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Fear of Failure: Shifting Your Mindset

We’ve seen it time and again when individuals sabotage their own success. It’s magnified even more with athletes because of the high stakes associated with performing on the big stage and the competitive environment. This fear of failure can manifest itself in many ways, such as disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, and regret. The truth is, everybody hates to fail, especially when it involves something that you’re passionate about. It certainly doesn’t help when youth athletes are told counterproductive lines like “failure is not an option.”

Because of this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when you hear about the highly competitive nature of top athletes who hate losing so much that it even spills over to non-sport related activities. Yes, I’m talking about board games like Monopoly, which have ruined friendships since 1935.

Increase Your Awareness

Jokes aside, athletes need to be able to identify the effects of fear of failure and how it drastically diminishes their chances of success. Failing can present such a significant psychological threat that some athletes find themselves in the terrible predicament of losing love for the game. This tends to happen when one’s motivation to avoid failure exceeds their motivation to succeed. As disheartening as that may sound, it’s important to remember that there is a solution to this problem. But, rather then looking outward for a solution, it’s necessary to look inward. We have the ability to build ourselves up or tear ourselves down. That said, it’s time to become your own biggest cheerleader, fan, or whatever else your preferred term may be.

Win or Learn – There is no Losing

Ask any athlete whether they learn more from losing or succeeding and you’ll receive potentially the most one-sided response of all. As heartbreaking as failure is, it also provides a valuable opportunity to reflect, learn, and grow from. Experience is life’s greatest teacher, after all, and it’s imperative to keep that at the forefront of your mind. Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player to ever play the game, touches upon this when he stated, "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

This isn’t to diminish the pain of a loss, but rather to highlight how failure does not discriminate on sport, gender, or even level of competition. Jordan, like many other top performers, chose to become a student of the game and to embrace the hurdles, roadblocks, and tough breaks. This leads me to a few key ways to conquer the fear of failure:

1.) Focus on what is in your control: Avoid the route of maladaptive thoughts on what can potentially go wrong. Instead, identify tasks within your respective sport that are in your control and focus on those. For example, channel your energy on preparation methods instead of outcomes. You can’t control whether or not you break a personal record in a race because of an infinite number of variables (weather, unexpected injuries, suit malfunction), but you can absolutely control how you prepare for the race. In doing so, you increase your confidence levels, which in turn increases your likelihood of success.

2.) Remember why you play the game: As athletes graduate to higher levels of competition, the sport can become a job, rather than a joy. The purity of the game can become foggy as demanding coaches, increased pressure, and eventually financial rewards come into play. When this occurs, an opportunity arises to remind yourself why you’ve chosen your sport. Set aside the current challenges and take a few minutes to reminisce on your favorite moments. This can be shooting hoops with your dad in the backyard, swimming with your friends, or even the exhilaration of hitting a game winning home run. Remember, you chose to play the game because it was fun and not because of the fame and fortune.

3.) Visualize your success: It’s perfectly natural to fear making a mistake. In fact, I want you to own it. Bringing these feelings to the surface can help prevent you from expressing them through unconscious efforts to sabotage yourself. Once you’ve come to terms with this, it’s time to visualize yourself performing brilliantly. Be as detailed as possible during this exercise and make sure to activate all five senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, sight). For example, if you’re afraid of missing a field goal, imagine yourself in a game situation completing this task successfully. Focus on your unique process and do every motion step by step, while seeing the football going through the goal post. Repeat this over and over and you’ll notice your confidence rise and your fear of failure shrink.

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