The Mind Game—Fear of Failure: Playing to Win or Not to Lose?

By Damon Leedale-Brown, Sports Scientist & Conditioning Specialist

Sport provides a great environment in which we can learn about taking risks, losing with good sportsmanship, and ultimately using our failures or losses to grow as athletes and individuals, and become more successful. However, the fear of failure is often what will keep many people in sport (and in other aspects of life) from realizing their full potential—and afraid of taking risks.

On the verge of losing, down 10-8 in the fifth game of the 2009 British Open final, Nick Matthew (right) flipped a switch. Instead of remaining in a "prevention mentality" mode, he began attacking relentlessly in a "gain mentality" approach that ultimately carried him to a 12-10 win over James Willstrop.
On the verge of losing, down 10-8 in the fifth game of the 2009 British Open final, Nick Matthew (right) flipped a switch. Instead of remaining in a “prevention mentality” mode, he began attacking relentlessly in a “gain mentality” approach that ultimately carried him to a 12-10 win over James Willstrop.

Of course, a fear of failure actually makes failure more likely. An athlete’s perception of the negative consequences of losing will typically make them tighten up; inhibits their awareness and natural instincts; and can make everything feel forced and awkward. Essentially we are playing not to lose rather than playing to win—a feeling which I am sure all of us have had on the squash court or in other sports, and witnessed on many occasions in elite sporting environments where the stakes are highest.

Playing to win will typically be characterized by an intense level of effort and drive, body language conveying high self-belief, and a continued confidence to take on strategies or shots considered higher risk. On the flip side, playing not to lose will be conveyed through conservative play, a tendency to retreat on court and let our opponent dictate the game to us, and a focus on trying to avoid mistakes. Under intense competitive pressure, adopting a strategy of trying to avoid errors will, in most situations, lead to more errors—the unfortunate paradox of playing not to lose.

A recently published book, Top Dog—The Science of Winning and Losing, by Bronson & Merryman, has a chapter on ‘The Difference between Winning and Not Losing’. In the chapter, the authors discuss the terms Gain Orientation (i.e., playing to win) and Prevention Orientation (i.e., playing not to lose) as neurological systems that are operating all the time—almost in equilibrium. However, at a given moment, one or the other could be slightly more active which can lead to a very different mental state and attitude during competition.

The challenge is: How do we stay in the Gain Orientation mode for longer and not slip into the Prevention Orientation mentality as our end goal gets closer or the perceived prize/reward becomes greater? Bronson & Merryman believe this will often come down to whether an athlete ‘frames’ a particular competitive scenario or personal goal as a challenge or a threat.

In a threat situation on the squash court, expectations on yourself or from others are very high. You are sensitive to being judged by others who are watching, or even by yourself. The fear of making mistakes, playing poorly or losing pushes you towards the Prevention Orientation.

In a challenge state you are not expected to be perfect and, while winning is not guaranteed, you know you have the ability produce a performance that will lead to success. You feel mentally free to take risks, play in an attacking and assertive manner, and basically go for it and trust your abilities and preparation. This helps activate the Gain Orientation system.

So in many competitive situations, simply being able to change your perception of an event from a threat to a challenge could be all that is needed to put you on the path to success—but it’s often easier said than done.

An excerpt from three-time World Champion Nick Matthew’s book, Sweating Blood, provides a great example of a shift in mental perception towards a Gain Orientation mindset when the stakes are highest. British Open final 2009—10-8 match ball down against James Willstrop in the fifth game: “I remember thinking these opportunities don’t come around too often. I might never have another chance. Suddenly my mission became clear. I focused my mind and rid myself of the demons that had been haunting me most of the match. I had no margin for error but refused to go on the defensive. I decided to attack. I went high risk, clawed back the deficit and won the match and the title 12-10 in the 5th.”

The next issue will address creating training environments where mistakes and taking risks are an integral part of the learning process as opposed to negative outcomes open to judgment and criticism, and consider mental approaches to keep up on the Goal Orientation and Playing to Win path during competition.