3 Steps to Overcome Fear of Failure in Sports
The fear of failure holds you back and keeps you from performing freely and confidently.
As this fear worsens, you may find yourself performing timidly. Because you focus more on not wanting to make a mistake rather than wanting to succeed.
Due to this timidness, playing with fear will never allow you to perform your best.
You will always be underperforming and leaving games knowing you held yourself back.
All because of the fact that you were trying to avoid making mistakes.
As an athlete, you need to perform confidently. Which is why, in this article, you will learn what fear of failure is and three steps you can take to overcome the fear of failure in sports.
What is Fear of Failure?
Fear of failure in sports is defined as being afraid of making mistakes. Making mistakes and failing in a game has become something you fear.
But what are you really afraid of? During games (or even sometimes during practices) if you are dealing with the fear of failure, what is it that you're actually afraid of happening?
Are you afraid of missing the shot, striking out, or dropping the pass? Does that mistake hurt you somehow and cause any physical pain at that moment? Probably not. What you're actually afraid of are the negative consequences that will occur as a result of the mistake.
Many athletes I've worked with as a mental performance coach develop the fear of failure because they are worried about embarrassing themselves if they make a mistake.
Others put so much pressure on themselves that a single mistake means they weren't perfect and they beat themselves up.
Put simply, fear of failure in sports involves being afraid of making a mistake due to the negative consequences that will result from the mistake.
Cause of Fear of Failure in Sports
Some of the most common causes of the fear of failure I've seen in athletes include...
- Feeling embarrassed or ashamed if you fail.
- Negative self-talk occurs after you fail.
- Failure could hurt your future plans or goals.
- You may get benched if you fail.
- The coach may yell at you or criticize you.
- If you fail, others may think of you as less of a player.
- You feel like you are letting your team down or even your parents down if you fail.
- All your training is pointless if you keep making mistakes.
Do any of these sound familiar? If so, that's okay, but it's a good sign you are dealing with the fear of failure. And if you are, then it's time you begin taking steps to overcome your fear.
But before we dive into the steps you can take, let’s take a deeper look at how this fear will hurt you and your game.
How Fear of Failure Hurts You as an Athlete
Why is it that the fear of failure hurts you? Nobody wants to make mistakes, so why is it so bad that you're afraid of making mistakes? Couldn't that help you avoid failing during games?
Maybe. But here's the real problem...when you have the fear of failure, you tend to play timidly and hold yourself back.
The reason fear of failure causes you to play timidly is because your mind is focused on the possibility of failing. Your goal is now to avoid making mistakes instead of having your goal be to go out there and perform your best.
To perform with confidence, there must be a certain level of fearlessness present. You must accept the possibility of messing up. That level of fearlessness is absent when you are playing with the fear of failure.
When you have the fear of failure as an athlete, you may feel more anxious or nervous while you play and you may end up dreading going to the field or court.
That is a major problem I see athletes with the fear of failure faced with. They lose the love for their sport, because who wants to show up every day with fear? After a while, it gets tiring and you want to avoid the situation altogether.
So even though no athlete wants to make mistakes, it's important for you to learn how to accept mistakes as a possibility. If not, you will grow to fear them, which leads to you playing with your foot on the brake.
Holding Yourself Back During Games
I was working with a basketball player who constantly felt like he wasn’t playing his best during games. It’s not like he was making a bunch of mistakes or anything like that…but that was the problem. He felt like he was holding himself back.
Now why would he hold himself back if this only led to frustration? Why play timidly instead of performing confidently and the way he knew he could?
Because of fear.
He was afraid of messing up. For him, this was focused mainly on driving to the basket.
On the defensive side he was great. But then again, as he put it, defense in basketball is much more controllable. It’s more effort based. This meant there was less for him to fear.
On the offensive side, however, he held himself back and often passed the ball away instead of driving to the basket, scoring, or at least making something happen for his team.
Time and again he was irritated and upset with himself. Mad at the fact he was playing scared and like a different person out there. This was a stark difference from when he played pick up and there wasn’t anything on the line.
There he was confident and fearless. He simply played to play - instead of playing not to make any mistakes. And guess what happened…he played much better! But knowing that he can play well only worsened his frustration at the fact he held himself back during games.
And the main reason he held himself back was fear. The fear of failure caused him to be a different player during games. Have you ever experienced this?
He and I referred to this as playing with his foot on the brake. What we did was take his foot off the brake, allowing him to play confidently and freely during games. Something I want you to be able to do as well!
Three Steps to Overcome Fear of Failure in Sports
If you are currently struggling with the fear of failure, the good news is that this can be worked through. I have worked with many athletes to help them manage their fears, and the same process I use with them is the one you will learn below.
But it's very important for you to know that overcoming the fear of failure takes work. It requires you to put the steps you learn into practice. It also takes you applying the tools I discuss below during games.
But if you do put in the work, you can overcome fear of failure and once more perform confidently and freely!
Step #1: Acceptance
The first step in overcoming your fear of failure is acceptance.
So often when an athlete experiences the fear of failure they immediately try to fight it. This usually manifests in them trying to convince themselves that they are not nervous and that they do not fear failing.
However, this technique will only keep you focused on the fear itself. So, the most powerful step is to accept that you do have a fear of failure. I know this sounds weird, but just stick with me.
When you try to fight the fear of failure, this only makes it worse. Because as the game begins or while you're competing, all of your attention will be on the fear.
This will distract you, not to mention lower your confidence because you are constantly thinking about the possibility of failing.
Instead, you want to accept the fear of failure and then think about something else.
You cannot will the fear of failure away. The only way to reduce the fear you feel is by working to build a more positive state of mind like confidence. And to build such a state, you must no longer be focused on the fear.
That is why you must first accept the fear of failure. Once you do, this puts you in a position to change what you're thinking about.
By changing what you’re thinking about, you can work to generate a different mental state. That’s what the next two steps will help with.
Overcoming fear of failure in sports is really about building more positive mental skills. The positive mental skills and mental states, like confidence, will naturally make the fear go away.
Step #2: Locate the Cause
The second step in overcoming your fear of failure is to locate the cause of your fear.
In order to conquer this fear, you must decide what it is that is causing you to fear failure the most. It may be difficult to pinpoint just one, because a few or even all the reasons outlined earlier may be impacting you. But do your best to locate the ones that really stick out.
For me, negative self-talk and the threat of losing out on my future plans played an impact on my fear of failure while playing baseball.
However, these honestly grew out of an initial reason that had the greatest influence on my fear: worrying that other people would not think I was a good player.
It may take some serious soul searching to uncover the deep-rooted cause of your fear of failure. Here is where writing can really become valuable. Sit down and write out all the things that come to your mind when you think of why you can’t fail.
After doing this a pattern will start to form. Be prepared, though, because this type of self-examination may up-root some uncomfortable truths.
Just stay strong and true to the process, because from this step we move to the final one, where you will learn about the tools needed to finally overcome your fear of failure.
Step #3: Implement Tools to Overcome Fear
The third and final step in the process of overcoming your fear of failure involves implementing sport psychology techniques that will allow you to achieve two things: trust in your skills and focus on yourself while playing.
Trust in Your Skills
This is a core component of overcoming the fear of failure because a lack of faith in your skills will cause you to continually doubt yourself. This doubt opens the doors for fear of failure to sneak in.
So, how do you develop trust in your skills?
Well, the initial thinking is to practice the skill. However, I am not going to spend any time focusing on that because it is likely you have spent countless hours practicing.
I know for myself this was initially the technique I employed. I would over-train, spending hours upon hours hitting in the batting cage and taking ground balls.
While practice is vital, it is only one part of the equation. It does not get to the root of the psychological problems that are causing the fear of failure in the first place.
The first tool you can use to gain trust in your abilities is positive self-talk. Since you are dealing with the fear of failure, it is likely your internal dialogue is negative. You must work to change that.
Positive self-talk leads to greater confidence and a more optimistic outlook. There are many proven benefits of such talk, including:
- Increased confidence
- Less stress
- Lowered levels of sports performance anxiety
Here’s how you can create a self-talk routine to overcome fear of failure:
- Step 1: list out all the negative thoughts and beliefs you currently have about yourself and your game.
- Step 2: create a positive alternative for each statement.
- Step 3: repeat the new list of positive statements at least once a day.
- Step 4: repeat the new list to yourself before and during games to increase confidence and reduce fear.
The second tool you can use to become more confident and trusting in your skills is visualization.
What if instead of picturing yourself failing, you could visualize success?
An analogy I like to use with athletes is imagining there’s a big TV screen in front of you when you play. On that screen there’s a continuous video of you making mistakes and failing. How confident do you think you’ll be when you play if that’s the case?
That’s what’s happening when you are dealing with fear of failure. The scenes playing out in your mind are that of you failing, since failure is what you’re thinking about.
In contrast, imagine how confident you’d be if on that screen was a continuous video of you playing well. That’s what visualization can make sure happens!
Here’s how you can use visualization to overcome fear of failure:
- Step #1: Get clear about what it is you want to have happen.
- Step #2: Visualize it in detail and feel confident while you see yourself perform.
- Step #3: Make it a routine.
Focusing on Yourself While Playing
The second component to overcoming your fear of failure is shifting your focus off other people and onto yourself.
This allows you to not worry any longer about what others are thinking of you and tackles one of the main causes of fear of failure. Two strategies to do this are mindfulness training and goal setting.
Mindfulness involves having your awareness completely centered in the present moment.
By becoming more mindful, you eliminate many of the concerns that influence the fear of failure. Being present in the moment will allow you to focus on yourself and the task at hand, rather than all the perceived thoughts of others around you.
There are many ways you can build mindfulness, but the most important aspect to remember is that it is already inside of you. Everyone has the capability of being mindful, it just takes practice.
The best method I have found to improve your mindfulness is mindfulness meditation.
Meditation may seem like an obscure act if you have not tried it, but it is really quite simple and can be done anywhere. The easiest way to start is to set aside five to ten minutes, sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and breathe deeply.
You want to bring all of your attention to your breath. Allow thoughts to come and go freely, without any attachment to them.
From here, try to become more aware and in the moment in all you do in life. It is a way of life that you will become better at the more you are consciously focused on it.
The second part of bringing your focus onto yourself involves goal setting.
The type of goal setting I am referring to is setting process goals for games. Process goals are things you will focus on that are 100% in your control.
When you are dealing with the fear of failure, this is because you are thinking too much about the outcome. Instead, you want to focus more on the process. Because the process is what will lead to the outcome you want.
To use process goals during games, you want to set one on the physical side and one on the mental side. Then, during the game, work to keep yourself focused on your goals.
Mindset Shifts to Overcome Fear of Failure in Sports
In addition to the three steps outlined above, there are general mindset shifts you can make that will change the way you view mistakes, and as a result, reduce the fear you have.
One mindset shift to overcome fear of failure is to become more process focused. Now this goes off the previous step, which involved goal setting.
Mental Coaching to Overcome Fear of Failure
The fear of failure is an incredibly frustrating thing to deal with as an athlete. When you play with fear, you play timidly and you hold yourself back.
Instead, you want to play freely and with confidence. That is where you find peak performance! Which is why it's important for you to begin working on overcoming the fear of failure.
The three steps outlined in the article will help you do so. However, if you are interested in a more in-depth and personalized approach, you need one-on-one mental performance coaching.
With mental coaching, I will work with you on identifying what's causing your fear of failure and choose the specific tools that will work best for you to overcome your fear and play with confidence.
To learn more about mental performance coaching and see how you can get started, please fill out the form below.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the definition of fear of failure in sports?
- Fear of failure in sports is defined as being afraid of making mistakes. Making mistakes and failing in a game has become something you fear.
What are some common causes of the fear of failure among athletes?
- Athletes often fear failure due to concerns such as feeling embarrassed, negative self-talk after failure, potential impacts on future plans or goals, fear of being benched or criticized by the coach, worry about others' perceptions, and the feeling of letting down the team or parents.
How does the fear of failure hurt an athlete, and why is it important to overcome it?
- The fear of failure leads athletes to play timidly, affecting their confidence and overall performance. It can cause increased anxiety, loss of love for the sport, and avoidance of challenging situations. Overcoming this fear is crucial for playing confidently and freely.
What are the three steps to overcome the fear of failure in sports?
- The three steps involve acceptance of the fear, locating its root causes, and implementing tools such as positive self-talk, visualization, mindfulness, and goal setting. These steps aim to build positive mental skills, ultimately reducing the fear of failure.
How can athletes access personalized assistance in overcoming the fear of failure through mental performance coaching?
- Athletes interested in a more in-depth and personalized approach to overcoming the fear of failure can explore one-on-one mental performance coaching. This coaching involves identifying the specific causes of fear and selecting tailored tools to build confidence and achieve peak performance.
Contact Success Starts Within Today
Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.
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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