“What if?” We’ve all had thoughts caused by looking too far ahead into our own performance. Questions arise about the numerous outcomes, future decisions and eventualities that could occur—creating a major distraction that often puts fear and doubt in our minds. Frequently this leads to a fear of failure instead of a focus on what needs to be done in the present moment to be successful. (See Overcoming Fear in Young Athletes.)
Sports broadcasters and coaches commonly use the phrase “playing scared.” This notion creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in the minds of athletes. They expect to fail, which impacts their behavior and performance. Note that “playing scared” is not the same as playing with caution and forethought. Playing cautiously promotes an understanding of risk and a willingness to take calculated risks, up to a point. Playing to avoid failure suggests that no risks, even minimal ones, will be taken. At all levels of sport, athletes must accept some level of risk to be successful. If success were guaranteed, sports would be very boring.
One way to minimize fear of failure is to address it in terms of attention. When we experience fear, we distract our attention from what what we need to do to perform and focus instead on results or consequences of actions we haven’t even taken yet. Since our attention is limited, we must figure out how best to use it. For example: imagine a plate spinner. As he adds more plates to his routine, his task becomes more complicated—to the point of impossibility, because he cannot pay attention to all of the objects at one time. To be successful, he needs to know which plates are critical at each moment and direct his attention to them, while effectively ignoring the others,
The ability to decide what to attend to at any given moment is called “selective attention.” We choose what things to focus on and what to block out. The challenge for athletes is to identify and recognize the former and filter out the latter. Important cues should be selectively attended to and irrelevant ones ignored.
To successfully manage our attention space requires practice. Athletes and coaches must identify and understand the specific cues needed for peak performance. They should work on ways to minimize distractions and attend to those cues during practice. Once athletes understand what aspects they need to focus on, they can trust their training and do in competition what they have done time and time again in practice.
While it is impossible to remove all doubt or fear, we can deal with how we feel when we hear the word or experience it. One way to do this is to use the word as a reminder of what we should be thinking about. I suggest using the word “fear” as an acronym that has a positive meaning and message.
F.E.A.R = Forget Everything And Remember
Whenever you feel your mind wandering, thinking about “Everything” that could go wrong, repeat this mantra to yourself and “Remember” the cues that are important. With practice, you can pair this with a relaxation technique, helping you to compose yourself in the moment rather than thinking ahead to things outside your control that will distract you. When applied consistently, this technique will allow you to minimize the fear of failure and its impact on your performance and refocus your attention on things that are positive and purposeful.