5 Tricks to Beat Perfectionism and Fear of Failure

By John R. Ellsworth – Mental Game Coach

Woman on golf course

More and more athletes I work with on the mental game come to me with fear of failure. Fear and fear of failure are a constant source of stress or anxiety that sabotages athletes’ mental game and performance. What is fear? In sports most of the fear athletes have is based on their perception of the importance of a performance or game and what they assume others think about their performance.

Most of the time, an athletes fear is about avoiding poor results whether piror to or during a performance. Athletes often fear the negative consequences of a poor or less than perfect performance. Athletes worry about letting their team or coach down. They worry about disappointing a parent or not performing up to a parent’s expectations. They worry about many things that are often not under their direct or immediate control and a lot of this worry is unnecessary.

Common Fears for Athletes:

  • Fear of losing a match, game, or race – you badly want to win and are afraid you will not win.
  • Fear of negative social evaluation – you fear others will view you as a failure in sports.
  • Fear of embarrassment – you are afraid you embarrass yourself in front of others if you don’t perform.
  • Fears of letting others down – you do not want to let others down such as a coach, parent, or teammate.
  • Fear of letting in the effort and not ever getting the “pay off” or not playing o your potential. You don’t want you hard works, talent, and long practices to be for not.
  • Fear of not performing up to others expectations – you worry about not meeting others, expectations for you, such as a parent.
  • Fear of being rejected, losing respect, or not gaining approval.
  • Fear of making mistakes and not performing perfectly after having worked so hard at it.
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The Relationship Between Perfectionism and Fear of Failure

Perfectionist athletes often do not perform up to their potential because of fear of failure.

They often lose sight of the real goal in sports which is to perform well in competition and have fun. They become so engrossed in training and practice that perfecting their technique or working hard in p [practice becomes the primary goal instead of performing with confidence in competition. In competition, they believe anything but perfect execution or winning is deemed as failure.

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Below are some examples of how perfectionism is related to fear of failure.

Perfectionism Trait

High motivation and work ethic to train and practice. High emotional investment.

Fear of Failure

You try too hard to win and thus get in your own way. You fear not winning after all the “investment.”

Unrealistically high expectations for your performance.

Easily become frustrated when you do not perform up to your expectations and then try even harder to not fail.

Love to practice – high confidence level with your performance in practice.

Low self-confidence in competition because you are more comfortable in practice – causes anxiety in games.

High motivation leads to wanting to win or succeed badly in your sport.

Creates a tentative mindset because you are afraid to make mistakes.

A focus on results or outcomes of your performance because you want to play up to expectations.

Worry about negative results or failure cause you to perform tight, anxious, and lack trust.

You think that others will criticize your performance, that they will be disappointed if you don’t win.

Feel as if your self-esteem is threatened when you do not perform up to your own expectations

(There are many more)

(There are many more)

Says one golfer, “I try to be perfect with every shot I hit on the course. When I don’t perform exactly as I expected then I get really upset-like I am doing something wrong and then lose my confidence. I get so frustrated after mistakes that I feel that I am a failure and should stop trying. I hate this feeling.”

Examples of expectations that imply greater pressure and more trying:

  • Golf:  “I need to strike the ball perfectly today to play my best.”
  • Tennis:  “I can’t make any errors against my opponent today or I will lose.”
  • Football:  “I have to execute my passes with perfect technique so that the receiver will catch them.”
  • Gymnastics:  “I must control my performance and stick my landing to score well today on my beam routine.”
  • Basketball:  “If I turn the ball over I know I am going to get pulled out. I can’t make any turnovers.”
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Worrying About Mistakes

One of the sign of fear of failure is an athlete who worries too much about making mistakes.  If you do this, you play too carefully or cautiously.  In this mindset, you try not to lose and try not to make mistakes. You’re stuck in what we call the “fear driven mindset.”  The golfer tries not to hit the ball in the water. The gymnast avoids falling off the beam. The tennis player avoids double-faulting on serve. The batter avoids striking out.

Ironically fear causes you to focus on what you don’t want to happen.  Your performance is based on a state of tension, indecision, and carefulness – none of which help you perform well.

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The Fear-Driven Mindset

“I feel like I need to be perfect in today’s game so my coach will put me in as a regular started.”

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The Success Driven Mindset

“I know if I work my game-plan and focus on one play at a time, I’ll feel confident and succeed.”

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How Can You Improve Trust?

One way is to learn how to perform efficiently instead of perfectly. The idea here is that you DO NOT have to be perfect to perform your best.  You are human and humans can’t be perfect no matter how hard you try.  You will make mistakes and you have to accept mistakes.  “Winning ugly” means you get the job done even if it’s not perfect execution.

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5 Tips To Stop worrying About what Others Think

  1. Understand why you care so much about others’ opinions of you. Understand what you “need” from others and check out whether you really need these things to be successful.  By knowing this you can put a stop to some of the irrational assumptions you make.
  2. Stop the mind reading. Be aware when you begin to engage in mind reading (worrying about what others think) and refocus on the current shot or play.  Do a reality check. How do you know what others are truly thinking about you? Test your assumptions and ask a good friend what he thinks about you game when you play well or poorly.
  3. Know who you are on the inside. Know your own self – called self-concept – and believe in who you are on the inside. Keep in mind that it should not matter what others think if you play for yourself. It’s very important you play for yourself first.
  4. Have self-respect not-other respect. Stop searching for respect or admiration from other people. You won’t need it if you have self-respect and give yourself the stamp of approval!
  5. Separate self-esteem from your sports success. You are more than a score. Keep in mind that sport is only one aspect of who you are and not the thing that defines who you are.   Keep in mind you are a person that just happens to be a good athlete, not vice versa.
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5 Tips for Coping with Fear of Failure

  1. Focus on Success or what you want to happen instead of failure.  Never set goals to avoid mistakes or failure such as to “not strike out.”  Always set positive goals, such as to have a quality at-bat and strive for success. Don’t be obsessed with avoiding failure, pain, or embarrassment.
  2. Focus on execution, instead of fearing negative results. Fear of failure causes an athlete to focus on outcomes and negative consequences. So your task is to stay grounded in execution in the present moment.
  3. Embrace the challenges of competition instead of fearing the consequences of failure. Love the challenges that come with sports such as playing a tight match. Set simple achievable objectives that are positive, such as “play with trust and confidence for 60 minutes.”
  4. Simplify your performance, instead of over think your game. Use simple images and performance cues to perform and trust you athletic reactions in competition. Let go of verbal instructions, over-coaching yourself, or over thinking your performance.
  5. Perform freer with a less serious mindset. Let go of mistakes quickly. Try less and reduce the stress and mind chatter. Don’t dwell on mistakes or errors. Know that mistakes are a natural part of the leaning process. Learn from your mistakes after the game; don’t analyze them in the middle of the game..
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Perfectionism has many good. The most important factor is to know the difference between the good ones and the bad ones and to do everything possible to eliminate the ones that keep you stuck.  You can take a proactive step on your own to boost your confidence and mental toughness by trying some of these tips on yourself.  If they work for you who knows how they just might work to help your kids.

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