A fear of failure is the single most common cause of performance difficulties for the young racers who come to me for help. Whether they experience low confidence and extreme negativity, pre-competitive anxiety, a preoccupation with results, or severe self-criticism, in most cases, when we dig deep enough, we discover a profound fear of failure at its root. Moreover, fear of failure among young people in America today is at epidemic proportions.
Fear of failure causes racers to experience debilitating anxiety before they race. It causes them to give less than their best effort, not take risks, ski cautiously, and, ultimately, never ski as fast as they can. Why? Because they are terrified of what will happen if they fail!
Because of the powerful and painful presence of fear of failure in the lives of young racers (not to mention students and other young performers) these days, it seems fitting that I devote a three-part series to addressing this topic. My goal is to educate parents and coaches and racers so each can better understand fear of failure and, most importantly, have parents and coaches help their young racers to let go of this fear and free themselves to ski their best without paralyzing concern for the consequences, whether real or imagined, and with confidence, courage and abandon.
Why Children Fear Failure
Let’s be realistic. Failure isn’t worth fearing. In fact, it’s an important part of striving toward any goal. What children come to fear is the meaning they attach to failure. At the heart of fear of failure is the belief held by young racers that if they fail, in ski racing or any other activity, then bad things will happen. The research found the following as the most common fears:
- They will disappoint their parents.
- Their friends will no longer like them.
- They will be ostracized by their peer group.
- They will experience embarrassment or shame.
- They will be worthless people.
- All of their efforts will be a waste of time.
- They will experience the devastation of not achieving their goals.
Fear of failure typically emerges from messages that children’s parents convey that being loved depends on their being successful or that their parents’ love will be withdrawn if they fail (this is rarely the message that parents intend to send, but it is the one that children frequently receive). Kids also get the message that if they fail they will seen as a loser from our “winning is everything” culture.
Racers with a fear of failure perceive failure to be a ravenous beast that pursues them relentlessly and must be avoided at all cost. When they do succeed and avoid that beast, they only experience a small and brief amount of relief (instead of excitement and joy!) because they survived one more day without being eaten by failure. As a result, avoiding failure becomes their singular motivation and goal in life.
Cause of Fear of Failure
Another place that children get this unhealthy perspective on failure is from the hyper-achievement culture in which we now live. This “you gotta win, baby!” culture defines failure as being poor, anonymous, powerless, unpopular, or physically unattractive. On television and in the movies, the losers — nerds, unattractive people, poor racers — are teased, bullied, and rejected. With this definition of failure, this environment has created a culture of fear and avoidance of failure. It has conveyed to children that if they fail, they will be ostracized by their peers and branded as losers for life!
The Stigma of Failure
There is no greater stigma in our culture of “gotta be the best” than being labeled a loser. The expression loser has become an oft-used and enduring symbol in this culture. To be called a loser is, to paraphrase a well-known sports cliché, worse than death because you have to live with being a loser.
Racers learn that they can avoid failure three ways. First, they can simply quit racing. If children don’t race, they can’t fail. Injury, illness, damaged equipment, forgotten or lost materials, apparent loss of interest or motivation, or just plain refusal to take part are common ways in which children can avoid failure and maintain their personal and social esteem.
Second, racers can avoid failure by, oddly, doing poorly in ski races, but protecting themselves from the failure by having an excuse — “I would have done well, but the course was really rough” or “I would have made the podium, but a gust of wind hit me.” This is called self-defeating behavior or self-sabotage. Because their failures were not their fault, children can’t be held responsible and our culture and their parents and peers must continue to accept and love them.
Third, many racers with a fear of failure really do want to ski race and don’t want to quit or make excuses. So another way that racers can avoid failure is to get as far away from failure as possible by becoming somewhat successful. But racers who are driven to avoid failure are stuck in limbo between failure and real success, what I call the “safety zone,” in which the threat of failure is removed, for example, they finish in the top 10 but are unwilling to intensify their efforts and take the risks necessary to make it onto the podium.
The Value of Failure
Failure is an inevitable — and essential — part of ski racing and life. Failure can bolster the motivation to overcome the obstacles that caused the failure. It shows racers what they did wrong so they can correct the problem in the future. Failure connects racers’ actions with consequences which helps them gain ownership of their efforts. Failure teaches important life skills, such as commitment, patience, perseverance, determination, and problem solving. It helps racers respond positively to the frustration and disappointment that they will often experience as they pursue their ski racing goals. Failure teaches racers humility and appreciation for the opportunities that they’re given.
Of course, too much failure will discourage young racers. Success is also needed for its ability to bolster motivation, build confidence, reinforce effort, and increase enjoyment. As racers pursue their skiing goals, they must experience a healthy balance of success and failure to gain the most from their efforts.
You can help your young racers develop a new perspective on failure that takes away their fear. It will free them to strive for success without reservation, to take risks, and vigorously pursue their dreams. Young racers will learn that some failure is OK and in no way a negative reflection on themselves as people. In other words, failure isn’t worth fearing. Finally, failure will ultimately enable them to achieve success, however they define it and, along the way, also find happiness.
Look for Part 2 of my Fear of Failure series next week.