How to Help Children Overcome Fear of Failure

Youth Sports Psychology Tips: How to Help Children Overcome Fear of Failure

Does your child struggle to free themselves up when competing?

In sport, the messages that children often get from coaches and parents include:

“You must put in maximum effort.”

“You can try harder, I saw you give up when……”

“Keep going even when things get tough…..”

“You’ve got to keep striving to get better.”

“You can always keep improving your skills.”

They’re all positive things to say.  I’m guessing that you may agree?   After all, showing maximum effort and trying to be the best that you can be is vital if you are going to achieve your potential. 

I’m going to beg to differ here.  If you have a child who hears these types of comments day in day out without being given opportunities to relax, to have fun and be creative there is a good chance they are going to pick up perfectionist tendencies. 

Surely though, it’s a good thing to be a perfectionist you may me thinking?  After all perfectionists have a great work ethic, they hold themselves to high standards, they’re conscientious, they’re on time and they listen to coaches.  Great qualities, I agree.

The Downsides of Perfectionism

When trying to learn new skills, perfectionist children will work much harder than other children.  Here’s an example of Jamie a talented, 13 year old golfer who played off a handicap of six.  He’d get lessons from his golf coach on a weekly basis and when the light nights came along, he would spend most evenings after school practicing his skills, on weekends he’d also be working hard on his game and playing competitively.  He genuinely loved practicing and striving to get better.  However, in his ear was a dad who kept showing him video’s of where he was going wrong.  Jamie and his dad became obsessed with creating the perfect golf swing that Jamie forgot how to play the game on the golf course.  When he did play competitions, he’d lose his temper regularly when he made mistakes.  If he didn’t hit the perfect shot, you’d hear him having good moan.  His playing partners did not enjoy playing with him. 

Another example, is Gillian a talented 12 year old elite gymnast.  She performed on the British Compulsory Pathway, training between 20-25 hours per week and regularly competing nationally across the UK.  She was seen as the model gymnast in her gym she worked extremely hard, she was extremely competitive, she always wanted to keep pushing herself.  She’d been used to having successes then she hit a spell where she had some injuries, she had a break due to COVID and was ill for a period.  Each time she came back trying ever so hard to be the best gymnast she could be but then one day she said she’d had enough.  That she wasn’t enjoying it.  She’d been involved in the sport since she was 5 years old but decided to walk away from the sport.  Why because of the constant demands that were placed on her by other people and from herself.

The last example is Fraser, an 11 year old young footballer who just loved having a football at his feet.  He lived and breathed football and grew up in a football mad house.  He was always practicing skills and tricks and was a very skilful player.  He was involved in a local professional football academy and received private 1-2-1 coaching too.  Yet being around negative personalities, be that team-mates, coaches or parents he really struggled.  When he was criticised he took things personally, it would make him try harder and harder to live up to what other people wanted from him.  It also made him on edge, worrying a lot about what other people thought.

Youngsters, just like Jamie, Gillian and Fraser were all very hard working as you’ll note however they also were all very hard on themselves.  They each had very unrealistically high expectations of themselves and others and would get frustrated when they didn’t meet those expectations.  If they made errors they’d often rage or get into “playing it safe” mode under pressure.  

Being able to take risks is so important in sport as a youngster, it helps them learn and grow.  Which all three children struggled with.  

3 Tips to Help Children with Fear of Failure

Fear of failure and perfectionism are very closely interlinked.  So how do we help children free themselves up?

Firstly, identifying where their expectations are high and faulty is important.  So for Jamie a good question would be “How many drives do you expect to strike purely in a round of golf?”  His answer was “I expect to hit 10 from 14 fairways.” I went on to dig deeper.  “From those 10 tee shots, how many do you expect to hit purely?” His answer was 7.  This then opened up the conversation to check on the other 7 shots, what they’d look like.  What a good attitude was when he hit a poor shot.  What behaviours took place.  If his expectations were helping or hindering his performance?  

Secondly, asking youngsters to “focus on the process” is another simple approach.  What does this mean though?  It involves you as a parent or coach helping children to break down skills or behaviours into small tasks.  For example, for Gillian when she completes a full twist on the beam she may take a moment to breathe before she begins her routine to calm herself and focus, she may have positive body language and smile or have a game face too.  She may also be saying calming or positive things to herself. On landing she may be upright and feel light on her feet.  So Gillian’s process goal could be to simply focus on her breathing before the beginning of her routine.  She could go a step further and rate herself out of 10 for how present in the moment she was during this time.  

Lastly, you may want to quote some statistics to help you in conversations with your child.  For example, with Fraser we discussed shooting.  Harry Kane was his favourite footballer, as he was a Tottenham Hotspur supporter.  We checked his statistics in the English Premier League.  At that point Harry had played 263 matches.  He’d had 966 shots, hitting the target 427 times.   So if my calculations are correct Harry had missed 539 times!  He had scored 170 goals too, meaning he failed to score from 796 of his 966 shots.

This was a hugely powerful exercise for Fraser as he began to recognise that his high expectation of scoring from 7 out of 10 shots was dangerous.  We discussed game situations in detail, when he started poorly, when he made a mistake, when the team were winning or losing, when he faced big older and more physical players and how this impacted his behaviour.     With the important question – what could you do differently?

To summarise, through working with thousands of youngsters across a range of sports and through research that we’ve conducted we recognise that fear of failure and perfectionism are the two biggest challenges that they face.  It stops children enjoying their sport, it stops them from performing fearlessly and sadly it results in many children quitting sport.  

Finding ways to free children up, to help them go into autopilot, to play without a care and be playful is a big issue in today’s culture of trying to help our children strive to get better and should be factored in if you’re a parent or coach.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this article and it helps you gain some insights on how to help youngsters with fear of failure or perfectionist tendencies.

If you’d like to learn more about how we could help your children why not get in touch or if you found this article helpful, please share it with your friends, parents or coaches

You can also join our online community – THE SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY HUB – for regular Sports Psychology tips, podcasts, motivation and support.

Best Wishes 

David Charlton

Sports and Soccer Psychologist who supports athletes in all corners of the globe from San Francisco to Dubai, to Cape Town to Brisbane, using ONLINE Video Conferencing.    

Managing Director – Inspiring Sporting Excellence, Host of Demystifying Mental Toughness Podcast and Founder of The Sports Psychology Hub.  With over 10 years experience supporting athletes, coaches, parents and teams to achieve their goals, faster.  

T: +44 7734 697769

E: [email protected]

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