Facing Your Fears Isn’t That Scary

Fear is a powerful, and important, emotion. Fear is also a primitive emotion. For our earliest ancestors, fear kept them alive. If they perceived a threat their fear would push them to either attack or run away, whichever promised the best chances of survival. The message the brain sends out for this type of fear – fearing for your life – readies your body for battle. Adrenaline is released and muscles brace. This may be good for dealing with a saber-tooth tiger, but it’s awful for shooting a free throw. Or pitching with the bases loaded. Or serving in a tie-breaker.

  • Sports, despite what old-school coaches may say in the locker room, are not battles for survival. Yet, fear is commonly identified as a performance obstacle by the athletes. What are they afraid of? There are no tar pits on their fields. No predators roaming on their courts. No sharks in their pools. A softball game, even for a championship, isn’t a dangerous situation. A race, even at a state meet, isn’t life threatening. So, what are they afraid of? Here are the top 3 fears reported by the athletes I’ve worked with for the past 20 years.
  • Losing
  • Performing poorly (embarrassing themselves or letting others down)
  • Making a mistake that impacts the outcome

Let’s think about this for a second. Losing? Playing poorly? Making a mistake? These are all common experiences. Every game or match has a winner and a loser. No athlete plays their best every time they compete. Every athlete makes mistakes. In fact, “mistakes” are so common in sports that there are unique names for them – turnovers, errors, interceptions… Why are we afraid of things that are common and universally experienced? We don’t like to be rained on, but do we become frightened when we’re caught without an umbrella? We don’t like to get stuck in traffic, but do we dread the possibility when we get in our car? No. We don’t. So, what’s going on with some of my athletes? To understand this we need to talk a little about how fear works.

Every emotion we experience comes from our thoughts. If it’s a beautiful day we may feel happy. If it’s a gloomy day we may feel down. In both cases we have to perceive that the day is beautiful or gloomy. We think about the day. This is why I prefer to say “make it a great day” to someone rather than “have a great day.” We can choose how we think about something and, in so doing, influence how we feel about it. Give it a try!

It’s the same thing with fear. If we perceive something to be threatening, our emotional response will be fear and our actions will reflect this. This is adaptive, just like it was for our primitive ancestors. If I find myself in a dangerous situation, the realization that I’m unsafe will trigger the release of adrenaline and I will remain on heightened alert until things change. I may overreact or even panic, but that would be understandable given the circumstances.

Sports, however, simply don’t present us with this type of threat. They’re games, not tests. Playing should challenge us, not fright us. Competing should be fun, not stressful. If this isn’t your experience, or you struggle with performance anxiety, you can benefit from working on your mental game.

Shooting 100 free throws after every practice is a great way to get better, but that skill can be jammed by thinking that missing an important free throw is embarrassing, or something your teammates will never forgive. Thinking like this will speed up your breathing, make your hands sweaty and tighten your muscles. Not great for shooting a free throw. Having more realistic beliefs will allow you to focus on your process – take a deep breath, focus, and shoot the ball with the same smooth release you’ve practice thousands of times. Ideally it will go in, but it may not. You may be elated, or you may be dejected, but either way, you’ll be fine – just like every other basketball player who’s shared the same exact experience.

There was never any fear for me, no fear of failure. If I miss a shot, so what?” ~ Michael Jordan


If fear gets in your way, work on the way you think. Make sure your thoughts are realistic and reflect a healthy perspective.

Fear of losing

No one likes to lose, but every athlete and every team – even the greatest ones – will lose. If you’ve never lost, you’re not playing at the right level. If you think it’s unacceptable to lose, you’re not respecting your opponents. Losing isn’t fun, but it’s nothing you can’t handle. Instead of worrying about something that’s a possibility for every athlete or team, why not focus your mind and energy on doing everything you can to get the result you want?

Fear of “messing up”

Mistakes – errors, turnovers, penalties – are a part of sports. Making one isn’t a character flaw or weakness, it’s human. It comes with being a competitive athlete. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re stunting your development (mistakes make us better). If you’re humiliated by a mistake, you’re not respecting your sport (it’s not supposed to be easy) or your opponent (one player’s mistake is often another player’s great play). Instead of worrying about something that’s part of being a competitive athlete, why not focus your mind and energy on simply trying to play your best.

Fear of disappointing others

Your job as an athlete is pretty simple: Work hard, prepare yourself physically and mental and compete to the best of your ability. If you do that, you shouldn’t disappoint anyone. If you do that and still disappoint yourself, you should read the two preceding paragraphs again 😊

You develop a strong mental game the same way you develop your physical and technical game. You build a foundation with fundamentals and turn those fundamentals into reliable skills by practicing and mastering good mechanics. Mental mechanics are just as important as throwing mechanics or running mechanics, maybe even more so when you consider the fact that everything an athlete does starts in the brain. If you’re ready to get serious about developing your mental game, Playing in the Box: A Practical Guide for Helping Athletes Develop Their Mental Game, can provide you a roadmap.