What is Fear of Failure in Sports

Eli Straw
What is Fear of Failure in Sports

The fear of failure in sports is going to hold you back as an athlete. Because in order for you to play your best, you need to be confident. But it's hard to be confident when you're afraid.

During games, if your mind is focused on the possibility of making a mistake and how much you don't want that to happen, that's going to lead to tight play.

When you play tight, you underperform in competition. What you want to do is perform freely and with confidence. And to do so, you cannot be afraid of failing.

Which is why it's important to understand what the fear of failure is, how it's caused, the impact it has on athletes, and then a way you can work on reducing the fear of failure going into games.

What is Fear of Failure in Sports?

Fear of failure in sports involves the fear of making a mistake. The failures can be large or they can be small. Either way, the fear that is present has a huge impact on performance.

It can help when defining fear of failure to identify some of the main things athletes are afraid of. Because it really isn't the mistake itself that is feared, but the consequences of that mistake.

That's where fear of messing up truly thrives in sports. When you think about all the possible things that could happen or all that could go wrong if you are to fail.

Here are some of the most common fears athletes have when it comes to fear of failure:

  • Feeling embarrassed if they make a mistake.
  • Getting benched if they make a mistake.
  • Having teammates mad at them if they make a mistake.
  • Messing up and never being able to reach their goals.
  • Getting yelled at by coach for making a mistake.
  • Letting their parents down if they fail.
  • Beating themselves up (negative self-talk) if they make a mistake.
  • Having their stats drop if they make a mistake.
  • Having all their training not be worth it if they fail.
  • Losing their starting spot for next game if they fail in practice.

Do any of these sound familiar?

They are very common because as an athlete, you want to do your best. But what often happens with the fear of failure is that your focus is on not wanting to make a mistake more than it's on how much you want to succeed.

And that begins to show us the true cause of the fear of failure in sports.

The Cause of Fear of Failure in Sports

When you read over the fears listed above, is there anything you notice that's similar between them?

That's right, they're all focused on the future.

That right there shows us a major part of what drives fear of failure in sports. During a game or during practice, you are focused on what might happen.

The more you think about what may happen, and how much you don't want to make a mistake, the more fear you are creating.

It is your focus on the future that drives the fear of failure.

But that's not all. There's another piece that works to truly solidify the fear of failure in the mind of an athlete.

That piece is a negative past experience.

Just as focusing on the future drives fear, thinking too much about the past will also lead to fear. Especially if what you're focusing on is a time when you failed.

When you have a negative past experience, that can be the leaping off point for fear to develop.

Let's say you made a mistake to end the game and coach yells at you. Not only are you embarrassed, but you're also incredibly disappointed in yourself and you feel like you let your teammates down.

If that moment isn't processed correctly and then left in the past, it can keep haunting you in games moving forward.

Even if you're not consciously thinking about it, it may still be lurking in the back of your mind.

When you have a past negative experience, coupled with a focus in the present about what you don't want to have happen in the future, that's what causes you to experience fear of failure in sports.

The Dangers of Being Afraid to Fail

Now, why is it that fear of failure is bad? Since you obviously don't want to make a mistake, how come it's such a terrible way to be thinking during a game?

Well, it goes back to what I stated in the introduction. When you are afraid to fail, you underperform. This is because fear of failure causes you to play timidly.

If you're afraid of making a mistake, you're likely going to hold yourself back. It can be like you're playing with your foot on the brake.

You won't be as aggressive and you won't be playing with as much conviction and confidence.

There are a few examples I can give from athletes I've worked with that help to show how hurtful fear of failure can be.

I had a basketball player who was afraid of missing shots and turning the ball over. So, during games, he passed the ball when he had open shots and was afraid to drive past defenders even when he knew he could.

All of this was due to fear. Since the image he held in his mind was one of him failing.

Another example is from a tennis player. She had developed fears surrounding her serve. She was afraid of double faulting and losing the point. So, she served much more timidly, especially during her second serve.

Instead of trusting in the serve she'd spent hours upon hours working on in training, she took away some power and simply tried to get it over the net.

The only problem was, when she did this, she actually had a lower percentage of successful serves. That shows how playing timidly typically only ends up causing you to play worse.

A third example is from a baseball player. As a catcher, he grew to fear throwing the ball to first base to pick off the runner. Even though he could do it during practice, he hesitated during games.

What this caused were more bad throws during games. Because he interrupted his natural throwing pattern with negative thoughts and he tried to force a perfect throw.

Those three examples highlight the main reasons athletes struggle to perform well in games when experiencing fear of failure.

  • Failing is on the mind: when you are afraid to fail, what you're thinking about is the possibility of failing. This causes you to hold the image of failing in your mind which lowers your confidence.
  • Fear leads to timid play: if you are worried about making mistakes, you will hold yourself back. You will play tentatively and timidly since you're trying not to make a mistake.
  • The body doesn't perform naturally: you train hard to build muscle memory. But when you play with fear, you try to force outcomes, which inhibits natural play and you do not allow muscle memory to take over.

Knowing the cause of fear of failure and how much it negatively impacts your play, what can you do about this?

Overcoming Fear of Failure in Sports

Managing fear of failure takes work. There's no doubt about it. Because you're dealing with focus and internal beliefs about yourself and your game.

Since thinking too much about what could go wrong and what may happen is a leading cause of fear of failure in sports, changing what you're thinking about during games will help.

So the first thing you want to pay attention to is where your focus is placed during games. You want to work on removing it from the outcome and placing it more on the present moment.

Simply focus on what you're doing. If you give more attention to what you're doing, that will put you in a better position to get the outcome you want.

The other aspect of working through fear of failure is building your confidence. The more confidence you have in yourself and your skills, the less you will worry about making mistakes.

Now, there are many sports psychology tools you can use to perform in the present and to build confidence. To learn more about the tools you can use to overcome fear of failure in sports, here's an article that will help.

The other option you have is to work with a mental performance coach to overcome your fear of failure.

I offer one-on-one mental performance coaching to overcome fear of failure in sports.

What I'll do is first identify what's causing your fear. Then, using sports psychology techniques, I will help you overcome your fear and build positive mental skills to develop confidence so you can perform freely during games.

Fill out the form below to learn more about one-on-one mental performance coaching and see how you can get started.

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

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