Although the drive to win is essential at a highly competitive level, there is an inherent problem when one identifies with uncontrollable outcomes like winning or losing. The subject of focus moves away from skills, effort, or having fun, and is concentrated on winning, or better yet, NOT losing. The self or one’s self-concept is being perceived in black or white: I want to be a winner and not a loser. As a result, self-esteem – or feelings about oneself – fluctuates with each attempt to prove worth. If the team loses, an athlete may feel like a failure or a disappointment, whereas if the team wins, an athlete may feel confident or proud.
Subsequently, since feeling like a failure or a disappointment is much more painful than feeling confidence or pride, athletes develop a fear of losing or making mistakes. Competitions become more about avoidance than achievement, and the desire to avoid outcomes can produce an increase in cognitive anxiety as well as muscle tension.
All athletes experience wins and loses at some point in their career, but why is it that some develop a fear of failure while others thrive under pressure? There are many factors, like personality, family upbringing, and experience that make individuals unique, however there are techniques that can be learned for those who perform with fear.
1. Learn what is within your control so that you can put your time and energy towards focusing on such factors. Athletes must learn and believe that win/lose/draw, the outcome is merely a result of what was accomplished – or not accomplished- during the competition.
You can create pressure situations where athletes are accountable for wins/loses, however during such challenges you can teach which aspects are controllable and need more focus. This allows athletes to practice focusing on factors that will help them perform optimally under pressure.
2. One of the most largely accepted interventions for fear is called exposure therapy. For example, if a person has a fear of heights, it is suggested to go skydiving or cliff jumping. This method allows the individual to face the fear head on with the intention of learning that nothing bad will happen.
Similarly athletes must realize that they can live through the experience of losing. The exposure in this case is to the idea of failure and can be taught by reminding athletes that they survived; it wasn’t that bad, and they moved on.
3. Reinforcement is a major practice of coaches. Traditionally, when a behavior is undesirable – like talking while the coach is teaching – athletes are forced to do fitness. This is a punishment so that athletes avoid misbehavior. Similarly when a coach yells at an athlete, the yelling is considered a punishment that aims to remove an undesirable behavior.
Before choosing to use punishment, it is important to consider whether the targeted behavior needs to be avoided or promoted. For example, if you would like to score more goals, then you want to promote shooting as opposed to yelling athletes for missed shots. If punishment is perceived and associated with missing shots, then an athlete may develop a fear of shooting. On the contrary, if praise was awarded for successful shots (a.k.a. goals) then athletes may be more determined to shoot and attempt to score.
In conclusion, young athletes are extremely impressionable, especially at a highly competitive level. There is a strong desire to achieve, however that desire can mold into a need to achieve. Although subtle, the distinction can have a profound impact on performance if not recognized and adjusted.