Fear of Failure And Performance Anxiety

Fear of Failure in SportsMark, a 4-wall handball player wrote in to ask us about some challenges he is having with fear and performance anxiety in tournaments.

Many of the athletes we work with have the most difficulty staying relaxed and confident right before and during tournaments. Why? These athletes train for weeks, even months, for tournaments so there is a lot of pressure to perform well or play to ones potential.

Mark says that he starts becoming fearful of what will happen if he loses, “Once I know who I will be playing in a tournament, I get really wound up, I start thinking negative thoughts. And if I win my first match, I can’t sleep very well until I lose or the tournament is over. The pressure just builds up until I lose then I go into depression for a bit. Then, I just start working on something else in my game to improve or didn’t execute when competing.”

Like Mark, athletes who are highly competitive and have high expectations for their performance, often experience fear of failure. Because they want it so bad, they start to think about what will happen if they don’t perform as well as they are capable of. This hurts athletes and often creates the very situation they fear, a breakdown in their performance.

What can Mark do to help his mental game in tournaments and overcome performance anxiety? He said that he has tried some visualization, breathing, and relaxation techniques but nothing has worked. At Peak Performance Sports, we know that while these techniques can be helpful in some situations, they do not help athletes overcome fear of failure. Mental imagery and relaxation is just a band aid. They do not address the root of the problem or any of the reasons Mark is afraid to fail.

Mark lets us in on one big reason he is afraid to fail, “I think I fear losing because I fear letting people down. I think I try to be perfect, and I am not. I can’t shake the pressure and I now hate playing tournaments more because of past failures than looking forward to competing. I lose to inferior players at times but play good against good players. I feel I am a mess.”

Mark suffers from what we call a need for social approval, which one of the most common reasons athletes fear failure. Social approval occurs when athletes worry about letting others down, embarrassing themselves in front of others, or disappointing friends, family, or coaches. Athletes have need for social approval in sports when their worth as a person is dependent on their performance.

The first step in overcoming social approval underlying sports anxiety is to separate the athlete from the person. Who are you outside of sports? If your identity and self-worth is tied to your role as an athlete, you’ll feel more pressure to succeed and that fear failure.

You can start by learning mental strategies for playing with fearless confidence with The Confident Athlete Series: Workbook and CD Programs for athletes and coaches.

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