While it is true that some kids fail to live up to their athletic potential because of sports anxiety (also known as “choking” in the sport psychology lingo), others play poorly for an entirely different and surprising reason. In these examples, the athlete does not struggle with choking, but instead voluntarily chooses to not play his best. Confused? Perhaps legendary women’s tennis player Martina Navratilova’s insightful quote from 1987 referencing her competition of younger players will help:
“I was afraid to play my best…I was scared to find out if they could beat me when I’m playing my best because if they can, then I am finished.”
The “intentional fail” excuse might come as a surprise to sports parents and coaches, but it makes more sense when you think of it as a defense mechanism — particularly to young athletes saddled with high expectations. By losing while not competing hard, the focus is shifted from the athlete’s potential to an excuse of some kind, i.e. a nagging injury, the weather, cramps, etc. The excuse, therefore, buys more time and comfort for the athlete while simultaneously delaying the reality with respect to the athlete’s true potential and abilities.
Living up to personal and/or others expectations can be a daunting task, and sometimes even overwhelming (especially for kids). Athletes who showed promise at an early age are more prone to high expectations, leading to this kind of “self-sabotage” relating to sport performance. Over time, some athletes may even choose an early sport retirement if the pressure to perform becomes too great.
Fortunately, many of the risks of the intentional fail can be mitigated by active coaching/parenting. Talk to athletes about having realistic expectations, and not get caught up in the hype created by others. It’s also important to praise athletes for effort, not just results. Finally, when they do fail, make sure to normalize the experience and remind the athlete that everyone in life experiences stress, adversity, frustration, and failure.