How to Stop Being Afraid of Making Mistakes

Fearing mistakes causes you to underperform as an athlete. In this article you will learn three tips you can use to finally stop being afraid of making mistakes in sports.

Are you afraid of making a mistake during a game? What about during practice? Do you feel like even during practice you need to play perfectly?

It’s easy to adopt fear surrounding mistakes, because no one wants to make mistakes. Mistakes are what cause you to get yelled at, feel down on yourself, and maybe even lose playing time.

But what’s worse than making mistakes is being afraid to make mistakes.

And so, in this article, you’re going to learn a way you can stop being afraid of making mistakes as an athlete.

How Being Afraid of Making Mistakes Holds You Back

Being afraid of making mistakes causes you to underperform.

Let’s think about when you’re worried about messing up, would you say you’re playing freely and with full confidence?

Probably not.

I’d imagine you’re playing a little timidly. You could even say you’re holding yourself back.

I was working with one athlete who said he felt like he was playing with his foot on the brake. That’s what happens when you’re afraid of making a mistake!

You don’t want to make the mistake, and so instead of going out there, competing hard to win, you’re tiptoeing around, hoping not to mess up.

Let’s take a deeper look at a few specific ways being afraid of making mistakes holds you back as an athlete.

You Underperform During Games

Funny enough, when you are afraid of messing up, you increase your chances of messing up.

There are a few reasons this happens. One being the actual change that occurs in your physical play. A great example of this is an infielder being afraid of making a bad throw, so he tries to throw the ball a bit softer to make sure he’s accurate.

But what he’s actually doing is changing his throwing motion; doing something that feels unnatural, which more often than not results in a bad throw.

The same is true if you’re shooting a basketball, serving in tennis, or hitting a drive in golf.

Another way this fear causes you to underperform has to do with the image you hold of yourself in your mind.

Instead of wanting to succeed, you’re more focused on not wanting to fail. This creates an image in your mind of you messing up, since that’s what you’re thinking about.

Now I know you’re thinking about not wanting to make a mistake. But that still means you are thinking about making a mistake, which does nothing but lower your confidence.

You Second Guess Yourself

Making decisions is difficult in the absence of confidence. Especially in a high stress situation like a game.

But during competition, you need to make quick and effective decisions. Whether it’s what shot to take, what pass to make, or what pitch to swing at, you need to have full confidence in your decision making abilities.

However, when the thought of failing is on your mind, you will try too hard to be perfect. As a result, you’ll second guess your decisions in the moment.

With these mainly being split second decisions during games, even a moment of second guessing can lead to a wrong decision or a missed opportunity.

You may not even notice you’re having these kinds of thoughts, but they’re present if you have ever found yourself hesitating or maybe even freezing up during games.

What’s really happening is your mind is getting in the way, straining to be perfect and make the right decision, due to the overarching fear you have about making mistakes.

It Keeps You From Playing Naturally

One of my favorite concepts to talk to athletes about is the difference between a training and a performing mindset.

During practices and training, your job is to build muscle memory. Therefore, you’re going to have a different mental approach than you do during games.

Your main focus is on fine-tuning and improving.

During games, however, you’re no longer focused on building muscle memory. Instead, your job is to allow the muscle memory you’ve worked to build to take over. This requires a mindset that puts you in the best position to succeed.

In short, your training mindset is about improving, while your performing mindset is all about performing.

But when you’re afraid of making mistakes, you get in your own way and keep your muscle memory from taking over. You aren’t fully trusting in your skills, so there’s no way you can play as naturally as you’d like.

Your worrisome thoughts are getting in the way and blocking the muscle memory you’ve worked hard for to take over.

Letting Go of Your Fear of Making Mistakes

To get yourself to the point where you’re playing naturally and freely on a consistent basis, you must work on letting go of your fears surrounding mistakes.

This means accepting that mistakes are a part of the game (and oftentimes a valuable part, at that), and then focusing on building positive mental skills that will substitute the fear.

Now, that’s not necessarily an easy task. Especially if you’re dealing with a lot of worries and fears right now in relation to mistakes.

So, I have a few actionable tips/tools you can use to stop being afraid of mistakes as an athlete.

Change How You Look at Mistakes

Fear stems from perception. It is the perception you have of what the mistake will mean that truly drives your fear.

Think about why you’re afraid of making a mistake. What are you honestly so afraid of?

Is it the mistake itself, or the consequences of the mistake?

Most likely, it’s what will happen if you mess up. Such as your coach yelling at you, feeling ashamed and embarrassed, getting benched, or anything else.

Your perception of mistakes is that they are negative and result in negative consequences. Your goal needs to be to change that!

Yes, mistakes are not what you set out to make as an athlete. Your aim is to play well. However, that doesn’t mean mistakes can’t serve a positive purpose.

An important aspect of playing well is improvement. You must continue to grow as a player in order to keep playing your best and increasing your production on the field or court.

Mistakes can help you improve more than anything else.

Instead of seeing mistakes as something negative, look at them as a positive part of your game. They guide you to become the player you want to be.

Most athletes aim to reach their full potential but fail to realize the role mistakes play along the way.

To stop being afraid of making mistakes, view mistakes as a way to grow and learn instead of something negative.

Focus on Your Strengths

Confidence counteracts fear because fear thrives on uncertainty. The type of uncertainty that’s present when you’re unsure about your own skills and don’t trust your ability to execute during games.

Whenever I’m working with an athlete on overcoming the fear of failure, we focus heavily on building confidence. The more confident they become, the less fears are present.

When you play with fear, the image you hold in your mind will be one of you messing up. Since that’s what you’re worried about, it will be what you’re thinking about.

And just imagine what would happen if you kept rewatching a video of you making a mistake right before you played…what do you think that would do to your confidence?

That’s exactly what’s happening when you play with fear. You are in essence rewatching yourself make a mistake over and over again in your mind.

Instead, you want to focus on your strengths and see yourself play well.

To help, list out all your strengths as a player. What makes you a good athlete? Then, review this list every day, especially right before a game.

Sports visualization is another exercise that helps with this idea of seeing yourself succeed.

Whenever you’re afraid of making a mistake, recognize that your job at that moment is to get your mind off the mistake and begin thinking about your strengths and all the reasons you have to succeed.

Stop Beating Yourself Up Over Mistakes

How do you respond to a mistake?

I ask this question whenever I’m working with an athlete on managing their fears surrounding mistakes because it highlights why the fear may be present in the first place.

The way you respond to mistakes, over an extended period of time, leads to you either fearing mistakes or accepting mistakes as a way to learn and grow.

Beating yourself up after a mistake is much easier (and oftentimes more natural) than accepting the mistake, learning something, and moving on. But it is the more harmful of the two.

Being overly self-critical when you mess up strengthens the negative emotional connection your mind has to mistakes. This connection leads to more fear moving forward.

To change this connection, you must change how you respond to mistakes. There are two tools you can use to do so.

You want to use positive/productive self-talk after a mistake, and evaluate yourself after practices and games differently.

Having more positive/productive self-talk following a mistake is hard. But it’s absolutely necessary if you want to stop being afraid of making mistakes.

Think about how you would talk to a teammate after they made a mistake. What would you say in support? That’s the kind of language you need to use with yourself!

Next, you need to change how you evaluate yourself. In reality, you probably aren’t evaluating yourself as much as you’re simply judging yourself; pointing out all that you did wrong.

Instead of judging, you want to evaluate. You want to examine your performance with two goals in mind: build my confidence and find areas I can improve upon.

If after every practice and game your confidence grew a little and you identified something you can learn from, imagine how much you’d grow as a player in a few months or even a year.

That’s why a proper self-evaluation is so important.

After a practice or game ask yourself two questions:

  • What did I do well today?
  • Where can I improve?

Applying more positive/productive self-talk and changing how you evaluate your performance will reduce the fear you have of making mistakes.

Final Thoughts

Being afraid of making mistakes leads to more mistakes. While you may not want that to happen, the way fear causes you to perform will only hold you back as an athlete.

To avoid underperforming during games, you must work to stop being afraid of making mistakes.

To help, use these three tips: change how you think about mistakes, focus on your strengths, and stop beating yourself up after mistakes.

Apply these tips and they will help you to stop being afraid of making mistakes as an athlete.

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