Mar 26

Overcoming the Biggest Obstacle to Sports Success

The Fear of Failure

You just split sets with a tough opponent. You won the first easily and he won a close second set. As you begin the third set, you become aware of subtle changes in your approach to each point. You’ve been in this situation before. You are playing it “safe” or playing “not to lose.” As usual, you lose the third set and the match, leaving you frustrated and upset at yourself for falling back into this negative habit.

Note that this “Fear of Failing” syndrome applies to every athlete in every sport. We see it in basketball, soccer and hockey players who prefer to pass rather than take an open shot. We see it in baseball and softball players, who freeze in the batter’s box, on the pitcher’s mound or in the infield, rather than charging a ball, for example. In this article, I am focusing on tennis players.

The fear of making a mistake, looking foolish or being embarrassed by losing overcame your natural aggressiveness and the trust you had in your game plan and style, which worked well for you in the first set. Why does this happen and what can you do about it?

Perfectionism and All or Nothing Thinking

Many fine athletes tend to be perfectionists. Because they have been highly successful, their belief is that their success is due to paying attention to every detail and they see any defeat as a poor reflection of them. They tend to think rigidly, in black/while dichotomies, believing that if they don’t do something perfectly, they have failed. They rarely give themselves a break or accept the fact that nothing in this world is perfect.

Self-Talk and the Mind-Body Connection

It is a known axiom that an athlete’s performance at any given time equals her/his natural talent, minus distractions. Distractions can be external, such as being distracted by the cheering for your opponent. But the most common distractions we all face are internal – our internal dialogue.

Every athlete engages in self-talk, before, during and after the match. The problem is that unless you are keeping a careful record of your thoughts prior to and during critical points in your match, you will not be aware of the mental traps you in which you place yourself. There is a broad body of research showing that thoughts translate instantly to every cell (and muscle) in the body. Whereas positive thoughts “switch on” the nervous system that relaxes the body, negative thoughts “switch on” the emergency preparedness nervous system, which immediately tightens up muscles.

With this in mind, think about what happens when you are getting ready for a third set and you say the following to yourself, “I hope I don’t blow this,” or “I’d better be careful or I will lose the match.” Such negative, self-destructive statements immediately lead to getting tight and you no longer are can consistently control your shots. What’s worse is that when you lose the set and match, you are prone to tell yourself, “See, I knew I was going to blow the match.” Thus, your original thought becomes a negative self-fulfilling prophesy, likely to continue happening in future matches, unless you recognize what’s happening.

Relationship Between Fear of Failure and Self-Confidence

Self-doubts become devastating self-fulfilling prophesies, which erode your self-confidence. Fear of failure is like every other fear—it is irrational. First, it is irrational, because losing a tennis match is not failure—it can be success, if you learn what adjustments to make the next time you are in this situation. Moreover, there are many parts of a losing match in which you were successful. You can build on those successful moments. So when you learn something you can use in future matches, a loss can actually be considered an opportunity to improve your game and your emotional approach.

The problem for many players is that a loss negatively impacts their self-confidence. and a lack of self-confidence leads to more negative self-talk, so the circle of unfortunate outcomes continues. Below are two major steps you can take to overcome this fear.

The Thought Stopping Technique

The first step in overcoming the Fear of Failure pattern is to recognize the specific negative, distorted thoughts that you habitually use before and during matches. Keep a notebook in your bag and as soon as you have cooled down (physically and mentally) after a match, write down every negative thought you can recall from the match. The more specific the thought and exactly where in the match it occurred, the better you will be able to prevent it from interfering in future matches.

Once you see your pattern of negative thinking, you are ready to stop this habit. For your next match, use a fat rubber band that fits comfortably on your wrist and snap it as soon as a negative thought enters your mind. The snapping will stop the thought, but because these thoughts are often persistent, you may need to repeatedly snap away. Once the thought stops, take a series of deep, relaxing breaths, in through your nose and out your mouth, stretch your quads and tell yourself to relax. Step three is replacing the negative thought with a positive one, such as:

“I will continue to play aggressively, regardless of the score because that is one of my strengths.

” I won several games by coming to the net for a winner volley and I will continue to do that in the third set.”

“I trust my body and I will just relax and let my talent take over.”

The Practice Simulation Technique

Practice visualizing yourself in a stress- packed situation (i.e., a third set tiebreak) and try to allow the tension to build as if it was the real thing. Then practice telling snapping the rubber band, relaxing yourself and giving yourself positive messages, such as “I will stay with what got me here…aggressive play and taking every opportunity that presents itself.” Have a portion of every practice session be a simulated tie break situation and tell your partner to be ruthless with you. Practice letting the tension build and then calm it down, staying positive and aggressive.

Maintaining your desire to be successful greater than your fear of losing, will consistently help your performance. Embrace each situation and use a strong game plan to overcome the fear of losing. Tell yourself that the style and plan which has served you well earlier in the match will continue to serve you well throughout the match, regardless of the score or whether the match is on the line. Focus on your plan for each point and never fear the outcome of the game, set or match. When you do lose, take the lessons learned from that match into the next match, so that in essence, every loss is a gain!

Remember these truths:

Negative Self-Talk (Playing Not to Lose) –>Negative Emotions –> Getting Tight –>Inconsistent Racquet Control –>Inconsistent Focus & Performance

Positive Self-Talk (Playing to Succeed) –> Positive Emotions –>Relaxed Muscles –> Good Racquet Control –>Consistently Positive Focus & Performance

Jack N. Singer, Ph.D.
Certified and Licensed Sport and Clinical Psychologist
Diplomate, National Institute of Sports Professionals, Division of Psychologists
Diplomate, American Academy of Behavioral Medicine
Certified Hypnotherapist, American Academy of Clinical Hypnosis

Free 20 Minute Telephone Consultation with Psychologist Dr. Jack Singer


  1. Visualize 16 Apr 2010 |

    Yes I aggree, in fact one of my self talk phrases before I do anything, shoot a free throw or hit a tennis serve is to say “I can do this.” then I focus on a particular skill, like hitting the serve at the peak or following through on my shot. I find that this helps reduce that anxiety that is associated with fear in these situations, like when I say, “dont double fault” or “dont miss this shot”

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