How to Conquer Fear of Failure

Why do athletes sabotage their own success?

You might assume this problem relates to a "fear of success." Fear of success does cause athletes to self-destruct. But fear of success is very rare compared to fear of failure.

More: How Young Athletes Can Deal With Failure

Both of these fears cause athletes to "get in their own way"--experiencing fear, anxiety, tension and worry about scoring and achieving results. However, these fears come from different sources.

You Can't Always Get What You Want

Athletes develop a fear of failure when they worry about not getting what they want and have worked hard to obtain, such as winning a championship.

They develop fear of success when they worry too much about what comes with being successful in their sport. Most athletes experience fear of failure and not fear of success.

Fear of failure manifests in many ways in sports. Athletes who are anxious or tense when competing are often afraid to fail or mess up. Fear of failure can also cause your athletes to try too hard, which leads to "getting in their own way" mentally.

More: How to Build Mental Toughness

Diagnosing Fear of Failure

It's not enough to know that athletes experience a fear of failure. What's more important is to know what types of fears hold athletes back.

As you can see from the list below, fear of failure often relates to what athletes assume they think others think about them (or social approval).

Signs of fear of failure:

  • Fear of losing a match, game or race. Kids badly want to win and are afraid they won't succeed.
  • Fear of negative social evaluation. Athletes fear others will view them as a failure in sports.
  • Fear of embarrassment. They're afraid to embarrass themselves in front of others if they don't perform well.
  • Fear of letting others down. They do not want to let others down-- coaches, parents or teammates.
  • Fear of putting in the effort and not ever getting the "payoff" or not playing to their potential. They don't want their hard work, talent and long
  • practices to result in nothing (e.g. wins, trophies, etc.).
  • Fear of not performing up to others' expectations. Young athletes worry about not meeting others' expectations.
  • Fear of being rejected, losing respect, or not gaining approval.
  • Fear of making mistakes and not performing perfectly after having worked so hard.
More: Young Athletes and Perfectionism

Helping Athletes Overcome Fear of Failure

  1. To help kids with fear of failure, it's best to understand the specific fear and address it head on. Take fear of embarrassment, for example. If your athletes have this form of fear they worry too much about what others think about them. They need to play for themselves instead of being concerned about what others think.
  2. Help kids focus on success instead of worrying about failing. Many athletes with fear of failure focus on all the wrong things. They think more about not making mistakes than completing the pitch or gymnastics routine. These athletes need to set small goals that help them focus more on success. One option: kids should see a good result in their minds before they execute it.
  3. Athletes with fear of failure need to learn how to perform efficiently instead of perfectly. The idea here is that your athletes DO NOT have to be perfect to perform their best. They often want to over control their performance (due to their worries about making mistakes). They need to understand that mistakes are a natural part of sports. The goal is for your athletes to trust in their skills so they can play more freely and feel less tight or controlling.
More: 3 Sports Psychology Tips for Parents
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About the Author

Award-winning parenting writer Lisa Cohn and youth sports psychology expert Dr. Patrick Cohn are co-founders of The Ultimate Sports Parent. Pick up their free e-book, "Ten Tips to Improve Confidence and Success in Young Athletes."

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