Self-Sabotage in Sports: Where it Comes From & How to Stop

Self-sabotaging behavior can devastate your career as an athlete. Learn why athletes sabotage themselves and three steps you can take to overcome self-sabotage in sports.

Does it ever feel as if you get in your own way? As soon as you’re playing really well, you somehow screw it up?

Talk about feeling frustrated!

Why is it that you can’t enjoy your good performances and have them increase your confidence? How come you always seem to get in your own way? Well, the truth is, you’re sabotaging yourself.

Self-sabotage in sports will hold you back from achieving your goals and reaching your full potential. But it shouldn’t be that way. There must be a way to change this pattern. That is exactly what we will uncover by the end of this article.

What is Self-Sabotage?

Self-sabotage is when we take steps to prevent ourselves from reaching our goals. We can either be passive or active in these pursuits. However, the majority of athletes self-sabotage on an unconscious level.

When you sabotage yourself as an athlete, this cycle can quickly lead you down a path towards low self-confidence and feelings of perpetual failure.

When stuck in this cycle, it can feel as if nothing goes your way. Even if something does seem to be shifting in your favor, or you do have a good game, or even have been playing well recently, you find some miraculous way to sabotage the situation.

It’s often hard to think that we are the ones getting in the way of our own success. The easiest route is to constantly blame other people. But as long as we blame others for our self-sabotage, we will never get to the true root of the problem.

Self-sabotaging is a common behavior and one I see in a lot of the athletes I work with.

It’s also something I dealt with myself. Looking back on my high school and college baseball careers, I can see self-sabotaging behavior popping up all over the place.

Personally, my sabotage was commonly tied into avoidance behavior which occurs when we are dealing with sports performance anxiety. Because self-sabotaging behavior is going to usually be underpinned by a psychological state or frame of thinking.

We will get into the main drivers for self-sabotage in sports a little later, but first let’s take a look at some of the main self-sabotaging behaviors that athletes exhibit.

Examples of Self-Sabotaging Behavior in Athletes

Self-sabotaging refers to the overarching idea of getting in our own way. When we say someone is self-sabotaging, we aren’t necessarily pointing to a certain type of behavior but rather a way in which they are acting.

How we go about sabotaging ourselves may differ depending on our personalities and the underlying drivers for our self-sabotage.

However, there are some common types of behaviors that I would like to illustrate for you.

  • Procrastination: Procrastinating is commonly seen by those of us who self-sabotage. While we know there is a task that needs to be done, there is a choice to push off the work to another time. This can be driven by many different motives, including a fear of failure, perfectionism, or anxiety about what it is we must do.
  • Losing the Love for the Game: When you feel anxious or you may place a lot of expectations on yourself, you can quickly lose the love for the game. This is a form of self-sabotaging behavior because you begin to lose motivation and underperform during games.
  • Constantly Being Late: Perpetually being late is another common form of self-sabotage. For example, if an athlete has been performing well recently, then they may start showing up to practices and games late.
  • Perfectionism: Demanding perfection of yourself is another behavior seen by athletes who self-sabotage. You begin to play well, then you start to expect yourself to be perfect.
  • Self-Critical: negative self-talk and being overly critical of yourself is another self-sabotaging behavior. You may start to nitpick your game and overanalyze what you did wrong. All while speaking negatively to yourself in the process.
  • Control: Control is another type of behavior that takes place when we begin to self-sabotage. This is seen a lot when we fear failing or losing the success we’ve had recently.
  • Performing Poorly: Usually unconsciously, we begin to undermine our success by playing well below our potential. Typically, this is caused by the avoidance that comes from whenever we experience performance anxiety or the fear of success.

Where Does Self-Sabotaging Come From?

There is definitely not a one size fits all answer to “Why do athletes self-sabotage?”

Everyone is going to have different backgrounds and experiences that have driven them to get in their own way of success. But, while we all have different reasons for self-sabotaging, there is the constant that an underlying force is driving us to this type of behavior.

Usually, self-sabotage arises from a negative past experience with success, or the perceived threats that could occur if we were to succeed. Also, fear can be a great driver of self-sabotaging behavior.

Let’s take a look at some of the main possible drivers for self-sabotage in sports.

Sport Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety in sports refers to the worries felt leading up to and during a performance.

When you’re an athlete with performance anxiety, it is centered around the notion of not wanting to fail or make a mistake. This is driven by worrying about what will happen if you were to make a mistake.

We may believe that not performing well could cause us embarrassment, shame, or create negative talk within ourselves. So, we naturally seek to avoid this.

The difficult part about performance anxiety is that the fear and phobia we feel about performance is often much worse than what would arise if we were to perform poorly.

Nonetheless, the feelings that arise out of feeling so anxious are dreadful. Leading to an unconscious drive for avoidance. We seek to rid ourselves of any situation that causes us anxiety.

This avoidance behavior is where we typically see self-sabotaging take place.

When we feel as though avoidance is the only option, achieving it can be much more complicated than simply quitting, especially in terms of sports. We do not want to quit the sport we love, but we must find a way out of the pain we are feeling.

So, what options do we have other than to perform so badly we will not be given the opportunity for further anxiety?

I remember during my freshman year in college when I was feeling tremendous amounts of performance anxiety. I dreaded making an error in the field so greatly that the only thought in my mind was that another player should be put at third base.

My anxiety was leading to me sabotaging my own chances of success in the sport I loved and put so much effort into improving.

Fear of Failure

This is where we will see the controlling behavior discussed earlier really come into play.

Fear of failure results from us being terrified of making a mistake or falling short of our goals.

Much like performance anxiety, we are fearful of the perceived consequences that would come from failing. That is why the fear of failure and performance anxiety are often intertwined.

If you were this fearful of failing, what do you think the natural reaction would be in your mind?

Well, in this position, you would likely see one alternative: control.

If you are afraid of failing then controlling the end result seems to be the safest option.

The outcome of anything usually has many factors that come into play. In baseball, for example, hitting comes to my mind. Getting a hit is not as simple as squaring up the baseball. I’m sure every baseball player will tell you they’ve hit plenty of line drives, only to have them caught.

By attempting to control the outcome, you sabotage yourself in that you’re not focused on the process.

Being the only part in your control, if your focus is taken off yourself, you will not be in the best position to succeed. You’ll begin to worry so much about the outcome, that you will likely forget about all the process goals that go into success.

Fear of Success

Yes, the fear of success is real. While we often cannot imagine someone being afraid to succeed, it is a much more common occurrence than you’d expect. It’s not that we are afraid of achieving success so much as what may come from that success.

For instance, many times success leads to exposure, which results in having to be in the spotlight. If you’re an athlete dealing with social anxiety, then this can appear to be a terrifying threat.

Self-sabotaging may begin to take place so that you do not have to deal with giving interviews or being the center of attention.

Sometimes we can also fear success out of guilt. This usually occurs when someone does not feel as if they deserve success.

Maybe they feel like their success is taking away that of another’s. Or a person may have been repeatedly told that they are not good enough and so whenever success is near, they become uncomfortable and feel as though it doesn’t align with their self-image.

The closer this type of athlete gets to success, the more they begin to self-sabotage. This allows them to remain at a level in which they are most comfortable.

3 Steps to Stop Self-Sabotaging Your Success as an Athlete

Once we begin to examine our lives more closely and realize we are sabotaging ourselves, two reactions usually occur. First, there will be a sense of frustration, anger, and guilt.

No one wants to face the fact that they were the ones getting in their own way all along.

Secondly, the question will then emerge as to how self-sabotaging can stop. This is where we should put the majority of our focus.

The past is unchangeable, and while we will need to allow ourselves some time to experience the emotions that come up, do not get stuck there.

The worst thing that can happen is you get caught in a cycle of feeling sorry for yourself. If you’ve self-sabotaged, that’s okay; you’re not alone. What you need to do now is accept that and look ahead to some ways you can cut out this behavior.

Step 1: Identify Self-Sabotaging Behaviors

So, you recognize that you’ve been sabotaging yourself and you want to know what the first step you should do is?

Well, we must go beyond admitting that we’ve been undermining our chances of success and figure out exactly what behaviors we have been exhibiting.

Earlier we examined the most common forms of self-sabotaging behavior in athletes. Look over that list and see if any of them match your recent actions.

Have you been pushing off training you need to do? Well then, you are using procrastination as a way to self-sabotage.

Or perhaps you’ve been overly controlling. Trying to force outcomes and results in either your performances or personal life. If so, then control is the type of self-sabotaging behavior you are displaying.

Once you’ve uncovered your self-sabotaging behavior, it’s time to go a little deeper.

Step 2: Identify the Driving Force

Now that you have decided on your self-sabotaging behavior, it’s time to address the true cause.

I outlined three of the most common drivers for self-sabotage. You want to think about what it is you are seeking to avoid by sabotaging yourself.

This is definitely not easy, but hopefully, you’ve gotten to the point where you have accepted that you sabotage yourself. Now, you can take a step back and look objectively at the reason this behavior is present.

To give you an example of what this may look like, I’ll describe to you a bit about what I’ve uncovered regarding my own self-sabotage.

Funny enough, I have experienced all three of the causes listed above, which may be the same for you. The reason for this is they tend to feed off one another.

I dealt with performance anxiety and the fear of failure a lot in my baseball career. This led to avoidance patterns taking place as I described above. I would try to outrun the negative thoughts and emotions that arose out of anxiety.

The anxiety was driven by a deep-seated fear of failure. I did not want to have other people nor myself think less of me for a bad performance.

The fear of success was also felt mostly as a result of social anxiety. I often kept quiet and to myself as a way to avoid public speaking or being the center of attention.

So, think for yourself, what is it that drives your self-sabotage? This discovery is needed as we move onto the third and final step.

Step 3: Work to Overcome Your Driver

Once you have identified what the cause of your self-sabotage is, whether it’s one of the three described here or another, it’s time to work on overcoming it.

There are plenty of resources available to help overcome these causes. Maybe you’ll want to seek the aid of mental performance coaching to help guide you through.

Perhaps you prefer to work through such problems on your own. In which case you must put together a detailed plan of attack to do so.

Each of the three causes I identified in this article is able to be overcome, with a focused effort on your part.

If you would like to learn more about how to overcome the fear of failure, performance anxiety, and the fear of success, check out these three articles I have written:

3 Steps to Overcome Fear of Failure

4 Techniques to Overcome Performance Anxiety

Fear of Success & 3 Steps to Overcome it

The important part is that once you’ve identified self-sabotaging behavior and recognized the cause, you begin work on overcoming what it is that is driving you to undermine your success.

Final Thoughts

Self-sabotaging behavior can devastate your career as an athlete. As soon as you get close to success, something happens. This can be incredibly frustrating to live with and can leave you feeling like you’ll never be the player you know you can be.

However, it does not have to be that way. Self-sabotage can be overcome, all that is required is a little introspection and effort.

Once you’ve identified what your behaviors are and what is driving the sabotage in the first place, steps must then be put in place to overcome that drive.

If you do this then self-sabotaging can be something of the past.

Click here to learn more about one-on-one mental performance coaching to overcome self-sabotage in sports.

If you have any questions about self-sabotage or any other sports psychology-related topic please feel free to reach out to me.

I hope that this article was helpful and that you have gained a better understanding of what self-sabotaging is, why it occurs, and how it can be overcome.

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

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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 Straw

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.

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