Sports Psychology: How to Prevent Fear of Failure in Athletes

Sports Psychology: How to Prevent Fear of Failure in Athletes
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More and more you see athletes with that deer in the headlights look, yes coaches you know exactly what I’m talking about. The look of fear and anxiety during a game, match, and even at practice. Their fear is evident in their body language and can be seen in their sports performance.  Fear and fear of failure are a constant cause of stress and anxiety, that sabotages an athletes’ mental game and performance.

What is fear?

Fear can come in all shapes and sizes; it is different for each of us. As an athlete, you will be put into “pressure cooker” situations every day. Sports and sporting events are extremely stressful with added pressure from coaches, parents, teammates, and worst of all you. One of the biggest fears among athletes is failure.This fear can cause one of two things. Fight or Flight.

Fight: This is where the anxiety and added stress actually cause the athlete to step up to the plate and their performance actually improves. These types of athletes crave pressure situations and you can often depend on them to make the big play. They are known for overcoming situations and excelling when the pressure is on. Their personality is usually extremely competitive and intuitive.

Flight: Athletes who tend to fail in situations of high pressure often fall into this category. Not because they lack ability or talent, but because they sabotage themselves and over think the situation. Over thinking often leads to freezing up, also known in sporting communities as “choking.” These types of athletes usually have a linear way of thinking and are very concrete. They are smart and analyze the situation, often to the point of over analyzing. These athletes often know how and what to do in pressure situations, however can fall short when anxiety takes over.

Why is it that Certain Athlete’s Fail When the Pressure Is On?

This failure can often be traced back to the way an athlete interpreted an event or situation. Interpretation of your surroundings is a key trigger to how you an athlete will perform. Athletes who fear failure often interpret stressful situations as:

  • Risky
  • Unsafe
  • Dangerous
  • The End of the World

Okay, end of the World might be a little exaggeration, but you would be surprised how many athletes would rather run home, than be in that situation. This type of mindset is what gets them in trouble. Doubt floods the brain and causes late reactions, hesitation, and an overall drop in performance. This doubt is often derived from an athlete’s fear of failure. They doubt their abilities, and fear that they will disappoint a parent, coach, or teammate with their performance. This worry and anxiety occurs when they are put in circumstances where they cannot control the result directly or immediately.

Common Fears for Athletes:

  • Fear of losing a match, game, or race – you badly want to win and are afraid you will not win.
  • Fear of negative social evaluation – you fear others will view you as a failure in your sport.
  • Fear of Embarrassment – you are afraid you embarrass yourself in front of others if you don’t perform.
  • Fears of letting others down – You hate to let other down, and if you don’t perform you know you will let your coach, parent, or teammate down.
  • Fear of Putting in the Effort, but not getting the results – You work hard, you don’t want one instance or play to define your talents. What if you fail, your effort will be for nothing.
  • Fear of Not Reaching Your Potential – You know everyone believes you have a lot of potential, but what if you never reach it. You will have failed.
  • Fear of Making a Mistake – If you don’t perform well and you make a mistake then that will be what everyone remembers and you will be known as a failure.

Perfectionism Can Actually Make You Fail

Do you worry about making every play, every move, and every shot perfect? You might tell your self, “ If it’s not perfect, then I failed.” Then you are worrying too much about being perfect, and missing out on the real point. Perfectionism can often lead to failure and hesitation. How? You try too hard to be perfect and you end up getting in your own way. When an athlete is obsessed with perfectionism they lose sight of their goals for competition and they often forget to have fun.

How Can You Spot an Athlete’s Obsession With Perfectionism?

  • Is the Athlete engrossed with their training?
  • Is the Athlete obsessed with perfecting technique?
  • Does practice become the primary goal instead of performing with confidence in competition?
  • Is anything less than perfect performance deemed a failure?
  • Even after a win, does the athlete look happy, or do they look like they have failed?
  • Does the athlete worry about negative results or failure?
  • Is the athlete afraid to make a play, do they appear tentative while performing?
  • Does the athlete show low self- confidence in competition, but in practice look extremely confident?
  • Does the athlete’s performance look tight or rehearsed instead of smooth and natural?

Perfection Can Cause Fears of Failure in Sports

Perfectionism can often cause the fears listed above. For example,

Perfectionism Trait: High motivation and work ethic to train and practice, with high emotional investment is a perfectionism trait. This trait can often translate into the fear:

“You try to hard to win and this get in your own way. You fear losing after all the investment of practice and perfecting your technique.”

Another example is:

Perfectionism Trait: You think that others will criticize your performance, that they will be disappointed if you don’t win.
Translates to Fear” You feel as if your self-esteem is threatened when you do not perform up to your own expectations

How Can You Drive Away Fear & Improve Your Performance?

Change your mindset. There are two types of mindsets a “Fixed Mindset” and a “Growth Mindset.” Here is an excerpt from an article about Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University:

Through more than three decades of systematic research, [Carol Dweck] has been figuring out answers to why some people achieve their potential while equally talented others don’t—why some become Muhammad Ali and others Mike Tyson. The key, she found, isn’t ability; it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed. In simple terms, are you a learner or do you think you have learned all you can?

To reduce your fears of failure, try switching to a ‘Growth Mindset,” This type of mindset allows you to fail, and welcomes obstacles in life because they know it will benefit them. They know they can learn from failure. Now, I’m not telling you to go out and try to fail. I am saying to erase your fear of failure, because if you do happen to fail you will learn from your mistakes and become a better athlete for it. If you fear failure so much that you hesitate and avoid obstacles in life and sports then you will never experience success or failure, you will be less than average and your growth will eventually plateau. So, embrace risky situations, go in headfirst and tackle your fears. The worst that could happen is you fail, learn a lesson, and succeed next time. At least if you give it all you got, and if you fail, you won’t be haunted by hesitation and endless what if’s.

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Good luck to all our athletes, drive away fear and Blow up last season!


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Building a Better Athlete

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A little more about Natasha Hawkins...

Experience: Division 1 Fastpitch Softball player at San Jose State. Degree: B.S in Marketing and Advertising Certifications: Certified Level 1 CrossFit Trainer Interests: She loves the way the brain works and how personalities and attitude can create a warrior of an athlete that will always persevere and make success for themselves. While she is not a certified nutritionist she studies and practices the Paleo diet and Zone eating. Quirk: I am an avid archer and hunter. Yup, it's true. I have shot archery since I could walk, and hunted with my Dad since I was born. I also have a sister (Cheridan Hawkins) who is a stud pitcher for the Oregon Ducks Softball Team and is on the Junior Olympic Team. My youngest sister Charli Hawkins trains with me at CrossFit and is also a catcher on the 12U California Grapettes. Follow Natasha on Twitter: @NatashaBHawkins