In my last post, Fear of Failure: Part 1, I discussed the sad epidemic of fear of failure that I find to be rampant in America and that I see frequently in the young ski racers with whom I work. I have discovered a new wrinkle to the fear-of-failure phenomenon that brings greater clarity to the problems that young racers face in our increasingly intense, result-oriented ski-racing world.

Let me begin by describing what I believe lies at the heart of fear of failure: every bad race is perceived by racers as an attack on their goals as athletes and their value as people. This statement is powerful and truly harmful. Moreover, this perception is entirely disconnected from reality; it’s simply not true. Whether racers succeed or fail in a race should in no way be a reflection on their progress toward their ski racing goals or their fundamental value as people.

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In essence, racers with a fear of failure see failure as a mountain lion that, if it catches them, it will eat them. Given this perception of failure, it’s not surprising that racers would do everything they can to stay as far away from that mountain lion as possible. But here’s a brief hint before we sink our teeth into this topic (pun intended): failure is a kitty cat, not a mountain lion. Yes, a kitty cat can hurt you; it can scratch you and bite you. But, and here’s the big point, it won’t kill you.

As I explored fear of failure in the racers I work with, I was struck by an odd paradox. These racers have a fear of failure, yet, they end up doing things that actually cause themselves to fail by doing something that ensures failure (e.g., have a pessimistic attitude, don’t prepare well, or ski out of the course without a fight), even when success was within their reach. I was stumped by this conflict: Why would racers who fear failure so much actually do things that guarantee failure?

As I noted in my last post, the failure I just described, which is a form of self-sabotage, safeguards racers from having to admit that they really failed by providing an excuse for their failure. That excuse allows them to avoid taking responsibility for the failure, thus protecting them from feeling like a failure and feeling worthless.

One big problem with this strategy is that they still fail. And there is no “excuse” line on the result sheet!

Total failure

This realization led me to the conclusion that young racers don’t have a fear of failure, but rather they have a fear of total failure. I define total failure as “giving it your all and not achieving your goals.” When I ask young racers if total failure is a good or bad thing, the response is unanimous and emphatic; it is the worst possible thing! So what is so bad about total failure? If racers give everything they have and don’t achieve their goals, they have to admit that they simply weren’t good enough and there’s nothing more they can do. And that realization is very difficult for a young racer with big goals to accept. Better for young racers to fail with an excuse (e.g., the course was too difficult, I made a huge mistake, I missed the wax) than experience total failure because it allows them to avoid the consequences of total failure (e.g., disappointment of others, embarrassment, dream is over) and always leaves open the possibility of success in the future.

Yet I would argue that total failure is a good (though not ideal) thing because, even though young racers may not reach their goal, they did everything they could to achieve it and, ultimately, that’s all they can do. To put this in perspective, I define total success as racers giving it everything they have and achieving their goal. Is total success a good thing? That’s not a trick question; total success is a great thing! But total success and total failure have one thing in common: giving it everything they’ve got. So, the real goal for racers is to experience “total” something, whether success or failure, because, in either case, they gave it their all and what more can they do. At the end of the day, will young racers be disappointed in not having achieved their goal if they gave their all? Of course. But there will also be indelible satisfaction and pride at having given their best effort and skied as fast as they possibly could have on that day. Also, the simple reality is that if racers don’t give it everything they’ve got, they will have no chance of ever reaching their goals or achieving total success. If they do give it their all, there is a pretty good chance that something good will happen (how good depends on many factors including innate ability and external conditions).

Risks

One of the most self-defeating aspects of the fear of total failure is that young racers are unwilling to take risks on course. By definition, the greater and the more risks that racers take, the greater the likelihood of failure (e.g., hook tip, miss a gate, crash). Yet, without risk (e.g., skiing a straighter line, holding a tuck a bit longer, attacking the pitch), total success can never be achieved. Because racers with a fear of total failure are more concerned with avoiding failure than achieving success, they focus on the downsides of risk and, as a result, hold themselves back and ski cautiously and safely. In doing so, they, sadly, experience the frustration of unfulfilled promise and miss the exhilaration of having skied as fast as they possibly could have, regardless of the outcome.

Cardinal rules

There are two cardinal rules that I believe all racers should live by. Rule #1 is that I don’t want anyone to ask, at the end of a race, race season, career, or life, “I wonder what could have been?” That may be the saddest question anyone can pose to themselves because there are no “redos” in life. Instead, you want to look back and, win or lose, finish or crash, be able to say, “I left it all out on the hill.”

Rule #2 is that the one emotion I don’t want any racer (in fact, any person) to experience is regret. Regret is defined as: “to feel sorry or disappointed about something that one wishes could be different; a sense of loss or longing for something gone,” in other words, “Darn it, I wish I had gone for it!” In the end, I want racers to make the statement: “I gave it everything I had,” and experience two emotions: pride and fulfillment in having given it their all, whether they had a great race or crashed and burned.

In sum, to achieve your ski-racing (and life) goals, you must embrace the following: “To achieve Total Success, I must be willing to accept Total Failure.” By doing so, you will have free yourself from the crushing burden of fear of failure and, as a result, will be liberated to pursue total success with unrestrained gusto.

Look for Part III of my Fear of Failure series in the near future.

Want to make mental training a part of your fall prep plan? Here are a few options:

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Jim Taylor, Ph.D., competed internationally while skiing for Burke Mountain Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado. Over the last 30 years, he has worked with the U.S. and Japanese Ski Teams, many World Cup and Olympic racers, and most of the leading junior race programs in the U.S. and Canada. He is the creator of the Prime Ski Racing series of online courses and the author of Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation to Achieve Your Sports Goals. To learn more or to contact Jim, visit drjimtaylor.com

1 COMMENT

  1. Jim Taylor’s article “Fear of Total Failure” is superb! He gives detail to the mental balancing act we all have at one point or another in our lives. His reference to ski racing or life in general as it relates to fear of failure makes this an especially valuable article. It reminds me of comments Bode Miller made when he was at the top in ski racing. He would state that what was most important for him was to make the run of his life, taking whatever risk seemed necessary to win, making the best turns of his life…and if he didn’t win, he could sleep at night. Bode wanted to win as much as (maybe more), but if he didn’t win, it didn’t seem to create a cascading sequence of negative thoughts. I think this is a hard mental regimen to follow, but definitely a winning one.

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