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7 ways to overcome fear of failure in football

7 ways to overcome fear of failure in football

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

How can England overcome their fear of failure

English football has a problem with its fear of failure. The shirt weighs heavy on many of the team, which has led to under-performing in several tournaments. But what is the fear of failure and more importantly, how can our players at this years World Cup overcome it?

Former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson stated that “an athlete often has a great deal more potential than he manages to use, but his fear of failure locks him into his performance cage”. Indeed, The Lewis Review, which was a report commissioned to explore the state of youth football in England noted that a climate of fear exists. This has been confirmed by comments made by ex-internationals Steven Gerrard and Joey Barton, as well as ex-FA chairman Greg Dyke.

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What do athletes fear?

It is not failure that people fear. It is the perceived negative consequences that follow the failure which causes them the most amounts of stress. This fear can lead to lowered self-esteem, avoiding challenging tasks, being pessimistic and even cheating.

Psychologists have identified the five main things which people fear that failure will lead to:

1. Experiencing shame and embarrassment

2. Readjusting how you see yourself

3. Having an uncertain future

4. Upsetting important people

5. Important people losing interest

7 Ways to Reduce the Fear of Failure

How to reduce the fear of failure

So how to overcome fear of failure? Here are seven suggestions:

No shame policy 

In a study of footballers, the most common fear was the fear of shame and embarrassment. This is seen in athletes who play it too safe as they don’t want to be the one who makes a mistake. For these athletes, the fear of making a mistake is larger than the hope of doing something well. We can overcome this kind of thinking by creating an environment where failure is followed by support, encouragement and positivity, rather than embarrassment, punishment and negativity.

Address the problem 

Psychologists believe that there are three ways people cope with situations. These are Avoidant, Emotional and Problem Focused. Let’s say you are worried about snakes in your garden. You could decide to never go into your garden again (avoidant focused), or convince yourself that having snakes in your back garden isn’t that bad (emotion focused) or go into your garden and get rid of the snakes (problem focused). Where avoidant and emotional focused coping may provide some short term relief, problem focused coping addresses the issue head on, allowing you to make long term gains. Don’t be an ostrich and bury your head in the sand. If something is worrying you, work out how you can make it better.

Learn from your mistakes 

Forty years ago, a psychologist in America studied how primary school students viewed an upcoming test. Some viewed it as an opportunity to see how much they’d learnt; others saw it as a chance to compare themselves to their classmates. Those who focused on their learning are called task-orientated Creating a task-orientated environment (focusing more on individual development and less on comparison to others) should increase motivation, confidence, self-regulation, academic performance as well as reducing anxiety.

Don’t bottle it up

Teams are often stronger than individuals, so if something is worrying you, talk to someone like a parent, friend, teacher or coach. These people can give advice, support, or even just listen to you. Using the support available to you is one of the strategies that Olympic champions use to develop their resilience.

Question your fears

Are your fears actually irrational and highly unlikely to come true? Mark Twain once said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” This is a great quote as it captures perfectly how many athletes end up worrying about the worst case scenario, often for no logical reason. It’s good to reassure them that if they have put the hard work in, there is no reason to assume the worst.

Focus on what you can control

When people focus on things that they can’t change, it often makes them stressed or nervous. By helping people focus on what they can control, it gives them a sense of certainty and confidence. Elite athletes, such as Tom Daley, call this being process focused, which is not focusing on the outcome (i.e. the result, which they can’t control), but focusing on what they need to do (the process) to give them the best chance of success. 

Embrace the grey

In sport, sometimes, the result can paper over the cracks. Young people can think that winning in their last competition means that everything is good. On the flip side, suffering a defeat can mean that everything becomes all ‘doom and gloom’. This sort of black and white thinking can lead to stress, anxiety and fragile self-esteem. Judging yourself on your attitude, effort and what you’ve learned are better markers and are probably more likely to result in the wins that they so desire.

Final thought

To recap, failure in itself isn’t threatening. It is just a source of feedback on your current level. It is the negative consequences that people think will follow that they fear. The most common of these is the fear of shame and embarrassment. Helping players overcome these fears can liberate and free them from their ‘performance cage’, allowing them to achieve their full potential.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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