’re going to do if the ball is hit to you. Staying low on a ground ball and watching it into your glove. Following through on your throw to first base. Covering second on a steal, and so on.
Now as a hitter, your process involves watching the pitcher from the dugout and then timing him up in the on deck circle. At the plate, your process takes on a new form of staying balanced, using your hips, or whatever cues you have learned over the years.
As you can see from this example, becoming process focused means taking your attention off the outcome and placing it onto the actions that will help you attain that outcome.
An actionable way of making the shift in your mindset is beginning to set performance objectives going into training and games. Give yourself targets (that are part of the process) to focus on.
That way, whenever your mind begins traveling to the outcome, quickly return your focus onto your objectives.
"An actionable way of making the shift in your mindset is beginning to set performance objectives going into training and games. Give yourself targets (that are part of the process) to focus on."
See Failure as a Learning Experience
The second mindset shift you can use to overcome fear of failure in sports tackles the understanding that right now, you see failure as something negative. Between the two mindsets, this one is definitely the more difficult to adopt.
Beginning to focus more on the process takes setting objectives and focusing on them. Yes, there is discipline needed to keep your attention fixed on those objectives, but not nearly as much discipline which is required for this second mindset.
With that being said, once you make the switch, this frame of thought completely frees you from the need to any longer see failure as something to fear.
What you want to do is begin to view failure as a learning experience.
Failure can be your greatest coach, if you allow it to be so. When you have a strong aversion to making a mistake as an athlete, you fail to see the opportunity it’s providing.
Since you’re overwhelmed with negative emotions, blindness falls and you’re unable to see the lesson in front of you.
An interesting example of this came up during a conversation I had recently with one of the athletes I work with in mental performance coaching.
She told me how she performs much better in practice because there she’s allowed to make a mistake. She sees failing in practice as an opportunity to grow.
However, during a game, failure transforms into something to fear. As a result, her performance level drops.
This shows just how powerful seeing failure as a learning experience can be. Not only does it allow you to play freely, but you gain insight into areas you can improve upon to keep becoming better and better.
So rather than view failing as a threat, start to see it as a coach. One that is continually teaching and showing you how you can grow as an athlete.
"Failure can be your greatest coach, if you allow it to be so. When you have a strong aversion to making a mistake, you fail to see the opportunity it’s providing. Since you’re overwhelmed with negative emotions, blindness falls and you’re unable to see the lesson in front of you."
Fear of failure haunts you as an athlete. Slowly transforming the sport you love into a threat. Stepping onto the field or court no longer fills you with joy. Rather, you are overwhelmed with terror.
But what you must remember is that fear is a product of your own mind. It’s simply a result of a certain frame of thought. By shifting your mindset, you can drastically change the way you see failure.
The first mindset shift is moving from being outcome focused to process focused. Pay attention to the actions you need to do that will lead to the outcome you desire.
The second mindset is seeing failure as a learning experience. Rather than being something to fear, view making a mistake as an opportunity to grow.
Through adopting these two mindsets, fear of failure in sports will begin to fade away. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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