Fear of Failure in Athletes

Fear of failure is the motive to avoid failure in achievement situations. It is not difficult to imagine a Division I college basketball athlete at the foul line, with no time left on the clock and a tied score. Is it the fear of failure or the achievement of success that determines whether the athlete will make the shot? Athletes of all levels and abilities fear failure, because of different experiences and developments. The fear of failure can be developed for a number of reasons and how the athlete copes with failure determines their success.
A multidimensional, hierarchal model of fear of failure was created by David Conroy to attempt to analyze the different consequences of failing that lead to the fear of failure. Fear of failure can be represented in a hierarchal structure with five lower order factors and a single higher order factor, representing a general fear of failure. The five lower order fears of failing include fears of experiencing shame and embarrassment, fears of devaluing one’s self estimate, fears of having an uncertain future, fears of important others losing interest, and fears of upsetting important others (Conroy 2004).
These fears show similar patterns with measures of self-talk, achievement goals, and contextual motivation. To investigate whether the hierarchal model was similar to the previous mentioned measures Conroy conducted a study between two different groups of athletes. Conroy chose 438 students from a large university that were engaged in recreational physical activities to complete the Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory. He also chose 71 female members of a Division I track team to complete the Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory, Achievement Goal Questionnaire for Sport, and the Sport Motivation Scale.

Conroy found that all lower order fear of failure scores exhibited the same pattern of correlations with scores for self-talk while failing, achievement goals, and contextual motivation. Conroy learned that when the individuals thought they were going to fail, they reacted in a manner that resembled the original consequences they fear. The findings of this study suggest that different forms of fear of failure vary in their maladaptiveness. Fears are generally accepted as a standard during childhood and are considered an adaptive emotional reaction to threat.
Therefore, it is acceptable to assume that fear of failure is developed during an athletes childhood. Three factors have been associated with the development of children’s fear of failure, parent-child communication and interaction, family climate, and parental high expectations and demands (Sagar 2009). To learn whether young athletes’ fear of failure comes from their parents Sagar conducted interviews on three families of young elite athletes. The athletes were 13 to 14 years old and competing at national or international levels.
The interviews and observations were conducted with one family at a time during a three to four week period. The results helped to better understand how the fear of failure was conveyed between parents and athletes. Sagar’s findings revealed failure was conveyed through parental punitive behavior, parental controlling behavior, and parental high expectations. The most common fears of failure reported were fears of others’ negative judgment, of not attaining aspirations, and of non-selection to future competitions.
Sagar proved that parental view of failure influences the way young athletes view and interpret fear of failure. Sagar decided to further her research and initiate a study that would explain whether educational programs could help the parent-child relationships, thereby, helping to reduce the athletes’ fear of failure. Sagar comprised two separate programs that taught parents about the fear of failure and their importance in the development of their child’s fear of failure.
A questionnaire administered after the program showed that the parents reduced their punitive behaviors and adopted more favorable ways of reacting to their child’s failures. The programs helped the parents to improve the condition of their interaction with their children and reduce the children’s levels of fear of failure. The cognitive-behavioral techniques used were proved helpful and could be implemented to other athletes to help reduce the children’s levels of fear of failure. One of the ongoing debates within the research is whether athletes fear failure or the consequences of failure.
It is obvious that athletes interpret winning as a standard for success and losing as a standard for failing, but failure can be interpreted by the athlete’s perception of failure. Sagar conducted a study to distinguish what specifically athletes fear about failure. She interviewed nine British elite athletes aged 14-17 years old. Sagar asked questions concerning the athletes’ perceptions of consequences of failure. Examples of questions included, “tell me how you behaved after that failure” and “describe how you felt after that failure. The athletes described the consequences of failure as diminished perception of self, no sense of achievement, emotional cost of failure, letting down significant others, negative social evaluation, lose motivation and drop out, tangible losses, have an uncertain future, having reoccurring thoughts of failure, and intangible losses (Sagar 2007). The consequences that were perceived by all nine athletes were diminished perception of self, no sense of achievement, and emotional cost of failure. The athletes described consequences of failure that they disliked and wanted to avoid and deemed them as threats that they anticipated and feared.
Multiple athletes reported a loss of motivation after failure, which in turn means failure could prevent athletes from reaching their potential. Furthermore, it is logical to assume that fear of failure can potentially by harmful to athletes’ performances, as fear of failure itself might be a threat to achieving their desired goal. Effective coping responses to fear of failure are exceptionally important in athletes. Athletes who do not posses effective coping skills to deal with situations that involve failure and are likely to experience negative effects such as, poor performance or the possibility of dropping out of the sport (Sagar 2009).
Sagar created an experiment to examine the effects of fear of failure on athletes and how the athletes coped with the effects that fear of failure induced before competition. Sagar interviewed nine British athletes aged 14-17 years old that were competing at the national level and had experience competing at the international level. The interview allowed each athlete to individually relate to his or her own experiences in a free and open manner. The athletes were asked questions aimed to determine their perceptions of failure in sport, how their fears affected them, and how they coped with their fears.
All of the athletes perceived failure as outcome oriented, such as losing, not winning, or getting beaten. The athletes described their coping strategies as mental disengagement, try not to let fear of failure affect them, become quiet and seek isolation, not talking about fear of failure, humor, chilling out, positive self-talk, positive reinterpretation, lowering goals, seeking emotional social support, increasing effort to prevent failure, and confronting their fears. All of the athletes that were interviewed identified with mental disengagement.
Although, not all of the strategies identified are effective responses to the fear of failure. For example, increasing effort to prevent failure included increased training by athletes. Increased training can lead to overtraining, a possible source of burnout, which could accidentally lead to athletes’ withdrawal of the sport. Despite the fact that some of the athletes viewed increased training as a positive outcome of fear of failure, increased training may not be an effective response to fear of failure. Therefore, athletes engaged in both effective and ineffective coping strategies to deal with the effects of failure before competition.
Individuals high in fear of failure utilize self-regulatory strategies that can be harmful to their athletic performance, well being, and interpersonal behavior (Sagar 2009). Therefore, Sagar created a study to investigate whether fear of failure predicts antisocial behavior in the university and sport contexts, and whether sex compromises this prediction. Sagar interviewed 176 male students and 155 female students from 2 British universities, with an average age of 20. 11 years. The athletes had been competing for their schools for an average of 1. 80 years.
Sagar used three different analyses to measure fear of failure antisocial behavior in sport, and antisocial behavior in university. The study showed, on average, antisocial university behavior occurred rarely for males and never to rarely for females, whereas antisocial behavior in sport occurred rarely to sometimes for males and rarely for females. The strongest fear reported for both sexes was experiencing shame and embarrassment. The weakest fear reported by males was the fear of devaluing one’s self estimate and for females the weakest fear reported was important others losing interest.
Further analysis of fear of failure revealed that several significant differences occurred between male and females, but there was not a significant difference between sexes involving antisocial behavior. The study shows that fear of failure may contribute to more frequent student engagement in antisocial behavior in the university and sport contexts. The fact that males are more competitive and have a greater desire to win could explain the sex differences within the fear of failure. Thus, this study suggests that fear of failure might increase the frequency of antisocial behavior.
The tendency to approach success is a function of the person’s motive to approach success as well as the situational factors (Gill 2008). Most athletes that participate in sports do so, because they want to achieve something. Although, to be able to achieve something, you must get past a fear of failure. Researching aspects of motivations regarding orientations and achievement can further understand how an athlete deals with fear of failure. In general, someone that is task oriented, rather than outcome oriented will have less fears of failure (Weinberg & Gould 2007).
Focusing on personal performance can lead to greater control, more motivation, and less fear of failure. A task-oriented person has high perceptions of their own competence, so it is easier for them to feel good about themselves and not worry about failure. Those who are outcome oriented have lower perceptions of their competence. Therefore, they are more likely to give less effort to protect their self worth. Martin and Marsh (2003) concluded that fear of failure may be viewed as a friend or a foe, “a friend of sorts, but not a very good one… [or as] a foe, but with some self-protective advantages. Research surrounding all aspects is still not extensive enough to draw strong conclusions about how fear or failure develops or how to treat fear of failure. Although, ignoring fear of failure and the problems associated with fear of failure could have negative consequences for individuals in achievement settings. Researchers should be encouraged to continue studying the coping behaviors of athletes in various age groups and investigate how people who play important roles in the lives and in the development of young elite athletes contribute to their development of fear of failure.
Further research will inform prevention, assessment, diagnosis, and possibly the treatment of fear of failure in sports. References Conroy, D. E. , (2004). The unique psychological meanings of multidimensional fears of failing. Journal of Clinical Sport & Exercise Psychology, 26, 484-491. Gill, D. , & Williams, L. , (2008). Motivational Orientations: Achievement and Competitiveness. Martin, A. J. , Marsh, H. W. (2003). Fear of failure: Friend of foe?. Australian Psychologist, 38, 31-38. Sagar, S. S. , Boardley, I. D. , Kavussanu, M. (2011). Fear of failure and student athletes’ interpersonal antisocial behavior in education and sport.
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