What’s the worst that could happen if you fail?
You let people down? You let yourself down? You fall short?
Your BIG dream gets flushed down the toilet?
For many incredible athletes, failure could mean saying goodbye to college or elite aspirations.
Have you ever been so invested in something… that it seemed like failure might actually kill you?
This fear is so powerful that it keeps the best of the best from truly shining. It’s what keeps perfectionists stuck, and takes the fun out of sport or performance.
What is Fear of Failure?
Fear of failure is something that almost every human comes up against at some point. High achievers are even more prone to it. Anyone who consistently puts time, money, and body on the line to be an athlete knows it well.
Fear of failure is letting the potential downfalls stop you from putting your all into something. It’s playing small. Playing not to lose, rather than playing to win. It’s being conservative so you don’t fall short.
Are you holding back out of fear that you’ll be crushed if you aim high and fail?
I can’t tell you how many level 10 gymnasts I have worked with that fall into this category. It doesn’t make sense, does it? You want to be perfect, so you work really hard. Then when there’s something on the line (“do 3 routines in a row or start over” or “a college coach is watching” or “last chance to qualify”), you tense up and hold back. You get so focused on not failing that you get conservative, you don’t go big, you don’t do what you always do, and you fail.
This fear isn’t all bad. It drives athletes to bust their butts, to put their all into training. You don’t want to fail, so you do everything you can to prevent yourself from failing.
But, it’s also a major cause of “choking” under pressure.
So, how do you keep the fire lit for training without getting overly stressed out on competition day?
There are 3 things you must do to start getting more consistent under pressure:
1. Focus on the right things
Every competition should have a focus.
For example, one of my gymnasts used to always focus on the score, or how close she was to qualifying for an important meet. She would count tenths and see how close she was. She would do the math in her head in between events to see what score she would need on the next event in order to make it. She would work herself up and almost always mess up on her last event.
Her system wasn’t working. I had her start focusing on being present, in her body, and doing one thing at a time. This was an entirely different kind of goal for her. Interestingly, when she took the focus off how well she was scoring, she started having a lot more success at meets (and better scores!).
Do one thing at a time
Have you ever been worried about the “hard skill” or the one you’re trying to nail, which made you mess up on the easy skill that comes before it, or the one you should have no trouble with?
Often, when you’re thinking about the outcome, you’re not focused on what you should be doing in the moment. If you’re distracted by the “important skill,” you’ll make stupid mistakes.
Get in the habit of doing one skill at a time. One motion at a time. Pay attention to how you are executing your skills. That way, if you make a mistake, you’ll know exactly what to work on in practice. Failure becomes your friend. Your best teacher. It gives you valuable information to improve your training.
Or, you can use the failure to beat yourself up, feel bad, and not do anything constructive… then it’s not productive at all and something to be feared. Your choice!
Focus on what you can control
Here’s an exercise I like to do with clients: take out a piece of paper and fold it “hot dog style.” On the left side, write a list of things you can control (I call these “Controllables”). On the right side, write a list of things you can’t control (I call these “Let-go-ables”).
Examples of Controllables:
Examples of Let-go-ables:
- Playing time/competition order
- Travel days
- Academic demands
When you make a decision to let go of the factors you can’t control, and focus on what you can, it prevents you from burning up energy unnecessarily. It makes it so that you can focus in school, not be stressed out all day thinking about things you can’t even change.
Most of the time, when athletes are stressed out, it’s because they’re focusing on the wrong column. Keep your eyes on the Controllables, and let go of what you can’t control. That can majorly bring down the fear level.
If you have trouble “letting go,” I recommend writing down the things you’re stressed about, things you can’t control. Then take the piece of paper and stick it in a box, or shred it, or crumble it up and toss it in the recycling bin. The physical act of “letting go” helps you let go mentally and emotionally too.
Focus on the process
Goals can be very motivating for some people. Notice I said some people, not all. For perfectionists, goals can be a source of stress. They can be what causes the melt-down as the clock ticks down toward “success” or “failure” – reaching the goal or not reaching it.
There are lots of different types of goals. For our purposes, I’ll break them down to these three types:
- Outcome goals – “Win the game” or “beat Jimmy”
- Performance goals – “Get a personal best”
- Process goals – “Keep my legs straight and follow through”
Outcome goals have their purpose. They make you train hard, and push through discomfort. Goals like “get into my dream college” and “win nationals” are great fuel for hard work in practice. They do not belong at meets.
The kind of goals that help you overcome fear of failure and perform well under pressure are process goals.
For example, set your intention to smile 5 times during your floor routine, or go higher in your beam series. These give you a sense of self-achievement that is based on your personal improvement, not your competition. They are about mastery, progress, and self-improvement. From where you are, not where you wish you were.
Set performance and process goals. Set your sights on continual forward progress. Constantly stretch yourself in comparison to yourself. Make leaps forward, with a present, self-oriented focus.
Like I said, outcomes can be really motivating in practice, but when it comes time to compete, let go of the clock, the score, the competition, it will only mess you up.
2. Be present
Fear is in the future. Past failures are in the past. (Obviously.)
The only place you can be truly free from either regret or worry is in the moment. Right here. Right now.
There is no fear here. There is no failure here.
Come up with ways to remember to come back to “what is.” Rather than “what if?”
Everything is ok. Feel your breath in your body. Feel the energy in your hands and feet. When you start to stress about things that haven’t even happened yet, do your best to come back to right now. Let go of the future. It isn’t even real yet!
Start where you are
This goes hand in hand with the concept of being present. It’s a little different though.
If you tend to compare yourself to other athletes, I guarantee it doesn’t feel good.
Also, if you’ve come back after some time off, or an injury, mental block or setback, etc…
Comparison is not your friend.
As my good friend Diane says in a thick southern accent, “Honey, compare equals despair.”
Learn to get rid of self-judgment and start where you are. Not where you “should” be or where your teammates are or where your coaches or parents expect you to be. You can only improve from where you are now.
If you’re starting from where you “should” be, your successes will still feel like failures if they don’t measure up to your unreasonable ideal.
Accept what is
I know. Easier said than done. This is a matter of switching from judgmental thoughts to facts.
The fact is: you’ve put in the amount of training you could. You’ve shown up, done the work. Or maybe you haven’t. Either way, every competition is a chance to learn. Not a chance to fail. A chance to learn something about yourself as a human and a competitor. If you’re stuck dwelling on failure, you’re missing the complete picture.
When I work with athletes, I have them reflect. All. The. Time. The main questions I ask them are:
- What went well?
- What could have gone better?
- What did you learn?
When you get in the habit of paying attention to successes, failures, and lessons, there is no such thing as a “bad” competition or a “bad” practice. They’re all stepping stones to your best performance.
Everything is as it should be. Now what?
3. Learn to bounce back quickly
Something I’ve noticed about many of my clients who tend to choke under pressure is this: they have a history of downward spiraling at competition. Meaning, they mess up the first event, then the whole meet is doomed. It just gets worse and worse. Once they have a mistake, they can’t let it go, then it affects everything else they do. Until they go home with no medals and their head down.
Of course they’re scared of even the smallest mistake starting this process into motion.
Also, a lot of kids I’ve worked with believe that if one of their teammates has a bad event, it means they all will. It gets dubbed a “BAD MEET” and everyone rides the downward spiral together.
Why does this happen?
There are a couple main reasons.
First, whatever you believe to be true will be true. If you expect that messing up your first event means “BAD MEET” – your body will do what you tell it to do. It will make “BAD MEET” a reality. Your brain is in charge, the body just follows what you believe to be true. It’s very cooperative. If you keep repeating “BAD MEET” to yourself, your body will say, “OK!” and sabotage your performance. Believe me. I’ve seen this over and over and over. As a gymnastics coach, and a High Performance Coach. There’s nothing more powerful than what you believe to be true. What if you started to believe that messing up your first event had nothing to do with the rest of the events? Try it out and see what happens…
Second, if you are terrified of anything going wrong, you will tense up without realizing it, then your skills won’t flow, and you’ll make mistakes you don’t usually make.
How do you bounce back after a mistake?
Have a plan. Plan for failure. When you know exactly what to do to re-set yourself and start fresh, you don’t have to fear it. Then you won’t tense up. You’ll be free to let your training shine through.
If failure is an unknown, scary thing, you won’t be able to handle it. If you have a plan for all scenarios, you know to just switch to plan B as fast as possible to get back on track.
I like to help perfectionist athletes come up with a “Bounce Back Routine.” It’s a specific series of things you do that gets you back in the zone as quickly as possible. It also helps you learn from mistakes. Champions aren’t people who don’t fail, they just fail quickly.
I’ve included my Bounce Back Routine template below. Check it out to help you get a plan in place.
Here’s how success really works:
You reach success long before you get your goal. This is something perfectionists have a hard time believing.
Think of it this way… before you make your first kip, you have to fall on a whole lot of kips. You probably try hundreds, thousands of times before you finally make it. Does that make each attempt a failure?
Only if you think it’s a failure.
Really, each attempt was just that–an attempt–a stepping stone to success. If you get in the habit of seeing each try as a success, you’ll have a lot more fun, and feel better about yourself.
This also works for getting used to the nerves. Set an intention to love the nerves this week. Make peace with the butterflies and the pounding heart. Accept that both nerves and failure are part of the deal.
Then you try again tomorrow.
When you consciously start changing the way you think, it will actually change your brain. Use reminders to bounce back quickly and learn from failures. Surround yourself with people who think this way. Focus on progress, not comparison. Commit to focusing on “controllables,” being present, and always moving forward. From that perspective, you can’t fail.
Here’s where most perfectionists go wrong: We’re impatient. We want it now. We want our hard work to pay off. We want to measure up. We want to reach maximum potential. NOW.
Then we fall short. And we’re devastated.
Also, perfectionists tend to be overthinkers. You get stuck thinking about the outcome, and have a hard time doing what you need to do to get there.
You might even start overthinking your thinking!! “Am I being too negative? Is this going to start my downward spiral?”
None of these are useful. That’s why you have to start where you are, and pay attention. Become more aware of what you’re thinking to yourself, what your expectations are, and come back to the present. Do one thing at a time, and it will pay off. Let go of the outcome, the future, what other people think of you, and it will pay off.
In order to re-wire your brain away from “choking” and toward success, you have to practice.
Set reminders in your phone to be present. Check in with your breathing and your body. Write down your “bounce back routine” and put it in your locker or your bag. Put it where you’ll need to see it. If you have trouble bouncing back after bars, put a note in your grip bag. Write cues on your water bottle. Use sticky notes. Do what you have to do to remember your new way of thinking, otherwise you will default to what you’re used to.
Without accountability, studies show you will revert to fear of failure. Consistent practice, along with setting the right kind of goals will release you from the fear of failure and allow you to perform at your absolute best. Repeated practice will change the way you think and operate. The younger you are when you start this process, the better.
Find a group of like-minded people, and work together to improve your thinking. This doesn’t mean you proclaim to the group, “I’m going to the Olympics!” and then don’t change anything. This means you set a goal for the near future, and every day set an intention to improve (your personal best). This means even when you’re tired, burned out, or afraid, you keep moving forward. The accountability of your group or team will give you strength when you feel depleted.
I’m telling you, this stuff really works!!
This 3-step process is proven to help re-wire your brain from fear of failure and “choking” under pressure to consistent success:
- Focus on the right things
- Be present
- Bounce back quickly
If you see failure as a tool to help you improve, you don’t have to be afraid of it. If failure is a reason to punish yourself, it’s something to fear.
The more you practice this way of thinking, the more consistent you are, the more quickly you will learn to let go of the fear of failure and perform to your maximum potential.