How to Minimize Your Fear of Failure

Sports have taught me so many valuable lessons in my life. From teamwork to hard work, to how to appropriately experience successes and failures, I don’t know where I would be without the values instilled in me through athletic competition.

I am proud to say that, for the last two years, I have served as the head coach of a high school girls softball team and have tried instill as many of those values in my team members as I can. One of the hardest things to do, I’ve learned, is to teach someone how to pick herself up after a failure and try again. Harder still is trying to convince someone to try at all when failure is a possibility.

I was reminded of this difficulty just a few days ago. Tryouts completed and all three levels of teams (varsity, junior varsity, and freshman) finally set, the discussion among my girls shifted to why a handful of last year’s players had not tried out this year. Some of them had chosen to become involved in different things: choir, the school play, a job, and other extracurricular activities. For some, their family had moved within the last year and they were now attending school in another city. Some, another state.

While I was saddened for myself and my team that many of these girls had moved on in one way or another, I was comforted in knowing that many of them were still participating in activities that they chose to pursue. And while I don’t know for sure, I hope that those who relocated are playing softball at their new school. There is one category of non-returners, however, that continues to bother me:

“They said they didn’t think they would make a team so they didn’t bother trying out.”

Wayne Gretzky, one of the all-time hockey greats, put it best: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

A MATTER OF PRIDE

For the next couple of months, two groups of girls will be sitting at home, not playing softball: the ones that tried out and were cut, and the ones that didn’t try out at all. So what is the difference between those two groups who ultimately will be doing the same thing? Their source of pride.

Many people, including myself, would agree that those who tried out have much more to be proud of than those who did not. They were the ones that gave it a shot, regardless of the likelihood of success. They were the ones who decided that the benefits of success, should it occur, outweighed any downside to failure. In fact I hesitate to use the word failure here. I preach to my team all the time that failure does not mean not succeeding. You haven’t failed until you stop trying.

However, as I talked about in my last post, I understand that not everyone is like me. Not everyone agrees that trying and coming up short is better than not trying at all. Indeed, the handful of girls who chose not to try out have their pride intact as well, but for a different reason. By not subjecting themselves to evaluation and a potential lack of success, they prevent any chinks in their pride armor from occurring. They will continue on, feeling good that they did not allow someone else to tell them that they weren’t good enough.

The most unfortunate part of the story? There is at least one girl who chose not to try out that not only would have been selected to be on my team, but likely would have been a starter. Her fear of failure prevented this from happening. Protecting her pride was more important to her.

RECOGNIZING WHEN FEAR OF FAILURE OCCURS

As with most things in life, two things hold true regarding a fear of failure: recognizing it in others is easier than recognizing it in (or admitting it to) ourselves, and it is easier to advise others to “just try, anyway” than it is to convince ourselves of the same thing.

Pay attention, and start to count the number of times you are encouraging others to try something compared to how many times you consciously encourage yourself to do the same. I guarantee the former number will be higher than the latter; in most cases it’s not because, despite what we all want to believe about ourselves, we try more times than others do. We all require encouragement from outside ourselves at times, and that is precisely why we have parents, teachers, coaches, and best friends.

FOSTERING A WORLD WHERE EVERYONE TRIES

As I mentioned at the end of the first section above, both groups of girls (those that did not make a team and those that chose not to try out) potentially could have their pride intact: the former because of their effort and the latter because they avoided the chink in the armor. If pride is the ultimate goal, then, how do we foster a society full of people who are willing to try? The concept is straightforward but the implementation will be an uphill battle. In short, we must begin to celebrate the process, not the outcome.

Perhaps in this case, Miley Cyrus (twerking aside) said it best when she sang, “Ain’t about how fast I get there, ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb.”

Ultimately, we can achieve this if we do a few things:

1)      Focus on Self-Improvement: Whether it be athletic competition, playing an instrument, taking a test in school or a performance review at work, focus on doing better than you did last time. When the basis of comparison shifts from others to a previous version of yourself, you can feel proud of your improvement regardless of external evaluations.

2)      Focus on the Self-Improvement of Others:  Try as we might, even when we tell ourselves the right things, we are much more likely to believe the feedback of others over our own. This means that others are more likely to believe what you say over what they tell themselves. So when it comes to our children, our friends, our teammates, our students and our work subordinates, focus on self-improvement, rather than a comparison to others. You’ll be surprised at the results.

3)      Focus on Effort: Whether you’re telling yourself or telling others, adopt the “Always try your best!” mantra. Effort is one thing that is always entirely within one’s control, meaning it is something that we can do successfully every time, if we so choose.

If we make effort and self-improvement, rather than any other external standard, the ultimate sources of pride, we can foster a community of individuals who have many opportunities each day to feel great about themselves.

You miss every shot you don’t take. Take your shot and help others take theirs, too.

 

 

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