Ignoring Athlete Fear and Focusing on Confidence | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Ignoring Athlete Fear and Focusing on Confidence


About Me

Hi everyone.  Welcome to Q and A with Coach Rebecca.  I am Rebecca Smith, founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching.  I’m here for my weekly talk on all things sports psychology and youth sport.  This is to help parents of athletes, athletes, and coaches get more information to help athletes thrive.  Here at Complete Performance Coaching, we are a team of highly-skilled sport psychology experts who specifically specialize in young athletes age 8 to 18.  There are a couple of phenomenal coaches on the staff who are also great with adults, but most of our focus here is kids.

I have two questions today from sport parents that I’m going to tackle.  Always feel free to jump in and email me to give me your feedback – we’re in this together.

That’s the whole point of the Perform Happy community, the online training center – to learn from each other’s experiences.  I think with these two things in particular, you might have some feedback you want to share, so please feel free to come.  If you’re members, you can join us in the private Facebook group or you can come to the Complete Performance Coaching Facebook page.  You can also email me Rebecca@PerformHappy.com.  Again, I want to hear your feedback.

The first question is from a member of the Perform Happy community.  She is a gymnast mom. She says,

Q: My daughter’s very technical, unlike most of her friends who are fearless and some sometimes careless.  One fell today out of her full after being careless, and is currently in the ER after falling on her neck and shoulder.  My daughter doesn’t know because we’re on our way back from vacation.  But how do I try my best to ensure that she doesn’t freak out?  I don’t want that fear to be put on herself.  She’s come so far.



My first thought, just like this mom, is to just pretend that this didn’t happen and keep it on the back burner and not talk about it.  The kid will be fine and so you won’t have to deal with it.  I know a lot of athletes I work with who are overcoming fear; they worry that seeing a friend fall, hearing about a fall, or watching somebody get injured could be a stumbling block to their progress.

Something I do with all my athletes as part of my main curriculum is a confidence map.  On that map we start with figuring out where they are and where they want to go.

Point A and B

We figure out point A and point B, then we figure out the steps to get there.  We figure out their goals and break them down, getting really specific.  Then we come up with a plan of action.  It’s really exciting because they can see their goals and how they are working toward them.  But then they hit a stumbling block.

On that map we also have an important process of creating solutions to any potential obstacles. Since injury comes up as a roadblock on so many of my kids’ maps, we talk through it.  The way that we deal with any roadblock on the way to confidence is by coming up with at least three solutions.

I look at it like this – you’re driving in your car toward your goals, you’re going along, you’re checking off those boxes.  You are getting some progress, making strides, feeling successful, and then you hit a roadblock.  Let’s say it’s a friend who gets injured.  We’ll figure out what the three solutions for that are.

What are Three Solutions?

First of all, I like to look at it from how do you prevent the roadblock?  How do you deal with it when you’re in it, and how do you move through it smoothly if it were to happen?  That way you can come up with a plan.

If it’s your own injury, you prevent it by making sure that your equipment was safe, making sure that your progressions were in order, and making sure that you’ve done everything within your control to make your environment safe – trusting your coaches and trusting your intuition.  If it doesn’t feel right, you pause and you look into it and say, “What’s not right here? What do I need to fix?”

The “What Ifs”

You move cautiously, which it sounds like this girl already is doing.  She has the prevention pretty well covered.  Then, let’s say crisis has hit, now what?  What do you do?  You hurt yourself.  Okay, you ice, you wrap, you make sure that you have a doctor guiding you so that you can come through it as successfully as possible.  Then you talk about it and come up with a plan.  And when you get back in, you go cautiously.

So I talk with people about all those big what ifs that seemed like a scary question mark.  Like, “What if that happened?  That would be the end of the world.”  Well, it’s probably not actually the end of the world, and if we get really factual about it, you can figure out how to prevent it, making a plan – This is what would happen if it were to happen.  I’d get through it and this is how.

Now,  are we going to freak out or are we going to be confident in our plan and move forward.

Approach it Head On

If she wants to talk about it, talk about it.  Talk about how it makes her feel.  Does it freak her out, stress her out?  How can you make a plan to prevent it from happening to her?  What is the likelihood of it happening for her?  How is she different from this other athlete, and what has she learned from this?

Instead of avoiding it and leaving it as this big, “Oh gosh, don’t freak out.  What would happen?  Oh, what if someone got hurt?  What if I got hurt?”  You just have to have a plan on how how you would handle it.  It’s happened and you can’t go back.  So, what can you learn?  How will you support her so she can come through it with flying colors?  Help her realize that no matter what happens, she’ll be ok.  Be confident in knowing that no matter what happens, you’ll know what to do.  You’re going to be prepared and safe so that environment will be low risk.

Then, I got another question from a dad of a 13 year old basketball player.  He says,

Q: My biggest challenge is getting my 13 year old son to play comfortably and confidently.  He’s a strong basketball player, but in more competitive environments he seems to lose his confidence and defers to others on the team.  I think he’s absolutely capable of playing at a high level and I’d like to know how to help him achieve his goals.



This question came through today and I was excited to talk about it because it’s so common.

I would say, especially in team sports (I hear about this in tennis too) you’re playing well, and all of a sudden you start being overly self-conscious.  This is what I’ve noticed with most of my clients who have a similar situation – they become overly self-conscious.  They fear failure and they’re afraid of disappointing people.  They’re afraid of what other people will think.

There’s a lot of outward focus on people.  I’ve seen this come up with other basketball players, tennis players, and baseball players where they just become so self-conscious that they can’t get into flow.

Having Flow

Flow is a concept that I teach where you become one with your sport.  It’s almost like you don’t even exist because you’re so at peace with your mind.  Your mind is almost silent and you’re just executing.  You’re going through the well-trained motions, executing and rising to a challenge.  As soon as you have that moment where you’re worried about what people will think of you, you destroy your flow.

I’m going to give you a quick little list of reasons why people’s confidence suffer under pressure and some ways to get that confidence back.

Why Confidence Suffers Under Pressure

The main reason why is fear of failure, causing the mind to worry.  It then causes the body to tense up, making it do weird things.  There’s a phenomenon called “the yips” which you hear about in tennis and baseball were you all of a sudden can’t throw the ball, or you can’t serve.

It’s basically a mental block in sports like gymnastics or figure skating where your body becomes tense and starts doing very strange things.  You could practice that same jump everyday as a figure skater, you could throw that same pitch every day in practice, but then you get to competition and all of a sudden you think, “What happened?  Why can’t I do this?  Where did it go?”

Fight or Flight

The worry has sent your brain into this spazz out mode that tenses you for fight or flight.  That fear of failure creates this cycle where you’re afraid you’re going to fail, which makes you worry, creates a poor performance, and reduces your confidence, making you that much more afraid that you’re going to fail next time.

You have to break that cycle of being afraid to fail, which is not done by being perfect.  This is the mistake that most people make.  They think that when they’re perfect enough times in a row, they know they will be perfect when it counts and they can be confident.

There is no “Perfect”

Here’s the problem – there’s no such thing as perfect.  Even the best athletes are not perfect.  They are very resilient and they get back in action quickly.  They get their focus back quickly.  It’s not that they don’t ever lose focus or get insecure or distracted, it’s that they can catch it and refocus it on the moment as quickly as possible and get back into flow.

Fear of failure, fear of disappointing people, anything that puts the emphasis on what other people are thinking of you, or even just worries, can make your body physically tense and change the things that you have been training.  A past history of choking, like I said, the cycle, being intimidated by your competition can also cause tension.

If you start looking at those other competitors and the other team and think, “They’re bigger, they’re older, they’re better, they have a better ranking – this is not going to be good.”  Again, you’ve set your mind into that worry pattern which creates tension.

Fear of Failure

Somebody who is a perfectionist will subconsciously think, “I’m going to let my buddy have this one.  I’m going to pass it off to him.  I think he’s going to be better at this.”  There’s that fear of failure, so if you just pass the ball then you’re not going to fail.

With this tennis player I worked with, she would melt down anytime she had the lead.  All of a sudden there was something to lose.  It was this whole mental game of who she was playing and what their ranking was.

Play Your Best Game, but How?

When you should really just play the game, play your best game.  That’s what the goal is, right?

Here’s how you do it.  I’ve heard people say they’ve tried deep breathing and visualizing and it didn’t work.  They still lost their confidence.  Well that’s because those techniques we teach in sports psychology are last minute, fine-tuning confidence boosters; they don’t solve the underlying issues.

Work with a Coach

That’s where working one-on-one with a coach can be really useful, even in a short period of time. Most kids work with us for six sessions and we get in; we dig up those issues like low self-confidence, fear of failure, perfectionism, fear of disappointment, and comparing to other people.

We look at those and we get reality on the scene, kind of like the girl whose friend who’s got injured. Let’s look at it from a realistic point of view:  Is anybody perfect?  No.  Will you fail? If you fail, what will you do?  Let’s say that you play the worst game of your life in front of all the most important people.  Some of you think worst case scenario – worst game of your life in front of the most important people.  It just ended.  What do you do?  Probably talk to your coach or your parent.  Depending on how supportive your parents are, you might get a lecture, you might get a hug.

Parents, I recommend a hug over a lecture or any kind of explaining.  You might go get dinner. Then, hopefully you’ll get ice cream after every game, not just the wins.

Life Goes On

Go get some ice cream, give some hugs.  Talk about things other than the game.  Go home, go to bed, wake up, go to school, go to practice.  The point is – life goes on.  Even if you played the worst game of your life against the most important people, life would go on, wouldn’t it?  Sometimes it feels like that possibility would literally kill you.

If you feel that way, if you have that question mark of what would happen if I failed?  Well, you’d be bummed.  You would talk it out with your coach.  You might have to endure a lecture from your parents.  You go home, you go to bed, you wake up, you do the next day.  You go back to practice. You learn from your lessons of, what were the mistakes?  What wisdom do you have as a result of that crash and burn?  Great.  You’re going to apply that to practice and go back in the next game and your commitment to yourself is to get better.  Not to get perfect, but to get better.

Practice and Get Better

Even if it’s only a little bit.

It’s always those seasons where you’re learning about yourself as an athlete from a mental capacity because you’re falling apart.  You learn though, and you go to the next game and you get a little better.  Then, by the next season, you are tough as nails because you’ve gone through all of it.

You’ve melted down, you’ve been embarrassed, you’ve had your Simone Biles 2013 where she was melting down, freaking out, and getting pulled from meets because she was such a head-case.  Then she worked with a sports psychology coach who helped her figure out her deeper issues.

Now you know that, you know her story.

Don’t Worry About Failure

That’s my takeaway for you athletes.  Get ready for it, have some failure, and then afterward go learn from it.  Let go of over-trying and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  The process of getting drafted for college or elite or professional sports is very uncomfortable.  Get used to it now and you’re going to be fine once you move forward from there.

Then, the keys to increasing your confidence – put in the work.  Pound the pavement, go to practice, and work your butt off so that there isn’t any doubt in your physical preparation.

My mom was a singer.  She’d have this horrible stage fright, but then she said the way that she got over it was by being so prepared that nothing could go wrong.  She knew that the nerves were just a part of her imagination and she was going to be fine.

Ignoring Athlete Fear and Focusing on ConfidencePut in the Work and You’ll be Fine

If you have put in the work and you’ve put in the practice to the point where you know your body is ready, then that sets you up nicely to go in and recognize your pre-competition jitters. You’re going to breathe it out, and you’re going to do your best.  If you fail, you’re not going to get kicked off the team.  It’s going to be okay.

A lot of you are wondering, “What if it is that one important game that matters so much?”  There’s no such thing.  You’re probably thinking that’s not true, but there’s a swimmer who went to the Olympic trials and totally failed.  He learned this amazing lesson and then went back and made the Olympic team.

It’s Okay to be Imperfect

Let go of that.  Let go of needing to be perfect.  Let go of, “This matters more than other things.”  It doesn’t.  It’s just one day.  Focus on what you can control and try to get positive.  Find the silver lining.

If you fail, what’s good about that?  You’ll gain wisdom.  If you make a mistake, it will give you information that helps you to course correct for next time.  Also, keep track of what you’re doing right.  For you athletes out there, keep a list of victories after every single practice where, even if it was the worst game of your life or the worst practice, you can always find three things that you did well.

Focus on the Positives, the Wins

My baseball player who used to melt down under pressure, he also played basketball and was really freaked out by other people.  When he started keeping track of his wins after each practice and each game, his confidence went up little by little to the point where he didn’t notice the other people anymore.  He was able to get his head under control.

Those little things you do every day really start to add up.

Okay, parents, a quick couple of tips for you guys.  Praise small victories just like we want the athletes to do.  If you notice they did one little thing right in the worst practice or the worst game, point it out, because you know they’re being hard on themselves.

Don’t Compare

You do not need to point out the things they did wrong.  They know.  Point out the victories and don’t compare them to anybody else.  Just don’t.  Don’t say, “Hey, that guy had a good game today.” It’s not worth it because what that means to your athlete is that guy did better than them.  That’s what they automatically go to.  If you can avoid that, be positive, focus on the victories, and don’t compare.

If you want a little extra help for parents, there’s a free download at CompletePerformanceCoaching.com/5.  That is the five things you never want to say to your athlete after a game.  These are ways to salvage the confidence after a good game or a bad game.  You can download that for free.

I’m going to leave you with a final list here from a major league baseball scout.  This is his advice. He says,

I always have parents explaining to me how bad their son wants to play college baseball and what do they need to do to make it.

This goes along with the last part of this dad’s question. “I want to make my kids dreams a reality.” This is from the mouth of a major league baseball scout. He said,

I scouted with the New York Yankees for over 17 years.  I scouted with the Texas Rangers for five years and I’m now with the MLB scouting bureau.  I’ve run my baseball club for 25 years.  We’ve sent well over 600 players to college on scholarship over the years.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s stop wasting your breath telling others about yourself or your son. I, along with your high school/summer coach and future college coach will know how badly you want it by the attitude and body language you show, by how well you accept criticism by the time you arrive and leave practice, by the energy you bring each day, by all the extra work you do away from practice, by the quality of food you eat, by the effort you show between the lines, by how grateful and appreciative you are.  By the eagerness you show to want to get better, by the type of friends you keep.  Actions will always speak louder than words.

That is my suggestion to you, dad, which I’m sure your son is already doing.

Allow them to have those actions speak really, really loudly, and then help them with those underlying issues.

For any of you who want more support, you can grab a free coaching session with one of the fabulous CPC coaches here.  You get a free 20 minute coaching session with any of the five of us.

Coach Jimmy is our team sport specialist extraordinaire.  For any of you on sports teams, go grab a coaching session with Jimmy.  He’s phenomenal.  Otherwise, you can also do it yourself at PerformHappy.com where you can do all the self-training you want through all of our online courses, live trainings, etc.  Thank you for tuning in this week and I’ll see you again next week.

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.