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Overcoming The Fear Of Failure

Date: 
05/01/2008 - 11:05

By Richard Ferguson, Ph.D/Running Journal/March 2008

Have you ever wanted to try some new activity or sport, but you were afraid to take the chance because you thought you might not be able to successfully perform the skills required? Have you ever not participated in a race because you were worried that you might not run a fast time or that specific competitors would outperform you? On the other hand, do you or someone you know, persist and push on with a positive attitude even in the face of failure? Do you still enjoy running and competing even when things aren't going the way you would like? Understanding the answers to such questions is often difficult and elusive, but to gain an understanding of why some people fear failure and others do not, we need to look into the study of human motivation.

The classic research on human achievement motivation was published by McClelland and Atkinson in 1953 and according to their model -- all humans have a predisposition to either approach or avoid competitive situations. In other words, humans have a varying natural need to achieve success and master their environment, be it in running or everyday life skills. This need to achieve, or our achievement motivation as it is commonly called, is a result of our internal drive to enter competitive situations with enthusiasm. This motive to achieve success is thought to be the athlete's intrinsic motivation to get involved in a competitive situation and it is closely tied to the concept of confidence. However, the motive to achieve success is undermined by the fear of failure. If the fear of failure is stronger than the motivation to get involved in an activity, there is a good chance the individual won't even try. The fear of failure is also directly related to high anxiety levels.

Everyone experiences the fear of failure at one time or another, be it in running, work, or relationships. But why is the fear of failure such a major factor in human motivation? For many people the fear of failure develops in the childhood learning environment. If at a young age we fail to perform well or lose a competition and adult significant others (i.e., parents) respond with negative feedback, such as shame, guilt, or ridicule, in the future we may associate negative feedback with any failure. Suddenly trying new things isn't fun anymore because of the risk of not being successful and being ridiculed as a result. Much fear of failure in sports is learned as result of overzealous parents.

When the fear of failure becomes prominent, the attitude of "If I don't risk trying then I won't fail" takes hold. It's such a shame when the fear of failure prevents people from getting involved or staying involved in a sport like running, especially when the fear of failure is often brought about by well meaning family and friends. How often does a runner participate in a race and feel very good about their effort, only to be bombarded by comments like "You didn't win," "You didn't beat Joe Blow," "You ran faster last year," or even " You looked really bad running today?" Feelings of pride and accomplishment are suddenly washed way with feelings of inadequacy.

There are a number of ways we can help overcome our own fear of failure and to also be sure we don't instill a fear of failure in others. Above all, regardless of the outcome of a race, be psychologically good to yourself and others who have participated. Always support and value an attempt to do one's best, for in reality what more can you ask for?

Emphasizing and rewarding effort must always be paramount in running. Runners should feel strong race performances are a result of strong effort, both during the race and in training. Never attribute a lack of success to a lack of ability, either in yourself or with others. When anyone feels they're simply "no good," or "have no ability," feelings of learned helplessness can develop and an internalized attitude of "There is no use in even trying" can dominate motivational thoughts.

Running is a unique sport because success can be defined in many different ways. Runners can be winners no matter what place they finish in a race. All runners have differing goals, such as a new personal best at a specific distance, weekly mileage, placing in an age group, or even simply getting out and running three times a week. When any such goals are reached, a genuine accomplishment has occurred. Feel good about any running goals that are reached and share in the sense of goal achievement when other runners reach their personal goals.

Sharing in goal achievement can serve a very important purpose. Humans will often perform in a manner that is consistent with the expectations of significant others. This concept is often referred to as the Pygmalion or expectancy effect. If we expect very little of someone and we communicate this, the person will often perform in a manner that meets our expectation of them. If we show high expectations of someone they will tend to live up to the high expectations. You might say that if you have confidence in someone and you let him or her know it, they will have confidence in themselves. If we expect success on a consistent basis and we communicate these positive expectations, others will tend to reach higher and live up to our high expectations. If failure does occur, encouragement from others is critical for resiliency. We should all expect personal goal success for realistic goals and constantly remind ourselves of these positive expectations. We also need to encourage those around us, such as training partners, friends, and spouses.

When Franklin Roosevelt boldly stated, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," little did he know he was an early Sport Psychologist. Fear can certainly undermine our motivation to achieve and keep us from chasing our dreams. Remember the only pressure in running is the pressure we put on ourselves. Go after your goals, have fun, and don't be afraid to fail in the process

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