Fear of failure: What if your child loses?

Failure sign

In contemporary sport, whether professional- or school-level, there is an overwhelming focus on winning results, the applauding heroes, ‘man-of-the-match’ performances, try-saving tackles, victory celebrations long into the night and, as the saying goes, “No one remembers who came second.” While this may be true for some instances, almost everyone remembers the person who missed an open goal or made a critical error to hand victory and the spoils of war to the opposition.

Should a child experience being labelled a “failure” or being blamed for making a mistake that cost the game, it will quite obviously have a long term effect on their involvement in sport. The desire to avoid such humiliation will have a lasting effect on that child’s experience of whether or not they perceive themselves as a failure. Unsurprisingly, all sportsmen and women will go to great lengths to avoid being shamed and having the perception of being a failure hanging over their head.

Fear of failure (FoF) is defined as a “shame-based avoidance motive” of evaluative situations (Sagar et al., 2010). As above, negative experiences of losing, accompanied by blame and public humiliation, and are actively avoided because they elicit a feeling of shame for that athlete which they want to escape. Children might present with the following thinking;

“I don’t want to play competitive sport because the possibility of failure and humiliation is just too great.”

Children might also fear failure because they don’t want to disappoint important people. The performance evaluation of friends, coaches and parents can be have a huge influence on a child’s feelings of humiliation, disappointment and shame. The value of significant figure’s approval can be as important as the athlete’s own evaluation of their performance.

In aiming to succeed, all athletes are putting themselves at personal risk of failing and having to acknowledge they either made a mistake or have a weakness that held them back. The best response to negative feedback or criticism is to approach future performances as a challenge or opportunity. Sagar et al. (2010) suggest a “problem-focussed approach” to coping with mistakes or failings rather than dwelling on the negative emotions.

Talking to your child about their own performance expectations and their beliefs about YOUR expectations as a parent is a difficult but valuable conversation to have. Parents can play a crucial role by challenging how their child constructs their expectations; are they realistic and are they achievable? Discussing training, matches and looking ahead to future challenges as opportunities instead of possible sites for shame or humiliation emphasises the importance of a “Mastery-Approach” to sport (Eliot, 1999). When athletes or children cope well with pressure and are well supported they will feel competent and confident in future ‘evaluative situations’; starting small with realistic expectations can boost self-esteem, especially when they have encountered failures or obstacles in the past.

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