Overcome Your Fear of Failure

STACK Expert Stuart Singer discusses the sources of fear of failure and offers advice on how to combat it to become the best athlete you can be.

Overcoming Fear of Failure

In terms of competition, fear is most accurately defined as an intense worry about something that may happen. Typically in sports we have two types of fears:

  • "What if I make some type of mistake that impacts the team negatively or makes me look bad?"
  • "What if we don't accomplish our goal?"

Fear of personal failure can turn into thoughts of self-doubt such as: "I am not good enough and my teammates/coaches think I am no good," "I'll never be considered dependable," "Coach is going to pull me out of the game," or "I'll never reach my goals."

Thoughts about team failure may include: "We let everyone down," "We'll never win the big game," or "It's not meant for us to win."

The team fear of "not winning the big game" can become an obstacle to success. The more it is discussed, the bigger roadblock it becomes. In psychology, this is known as "catastrophizing."

What we pay attention to the most is most likely what develops. Don't think of the "what if." Instead, think of achieving the goal.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you truly predict the future?
  • Is making a mistake on the court/field equal to a real catastrophe?
  • If not, is your fear response valid?

The goal is not to say that winning or losing doesn't matter, but to create an internal response that truly matches the size of the actual mistake.

Your only real fear should be not trying, rather than trying and not succeeding.

Here is the difficult reality: You actually need setbacks in order to grow and get better—to find out what you are really made of, discover your commitment and inner strength, and push beyond self-imposed limits.

Overcoming setbacks is how you develop real mental toughness. It's only after you survive that you understand how tough you really are.

What if you look at every challenge only as an opportunity? Don't fear it, but instead remind yourself that this is why you play. To feel emotion—happy or sad—is a good thing. To always avoid "going for it," and therefore never being vulnerable, is limiting and boring.

Instead of trying to protect yourself, allow yourself to be vulnerable, judged and exposed—and value those experiences. What levels would you reach if you let that last 5 to 10 percent of your ability come out, rather than being held back by "what if?"

The reason victory feels great is because of the commitment everyone gave to get there. Without the setbacks, there would be less satisfaction.

But even if you don't reach your ultimate goal, knowing you prepared right and didn't give up is what you hold on to.

Learn to honor and appreciate the process—the grind—to be "all in" and completely engaged. Have zero judgment about the outcome. Fully engage in it for what it is—the opportunity to improve and test yourself that day and that day only. It is nothing more and nothing less. Let no competing thought creep in.

We usually experience performance-related fear for one of 3 reasons:

  • Lack of preparation
  • Habit or internal response
  • Unrealistic expectations of self-perfectionism

How to deal with it:

  • Be aware of it. Is it shame, embarrassment, humiliation or worry about the future? Just to know that you are doing it and that you are telling the story is helpful. This gives you control over the story you tell yourself.
  • Identify the cause from the list above.
  • Evaluate the validity of what you are saying. If you didn't prepare, the fear is valid. If it's just your "habit" response or an unrealistic expectation, the fear is  not valid.
  • Pick an alternative message.
  • Not prepared? Take responsibility and commit to an "all-in" mentality of practicing the right habits and behaviors.
  • Habitual response or unrealistic expectations? Ask what evidence supports the feeling. Is it valid? Does other evidence suggest other possibilities? You can change the story.
  • You can't experience lasting confidence and inner satisfaction when your mind is immersed in repetitive, habitual negative thinking, because it is trying to "protect" you. This only creates a battle against yourself.
  • You need to completely commit to the right behaviors as hard as you can, knowing this will give you the best shot at your goals. This is what you are in control of. Nothing else.
  • It's your choice. Do you see the steps to success, or do you see the "what if" of failure?
  • Have a will to succeed rather than a fear of failure!

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