Arguably the biggest challenge to improving mental toughness and reaching our full human potential is overcoming the fear of failure. When we allow fear and self-doubt to steal from our confidence, we begin second-guessing our talents and abilities, and experience more anxiety as a result. In fact, in worst-case scenarios we even use cautious, worrisome self talk that includes things like “don’t fail” and “what happens if I play poorly today?” Ironically, when we turn our attention away from what we should be doing (focusing on the next play) toward what we do not want to happen (i.e. “don’t mess up!”), we often end up doing just that — messing up! Our best chances for success occur when we tamp down our fears and insecurities, allowing us to direct all energy toward the task at-hand. The reality is you have to be willing to fail in order to succeed.
Fear is our biggest opponent
While you might think that the opponent is the biggest obstacle when you go out to compete, in reality it is your own thinking that limits your chances for success. The reality is that anything can happen in sports, and we have witnessed countless major upsets in our lifetime that we originally thought were never possible (the 1980 US hockey team provides an example that seemingly anything is possible). Before any of these great upsets ever happened, the underdog player/team had to have an unwavering belief that they could win on that day. This type of confident, positive thinking has to occur before you can beat a talented opponent, providing evidence of the power of belief and the importance of minimizing the fear of failure.
Former Major League great Don Mattingly, while talking about his baseball success, cited the fact that he didn’t play with fear that caused him anxiety and distress, thereby allowing him to simply have fun and play his best:
“I played youth sports without any fear of criticism other than the coach maybe telling you something but you didn’t fear that because when I went home it was dinner and on to my brother’s activity or whatever,” Mattingly said. “There was no cutting the game up when I was 10, 11 or 12 years old. We played, we went home and we moved on.”
“That lack of fear of screwing up allows you to just grow and get better. To take chances. Not be afraid to make a mistake. Just work, learn from it and move on.”
How can you think about failing when parents and coaches create sport opportunities filled with fun, instruction, and positive growth? The answer is it is almost impossible to overly-worry in situations like this, putting us all on alert to the importance of supporting kids through healthy sport development.
When we worry about failing, it divides our attention, sets off a panic response in our body, and distorts our thinking — all characteristics commonly found with athletes (and people) performing below what they are capable of achieving. Instead, take time out to think through your fears and determine if they are really things you should be worried about (i.e. getting injured), or more ego-related (what will others think if I fail?). From there, make a determination that if fun and success are things you want to enjoy in the future, then develop ways to help you stay positive, have fun, and turn all of your attention toward the only thing that matters in sports: the next play.