How the Fear of Failure Impacts Athletes


Abby Warnock

ALL EYES ON ME: Student-athletes often feel the pressure of living up to expectations set forth by parents, coaches and even teammates.

Jaycee Hendrickson, Sports Editor

The fear of failure is often recognized in topics of academic settings: taking tests, applying to colleges, job interviews, etc. Often left in the dust, however, is the impact of this phenomena on sports, and how the strive for an unrealistic “perfection” has become a foundation in athletics. 

Originating from that warped desire for perfection, the fear of failure leads to high-level stress and anxiety towards sports. Performance anxiety is directly correlated with mental stamina and the ability to keep your head in the game, and the lasting presence of fear leads to lower self-esteem, feeling shameful for disappointing others or purely losing interest in the sport. 

“A lot of times, people think that other people’s expectations are more severe than they are,” health science teacher Brooke Leys said. “Basically, no matter how well they do something, they still feel like it’s not good enough.”

A prominent manifestation of the fear of failure is athletic burnout, one of the most debilitating states that an athlete can experience. Burnout reflects both physical and mental exhaustion, and typically leaves athletes lacking a sense of accomplishment. In turn, self-assurance and confidence begins to reduce as well.  

This becomes especially prominent in high school athletics, where the constant pressure for success—from coaches, parents and teammates alike—takes away from the true intention of sports: Having a place to release the stress of daily life and be truly passionate about something. 

Student-athletes that are entering the recruitment process also struggle from an overwhelming fear of failure, being under pressure to perform well in front of college coaches and scouts. The opportunities to impress those who decide your future are low, making it all the more stressful.

“Trying to be recruited while also being a student-athlete is difficult,” varsity softball player junior Riley Bajorek said. “It’s hard to stay on top of school work, but in order to get recruited I have to keep my grades high.”

The common misconception is that the internal struggle with the fear of failure can be overcome overnight. In reality, it takes lots of mental strength training and the willingness to improve and grow. The National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) outlines the importance of mindfulness, a concept that focuses on intentional, relaxation techniques that train athletes to focus on calming their emotions and preventing the mental block that stress, anxiety and fear induce.

There will never be a clear-cut solution to this deeply integrated issue with athletics, but it is increasingly important for athletes to make changes for themselves, become aware of available resources and understand how to train their mental strength. 

“Changing is painful,” Leys said. “But at least if you deal with the pain of changing, there is a possibility that you are going to be in less pain at some point. You get to choose your battle.”