Fear Of Failure


I've coached many athletes who possess a fear of failure. It is a rather common sentiment in sport, heck, in life. But I honestly think failure is a myth. 

Here is a fictional story to illustrate my point: 

An athlete finished a race and expressed dissatisfaction because they didn't run up their own standards. She was struggling mentally to cope with that reality. 

I reached out and asked her why she was so disappointed with her result. 

"I really want to run well and win."

"Are you afraid of failure? I replied. 

"Yes," she said. 

How I define failure: not reaching your goal. Nothing more. 

It is common for athletes to fear failure because they erroneously attach their self-worth to achievement. When this is true, what the athlete does and does not do becomes who they are. 

What is then thought of by an athlete is something along the lines of: "I am a failure because I didn't reach my goal of becoming the winner. I suck at life."

This is wrong and an unhealthy outlook. 

Here is the same result viewed by the hypothetical athlete instead employing my definition of failure: 

"I failed to reach my goal of becoming the winner today. I tried but came up short. Oh well, I will try my very best again next race."

In the second statement, the athlete has distanced themselves as a person from the failure rather than internalized it and tied it to their self-worth and identity.

When an athlete ties their identity to the result of a competition, then one losing race or rocky season prompts their life to unravel and they then question everything about their existence.

This is dangerous because it can create an unhealthy compulsion and fragile self-worth. 

In such a moment the coach can ask, "Why is it important for you to win?"

And if the athlete answers, "because if you win it means you're good," then you could inquire, "so only winning validates you? And the only reason you are running is for validation?"

And if the athlete answers yes, or even if they answer no, the best response from the coach is a heartfelt hug and the words, "you can be sure that I have now, and forever, unconditional support, admiration, and esteem for you, no matter how you fare in any race. You're important and mean the world to me."


Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. // jm 

This post was inspired by the book, What Drives Winning by Brett Ledbetter. It was recommended to me by my friend Mike Smith, Head Coach of the Northern Arizona University Mens & Women's Track & Field / Cross Country programs. 

Jonathan Marcus