In the Part I in my series, Fear of Failure, I introduced you to the epidemic presence of fear of failure in ski racing. The article describes what fear of failure is and its causes. I also describe three ways that racers attempt to avoid failure: they quit racing, they cause themselves to fail, but have an excuse, or they become pretty successful (though never truly successful because they are unwilling to take the risks necessary). Finally, I discuss the importance of teaching racers the value of failure.

In Part II of my series, I described the paradox I saw in racers with a fear of failure who would, nonetheless, do things that actually guarantee failure (e.g., not tune their skis, not get totally prepared before the race, not give their full effort, bail out of a course at the slightest wobble). To solve this conundrum, I introduced the notion of total failure (giving it everything you’ve got and not achieving your goals) as the underlying cause of racers’ fear of failure. I argued that fear of failure is grounded in, if experiencing total failure, having to admit that they just weren’t good enough. And no racer with any aspirations wants to admit that.

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In working with a racer recently, I had another epiphany about fear of failure that has taken my understanding of fear of failure to a new and deeper level. The real fear is not failure, the meaning you attach to failure, or even total failure. Instead, the real fear of failure is about the fear of experiencing the painful emotions underlying total failure that racers think they will feel if they fail. All of these racers’ efforts are devoted to avoiding having to experience those truly unpleasant emotions that they believe will surely come with total failure.

What are these emotions that are so bad that racers would actually cause themselves to fail (but with an excuse that protects them from those emotions) than give their fullest efforts and risk total failure: sadness, depression, frustration, despair, devastation, shame, humiliation, guilt. How’s that for a list of emotions to be avoided!

There are three aspects of this perspective on fear of failure that are particularly unfortunate. First, racers’ perception that they will experience these painful emotions is very likely entirely out of touch with reality. Let’s start with the meaning that racers attach to failure that causes these emotions. As I noted in my first article in this series, the most common are:

  • They will disappoint their parents.
  • Their friends will no longer like them.
  • 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.

But the likely reality is that none of these meanings attached to failure will come true. Sure, there are misguided (and sometimes downright crazy) parents out there who will show their disappointment (and perhaps even withdraw their love) in the face of their children’s failure, but there aren’t very many. Other than that, your friends will still like you, you will still be worthwhile, your time will still be well spent, and you will get over the fact that you may not achieve all of your ski racing goals (we all do!). In other words, if you fail, you will be disappointed, but you will be okay. And, to put this whole discussion in a broader perspective, if I may be a bit politically incorrect, failing to become an Olympic ski racer is a decidedly first-world problem.

Second, your fear of failure is utterly self-defeating; it does you no good at all. It creates a win (but not really)-lose-lose-win situation. You win (again, not really) by protecting yourself from those alleged painful emotions, but you lose in two ways. You don’t achieve your goals and you have huge regrets for not giving your best effort. And you continue a pattern of thinking, emotions, and behavior that not only hurt your ski racing, but will continue to haunt you in every aspect of your life.

Third, if you could just let go of your fear of failure and truly give it your all, that is, race with total commitment, confidence, courage, and abandon, the chances are that you would find some degree of success. How much success depends on a lot of things unrelated to what goes on between your ears. I can’t guarantee that you would end up on top of the Olympic podium, but, as I often say, good things would happen.

Moreover, if you risked total failure, contrary to being devastated by all of those painful emotions you worry about, you would actually feel a lot of wonderful emotions, such as excitement, joy, pride, and inspiration. Why? Because you gave your fullest effort and left it all out on the course. And, ultimately, that’s all you can do.

A recent email from a reader asked the obvious question: “I now understand why my child keeps getting in his own way in his racing. He has a fear of failure! So, what can I do about it?”

Given this question, I’m going to extend my Fear of Failure series to a fourth article. Look for it 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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