How to Prevent Fear of Failure from Sabotaging Performance

Sven-Goran Eriksson is one of soccer’s best managers. Over four decades he’s learned that, “The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure.” Keep your athletes from succumbing to fear by teaching them to funnel their fear into high performance.

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Crippled by Fear

All I wanted to do was to help my team win and make my family, coaches, and teammates proud. In the end, I failed. I lost a winnable match.

It was the Virginia High School League State Tennis Championships. I warmed up like a champ and felt good, but was understandably nervous.

As the singles match unfolded, my worst fears came to life. I fell apart. I choked. The harder I tried, the more I wanted turn things around, the worse I played.

I wasn’t mentally prepared to handle the pressure. I didn’t know how to regroup and bounce back.

I beat myself.

Where Attention Goes Energy Flows

The truth is, we can’t control fear. When athletes try to fight against their fear, to stifle it, the fear grows stronger. Fighting fear only makes it worse.

Where attention goes energy flows. This one of my favorite axims in sport psychology. Athletes are going to get more of what they focus on. If she focuses on making solid contact at the plate, she’s more likely to get a base hit. If he focuses on NOT missing the free throw, he’s more likely to miss it.

When athletes try to avoid their fears the brain amplifies the fear rather than the task-at-hand. This stomps on the gas pedal for the body’s fight-or-flight response, putting all systems on overdrive. As I experienced first hand, this is a disaster for performance.

4 Strategies to Prevent Fear of Failure from Sabotaging Performance

The good news is your athletes can learn to channel their fear. This is what I needed in the state tournament and didn’t have.

1. Go All In

Athletes can reinterpret fear and nervous sensations as motivation and excitement. One key to this is helping your players understand that avoiding failure is entirely the wrong approach.

Playing scared means playing it safe. That’s when athletes play NOT to lose, rather than playing to win – meaning their focus is on losing.

When you compete, go all in. As Robert F Kennedy put it, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

2. Failure Isn’t Final

Athletes often fear failure because they view a failure as a defining moment. Those in a fixed mindset view failure as validation of their worst fear, that they don’t have what it takes.

Turn this misconception around. Teach your athletes to interpret their failures in a more productive way. Try this excerpt from Winston Churchill, “Success is not final, failure isn’t fatal: It’s the courage to continue that counts.”

3. Breath Into Your Fear

Rather than running from fear, athletes can learn to channel it into motivation. By using diaphragmatic breathing, athletes can pull back the reigns on their fear and steer that emotional intensity into the task-at-hand.

If athletes let fear run wild, it will ruin them. By channeling their fear it can work for them rather than against them.

4. Let Failure Be Your Teacher

Fear of failure is such an achilles heel for high performers that John C. Maxwell wrote a whole book on it titled “Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success.”

In the military, every training exercise and mission is followed by an After Action Review (AAR), part of which is focused on what mistakes were made and how to learn from them. Mistakes and failure are assumed and the process exists to turn them into lessons learned.

Help your players analyze their failures and learn from them. As Henry Ford put it, “The only mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

Empower Your Athletes to Face Their Fear

I hope you leverage these four strategies to help your athletes perform in the face of fear. Yet, I would be remiss not to mention one additional note. As a coach, you have enormous influence in the lives of your athletes. Your words are powerful, as you well know.

Allow me to pass along a final word of wisdom from legendary Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. He advises, “I believe in you.” These four words can mean the difference between a fear of failure and the courage to try.”

Empower your athletes with courage and the tools to face their fear and fulfill their potential.

Question: What other tips do you have in helping athletes overcome fear?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.



Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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