The Fear of Failure

Atychiphobia is something that has haunted human beings for generations. More commonly known as the fear of failure, it affects a large amount of people, regardless of race, gender, occupation, etc.

In the context of sports, fear of failure can be one of the biggest mental barriers keeping athletes from reaching their fullest potential on the field.

The Power of Fear

Jim Taylor (Ph.D.), specializes in the psychology of sports and parenting. In a blog post he wrote for Psychology Today, he listed the fear of failure as one of the five main obstacles to athletic success.

“Fear of failure is the most common and most harmful of the obstacles I see in my work with athletes,” Taylor writes. “The reality is that failure isn’t worth fearing; the most successful people in all walks of life fail frequently and monumentally on the way to success.”

Taylor says that the origin of this fear of failure stems from multiple factors.

“Young people get this fear of failure from their parents and from our hyper-achievement culture in which being labeled a failure is worse than death,” says Taylor. “This fear can become so great that you become more focused on avoiding failure than pursuing success.”

Athletics is an arena where pressure and quick decision making is vastly important, and when it’s time to execute– some player’s miss the window of opportunity and settle, in fear that bold and decisive moves could mean failure.

For example, a gymnast going through their routine in competition may be so worried about messing up a move that has been giving them trouble during practice, that before they can even get to that move, they stumble somewhere else in the routine because of how much fear they have of messing up the difficult move.

Or, in basketball for example. There is a player who catches the ball at the top of the key with 5 seconds left and their team down one point. Instead of shooting the ball, the player passes off the ball– and the chance of failing– to another teammate, but by then it’s too late, the buzzer sounds and the game is over. 

It happens in baseball and softball too. A batter is up with the game winning run on second base. It’s the bottom of the final inning and there are two outs, and the count is three balls and two strikes. The fear of striking out swinging is so overwhelming that the batter just watches the next pitch go by, and strikes out looking. 

Managing and Overcoming the Fear of Failure

All three of these examples could be modified to show that fear of failure can actually lead to athletes failing.

Through this ultimatum, arises a question: what can athletes do to overcome failure?

Gary Grinham, a sports performance mentor for extreme sport athletes wrote an article for Red Bull where he details 5 ways he teaches his elite-level athletes to overcome their fears.

  • Picture and accept the worst possible outcome: Grinham mentions that if you can’t accept the worst possible outcome, you probably shouldn’t continue on doing what you’re doing. Obviously, in extreme sports like mountain biking or high-level skateboarding, this means accepting the risk of bodily injury, but it still fits in with other sports as well. If you can’t imagine dealing with the minor fall out of failure and what it takes to learn from your mistakes– the sporting world may not be right for you.  
  • Visualise a successful outcome: This, Grinham says, is important because it communicates with your unconscious mind, or UCM. Basically, the UCM’s job in your brain is to get you what you want. So, if you are only visualising or imagining failure, you confuse your UCM into believing that is the outcome you truly desire– essentially setting yourself for failure. The failure becomes the natural outcome.
  • Bin the idea of failure: “The most common reason for fear is the possibility of failure,” Grinham writes. He goes on to explain that failure really isn’t even real, it’s a concept invented by humans. Grinham explains that the best way to think about failure is to not even view it as failure at all, but instead– as a means to gather information on how to improve.
  • Face your fears: This has obviously become a common figure of speech when trying to get people to tackle their fears, but it really does get the idea across. You just need to break the barrier of viewing failure as something negative, and begin seeing it as an avenue for feedback. Grinham recommends writing down all of your failures and attempting to face them one-by-one. The goal is to desensitize yourself to the concept of failure and the reality of your fears.
  • Embrace the challenge and the results will come: The advice here speaks for itself. It’s more of the goal of the process than an actual step. Once you’ve completed steps one through four, this last one comes naturally.

Athlete Type Advice for Failure

One of the resources offered by AthleteTypes on the free Athlete Type report is a collection of tips for situations in your life based on your personal Athlete Type. Some of these sections include tips on when you are being praised, how to relate to others, motivation, and much more.

For dealing with failure, there is tips for each Athlete Type and how they can manage themselves after a setback.

So, in the instance you do fail, and you do need help trying to get over that emotionally, there are tips available for you to help overcome those feelings.

Here is a list of each Athlete Type and how they can best respond to dealing with failure:

Eagle: After a setback, you should seek out those who are great positive reinforcers to help you focus on your best efforts.

Engineer: You should try to find someone to talk to and sort things out, like what caused this setback and what your options are now. Ask for help because you don’t have to fix everything alone.

Ice: Give yourself time to work through the setback and lean on your support system, like your family, teammates, coaches and others.

Knight: You can live with the consequences and move on but you do not want everyone making a big deal about your setbacks, especially publicly.

Maverick: Generally, you roll with the punches well, you find it best to just move on. If you feel stuck, it may do you well to brainstorm with a creative partner.

Musketeer: Try not to overreact to the situation by being too conservative or overly cautious, do not change your attitude if something goes wrong.

Rocket: You can naturally rely on coaches and teammates as support to bounce back quickly.

Trailblazer: You should go have some fun to shake it off, take a breath . Don’t try to take drastic action to fix things as you may end up making things worse. Talk with your coach or mentor.



Featured Image for this post: Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash

By |2019-03-07T15:43:25+00:00September 20th, 2018|Composure, Confidence, Decisiveness, Grit, Mental Performance, Mental Toughness|

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