Sports Psychology and Fear of Failure in Athletes

by Patrick J. Cohn, Ph.D.

One of my mental coaching students, Joe (not his real name), had a unique gift (or so he thought). Since he was overly concerned with what other people (coach, teammates, parents, spectators, etc.) thought about his performance, he often engaged in a process I call mind reading when performing.

While Joe was mind reading, he made assumptions about what others were thinking about him. He literally thought that he could tell what others were thinking about him. Joe’s hidden agenda was to avoid embarrassment, to not make mistakes, and have others think he was a good athlete.

This preoccupation with mind reading what others may be thinking about him caused him to play cautiously and avoid mistakes. He was plagued with thoughts such as, “The coach will yank me from the team if I miss an open shot!” or “My team will be disappointed in my performance.” Joe's performance suffered because he did not allow himself to perform freely without the fear of failure, fear of disappointing others, or fear of making mistakes.

Joe is not alone. In fact, many athletes hinder their potential by focusing too much on avoiding mistakes and not embarrassing themselves. They think it is better to play it safe than risk embarrassment or disappointment.

While no one wants to feel embarrassed or get benched by the coach, avoiding mistakes and playing safe are huge distractions to athletic performance, at the very least. This type of thinking actually makes athletes perform worse, and then create what they feared might happen.

Ultimately, the fear of failure can cause athletes to play tentatively or defensively and actually hinder their ability to succeed. This state of mind certainly makes playing sports half as much fun for many athletes and causes some to drop out of sports.

Caring too much about what others think comes from the phenomenon called social approval. Social approval is defined as the need to be confirmed and validated by other people. In today's society, many athletes learn *mind reading* when peer approval and gaining acceptance are primary motivators, especially for young athletes.

Let's face it, we want the respect from our peers. And, whether you’ve been an athlete for 5 years or 35 years, the fear of letting others down can lead to tentative performances! That's why helping athletes learn how to play without the fear of failure is so important.

How can an athlete be taught to focus on what's important, rather than mind reading or focusing too much on the fear of failure? I start by asking my students an important question, “Do you compete for yourself *or* do you compete to gain respect or approval of people around you?”

This is a tough question for some athletes to answer. Many find it difficult to admit that they compete because they yearn for the acceptance of their team, parents, coach or spectators.

However, the bottom line is that if you want to harness a zone focus and perform at your best, you cannot care about what others think about you and/or your performance. You must learn to overcome mind reading and fear of failure.

I help my students achieve this in many ways. One way is with my teleseminars. For example, one class I teach is, “Everyone is Watching Me! How to Stop Worrying about What Others Think.” I cover the techniques needed to stop worrying about what others think to create a stronger mindset.

Dr. Patrick Cohn is a master mental game coach who works with athletes, sports parents, and teams of all levels. For more information about Fear of Failure, call 888-742-7225.


Jeremie Rentas Barlow, M.S., can be reached at (502) 553-8299.