How the Best Players in the World Manage the Fear of Failure

I’ve been struggling to overcome the fear of failure for a while now (as evidenced by this post I wrote two years ago). 

Luckily, smart minds have also been analyzing the fear of failure. Jay Bilas wrote a book a few years ago called Toughness which I highly recommend. In the book, he has an insightful take on the fear of failure.

Bilas’ argument stems from the idea that fear of failure can be helpful in the right situation. It drives a relentless work ethic and preparation. Fear is a powerful motivator and used properly can ignite a tremendous amount of energy and focus. 

Bilas uses the example of legendary women’s soccer player Mia Hamm. One of Hamm’s teammates, Julie Foudy said of Hamm, “She had that fear of failure that drove her…it drove her to work harder, to put even more time in…because of that, she was going to work on free kicks, corner kicks, her skill level, her fitness; she was going to put her time in."


Ok, But There’s a Downside, Right?

Fear of failure is great in practice, but when it comes time to perform, you have to shut off that fear. In games, fear of failure will hinder your performance; you'll play tight, nervous and afraid to make mistakes. Tension is the enemy of performance. 

Hall of Fame 49ers quarterback, Steve Young was able to shut off that fear when the game started.

In his book QB: My Life Behind the Spiral he details his battle with nearly debilitating levels of anxiety throughout his life. He writes that he “feared failure and disappointing people.” But that all shifted when the game arrived, “once I’m on the field I have no fear."

So, the question becomes, how did he do it? How did Steve Young flip the switch and turn off the fear of failure?


How Do You Flip The Switch?

I wish I had a foolproof answer to this question. If all it took was one trick to overcome the fear of failure, I’d have done it already. 

This has been one of the defining struggles of my career. While fear of failure motivates me to prepare diligently, but it puts a chokehold on my in-game performance. Although I have yet to defeat this obstacle, Steve Kerr did. From the book Toughness:

"Kerr referenced a commercial that Michael Jordan appeared in many years ago that focused on all of the shots Jordan had missed in his career. 'The point was, he fails all the time, but it doesn’t stop him from taking the next one,' Kerr said. 'That mind-set was critical for me in my career. It was a breakthrough for me, a major hurdle I had to get over. I had to be willing to live with it, whatever the result, to accept it,' Kerr said. 'I trusted the process, I trusted the work I had put in, and I was willing to live with the results.”

I believe this last sentence is the crux of the problem, “I was willing to live with the results.” If you're willing to live with whatever outcome happens, then there’s no reason to be afraid.

It’s only when you're overly invested in the outcome - usually because your ego is wrapped up in playing well or you feel your self-worth is on the line if you lose - that the possibility of failure causes us to feel fear. 

The possibility of failure on it’s own doesn’t make us afraid. It’s only what failure represents that makes us afraid. 

This is where I get tripped up. Failure means humiliation and derision. It’s the fact that others will judge me if I fail that incites fear. 

My guess is that if you fear failure as well, it’s not the failure itself that makes you afraid, it’s something else. To find out, ask yourself “Why? What will happen if I fail?"


What are some tips to help reign in the fear of failure on game day? 

Find your positive mental state

Kerr says you have to “achieve a positive mental state to perform.” 

He goes on to give a concrete example of how he would generate that positive mental state: "Before every game, I would watch a tape of me playing well, being in the groove, to give myself that positive feeling…I wanted to fill my memory with good things so I could draw upon it.” (For more on the power of what we watch, click here

Mark Alarie, a former Duke player and teammate of Jay Bilas parroted that sentiment, “I wanted my my mind...focused on [the game] in a totally positive manner…when you allow your mind to say ‘Don’t miss,’ I don’t believe your mind can process the ‘don’t’ part. It just visualizes the miss."


Be Present

Alarie also brought up another important concept; being present. “When the action is here and now, when the game was being played, I wanted my mind fully on the action.” When Alarie references "the action” he’s talking about the present moment. When you’re fully engaged in the moment, there’s no room to think about the future consequences of failing.

I know just telling you to be present isn’t helpful at all. You’re probably muttering sarcastically, "Gee Tyler, that’s great advice. I’ll just go ahead and be fully present now.” 

There are entire philosophies built around teaching you how to be present so I won’t get into it here. If you’re curious, you can read my post on my personal meditation practice.

Elite performers seem to be able to harness the fear of failure. They leverage it for motivation in practice and banish it when game time comes around. 

It’s not easy, but it’s possible.