FEAR OF FAILURE: THE ATHLETE’S WORST ENEMY Aside from fears of physical injury that produce stress for some athletes, most athletic stress arises from...

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FEAR OF FAILURE: THE ATHLETE’S WORST ENEMY Aside from fears of physical injury that produce stress for some athletes, most athletic stress arises from the fact that sports are an important social situation. The athlete's performance is visible to everyone present, and it is constantly being evaluated by the athlete and by significant people in his or her life. Many athletes dread the possibility of failure and fear the disapproval of others. Some feel that their athletic performance is a reflection of their basic self worth; and they therefore have a great need to avoid failing. They are convinced that failure will diminish them in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. We are convinced that fear of failure is the athlete's worst enemy. The thinking of high-stress athletes is dominated by negative thoughts and worries about failing. Unchecked, these concerns with failure undermine confidence, enthusiasm, the willingness to invest and persist, and, most importantly, the athlete's belief in himself or herself. It is these thoughts that transform the competitive athletic situation from what should be a welcome challenge to a threatening and unpleasant pressure-cooker. It is these thoughts that trigger the high physical arousal that interferes with performance and with the ability to concentrate fully on the task at hand. The ideas that underlie fear of failure do not arise in a vacuum. They almost always have been communicated to youngsters by their parents or by other important adults. This is not surprising, because the basic beliefs underlying such ideas are very widespread and accepted in our culture, which emphasizes achievement as a measure of personal worth. In our society, an untold number of children fall victim to their parents' demands that they perform exactly as expected, and to condemnations when they fail. Too often, the child's achievements are viewed as an indication of the worth of his or her parents, and failure brings reprisals based on the parents' feelings that they are to blame or that they themselves are inadequate. For many children, love becomes a premium handed out on the basis of what a child can do rather than simply on who he or she is. The fastest and easiest way to create fear of failure in a child is to punish unsuccessful performance by criticizing it or by withholding love from the youngster. Under such circumstances, children learn to dread failure because it is associated with punishment or rejection. They also learn to fear and avoid situations in which they might fail. The unfortunate lesson they learn is that their worth and lovability depend on how well they perform. Instead of trying to achieve in order to reap the built-in rewards of achievement and mastery, children strive to perform well to avoid failure. They begin to measure themselves by their performance; and if their performance is inadequate, they usually consider their total being inadequate. Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden has found that "Because they fear failure, many people never try and thereby rob themselves of opportunities to be successful.” As a parent, you can have a dramatic impact on helping the young athlete develop a positive desire to achieve rather than a fear of failure. Earlier, we described four elements in the stress cycle: (a) the situation, (b) mental appraisal of the situation, (c) physical arousal, and (d) coping behaviors. Efforts to reduce stress and build mental toughness can be directed at all four of these levels.