An athletic director I met with recently discussed how one of his best basketball players, a point guard, always "played safe." On one hand, she made few mistakes and her play was consistent. However, she also held back and never took over a game.
At a swim meet, I spoke with a swimming coach who remarked how one of his swimmers never went for it and reached her potential. She always swam "safe."
"Safe" is the new normal. Equipment-wise, helmets are now used in soccer, infielders wear face masks and everyone wears a mouth guard. As a society, we are overly concerned for our safety. In some cases, it's justified. However, when it comes to playing our best, "safe" doesn't cut it.
"Safe" athletes are afraid of messing up. They know that by playing it safe, they will not be judged too harshly or risk defeat through their play. The motivation to lay it all on the line simply does not outweigh the risk of failure.
At some point, these athletes were judged too harshly on their mistakes, and they quickly discerned "just don't mess up." They would not allow themselves to fail. The reality is that sports and life are all about failure, we have more setbacks than victories, and this is a process.
A huge part of the game is the unknown, the feeling of putting yourself up against another athlete of equal or greater ability and seeing what happens. This feeling causes nervousness, excitement, and anticipation. It is uncomfortable, but the only way to achieve success is to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable.
Unless athletes are allowed to fail—knowing they are safe outside their sport—they won't take risks or go all out for their sport.
The athletic director I mentioned earlier had a heart-to-heart with the athlete, telling her she wasn't reaching her potential and that she would later regret it. That one talk changed everything, and now the point guard plays with a passion, unafraid to fail.
"Show me an athlete who is afraid to look bad, and I'll show you an athlete you can beat every time."