Facing a Fear of Failure


By Amy Gross, Peak Performance & Mental Coach

Babe Ruth said, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” Successful people experience failure, but what sets them apart is their courage to face a fear of failure rather than let it control them. They embrace failure. They dance with failure. They use it to bolster their performance.

1. Minimize overthinking, maximize action

Research shows that over 90% of the same thoughts are repeated throughout the day and most of them are negative. If too much time is spent over-analyzing, you risk creating a paralyzed state of inaction.

Identify sources of fear. Fear of failure usually falls under two categories: 1) Not playing to your potential (afraid to lose or play poorly). 2) Social approval (don’t want to let others down or embarrass yourself). The first step in managing fear is understanding its original source.
Transform thoughts into thinking. Thoughts focus on the past. Thinking is active and promotes action (e.g. learning, planning, problem solving and preparation). Make small and actionable decisions to help eliminate procrastination (e.g. setting a hard deadline: “I will spend 20 minutes doing X”).

2. Alter the way you perceive failure

Expectations and attitude can make or break how you feel about failure. Individuals may believe squash “should” come easily, or they “must” win matches or “never” make mistakes. As a result, their confidence—and thus their performance—suffers. Athletes who have difficulty dealing with failure view it as a permanent situation (“I failed once; I’ll always fail”) rather than a temporary one (“I’ll recover and learn from this”). They develop a “poor me” mentality rather than a “can do” attitude and forget that failure and losses are necessarily a part of the overall journey.

Put things into perspective. I frequently ask clients to look up the statistics of their favorite professional athletes. They are often surprised by the amount of unforced errors that occur at the highest level of sport. In baseball, a player with an amazing batting average is failing far more than succeeding, so remind yourself that individual (and team) failures are part of the game.
Relax your rules, not your values. Rigid rules (“shoulds, oughts, musts”) can lead to unrealistic expectations of oneself and others. Good values foster growth. You may value achievement, but may be inflexible with your rules. Carol Dweck, known for her work on “growth mindset,” emphasizes the power of “yet”, which highlights how a few words can create greater persistence and change mindsets. Notice the difference between “I won’t achieve my goals” and “I haven’t achieved my goals, yet.” Minor adjustments in your self-talk go a long way.

3. Strengthen resilience

Many athletes believe they can’t respond to adversity. They express their desire to be more resilient, but find it difficult to persevere when confronted with challenging events.

Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Step out of your comfort zone to build confidence and mental toughness. Matches where you’re slotting nicks are easy. The hard part is responding positively to adversity. Part of Michael Phelps’ mental preparation is visualizing both impeccable races and disastrous races. This practice helps him respond calmly when he experiences unexpected challenges, like goggle failure during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Take the long-term view. A loss, poor ranking or change in technique hurts in the short-term, but can have huge long-term gains. Envisioning what the future may hold and remembering your end goal enhances motivation.

Instead of ruminating on or anticipating failure, think of past successes where you overcame challenges. You’ve bounced back from setbacks before, so remind yourself that the rough patches will pass.