I often write about the fear of failure and its debilitating affects on athletes and teams because I see this so often with many of the students I coach on the mental game.
Recently, I received an email from a Sports Insights reader about the pressure that comes with fear of success.
This reader states: “One form of pressure that you do not write about that I believe is one of the most counter intuitive and difficult to come to grips with, and I believe affects many of the most gifted athletes is not the fear of failure, but the fear of success. These people often are very high achievers that end up being very successful up to a point, but fall short or even stop competing. Success to them brings discomfort, pain, and becomes simply not worth it. People around them usually say what a pity because that person seemed to have it all. How do you address the fear of success and why do these athletes not enjoy success or desire more?”
This statement is very true, however, fear of success is rarer in my work and sometimes fear of failure can be mistaken for fear of success. Most of the time in my work, athletes sabotage their games with fear of failure.
What is the difference between fear of success and fear of failure? Fear of failure is much more common than fear of success. Fear of failure is a mindset that causes athletes to perform tentatively or defensively. It is the fear of not getting what you desire and have worked hard to attain.
Fear of failure causes athletes to focus on the negative such as not to make mistakes, not to disappoint a coach, or not to feel embarrassed. The interesting part about the fear of failure is that it is sprouts from an intense desire to win or perform well. The greater the emotional energy athletes put into sport, the greater the potential for fear of failure to set in.
Fear of failure is characterized by high expectations, a strong desire to success (and not fail), anxiety or tension, worrying too much about results or outcomes, social approval issues or worrying to much about what others think, and performing with a serious, controlled mindset.
Athletes who stifle their performance with fear of success are mostly concerned with the “problems” that come with success. I am sure you have heard the saying, “it’s lonely at the top?” Case in point: Tiger Woods. Yes, he is the best golfer on the planet and makes boatloads of money, but can you imagine what precautions Tiger has to take just to go out to dinner in public? An athlete who displays fear of success engages in self-sabotage so they will not have to cope with these issues that come with success.
The consequences of self-sabotage are lack of motivation, making mental errors, blowing a big lead in an event, or giving up altogether. This leads to a snowball effect in which the athletes may lose confidence and focus.
Fear of success is the fear of the problems associated with being successful, recognized, and honored. For example, one of the specific fears athletes maintain is that other people will have greater expectations for their performance. Another common fear is that they will lose friends and make enemies if they are too successful. Often it is hard for athletes to enjoy success because they feel burdened by achievement in many ways including how they may have to change their lives.
Fear of success is characterized by a lack of desire to achieve personal goals, self-sabotaging behavior such as not showing up for practice, and feeling guilty or undeserving when achieving success. Fear of success, like fear of failure also can be rooted in an over concern for what others think. For example, athletes with fear of success worry about what friends may feel about them (envy, jealousy, hatred) when they reach to the top of their sport and worry if friendships with be in jeopardy.
How do athletes cope with fear of success? The first step is to identify the root cause of the fear. Is the athlete afraid of higher expectations? Is she afraid of not feeling satisfied? Is she afraid of making enemies and losing friends at the top? Ask the question: “What is the worse thing that could happen to me if I am successful?”
Once you identify the root of the fear underlying the fear of success, now you can approach it head on and help the athlete work through it. It’s also helpful to understand the type of self-sabotage an athlete engages — lack of motivation, lack of commitment, making excuses, giving up the moment success is close, or self-destructive thought patterns. Ask the question: “In what ways do I self-destruct my own performance and success?”
Like fear of failure, fear of success often boils down to developing healthier beliefs about your sport by refuting, rebutting, or changing the beliefs that underlie the fears associated with fear of failure.