Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Fear of Total Failure
In my very first Kids&Culture Alert! e-newsletter published in April of 2005, I discussed the sad epidemic of fear of failure that I found to be rampant in America at that time. Well, over five years later, fear of failure is still the most pervasive and debilitating issue among young athletes and other high achievers I see in my practice and the thousands I have spoken to since. But the reason I want to revisit fear of failure today is because I have discovered a new wrinkle to the fear-of-failure phenomenon that brings greater clarity to the problems that young ski racers face in our increasingly intense, result-oriented ski-racing world.
What is Fear of Failure?
At the heart of fear of failure is the belief held by young racers that if they fail, in ski racing or any other activity, then bad things will happen, for example, they will disappoint their parents, be ostracized by their peer group, experience embarrassment or shame, or feel worthless. Fear of failure typically emerges from messages that children's parents convey that being loved depends on their being successful or that their parents' love will be withdrawn if they fail (this is rarely the message that parents intend to send, but it is the one that children frequently receive). Kids also get the message that if they fail they will be seen as a LOSER from our "winning is everything" culture. Racers with a fear of failure perceive failure to be a ravenous beast that pursues them relentlessly and must be avoided at all cost. When they do succeed and avoid that beast, they only experience a small and brief amount of relief (instead of excitement and joy!) because they survived one more day without being eaten by failure. As a result, avoiding failure becomes their singular motivation and goal in life.
Despite this profound fear of failure, so many young racers do nonetheless fail frequently and often monumentally, either by giving up easily or doing something that ensures failure (e.g., have a pessimistic attitude, ski out of the course without a fight), even when success was highly likely. I asked myself, why would young racers who fear failure so much actually do things that guarantee failure.
I came to see that most young racers don't have a fear of failure, but rather they have a fear of total failure. I define total failure as "giving it their all and not achieving their goal." When I ask young racers if total failure is a good or bad thing, the response is unanimous and emphatic; it is the worst thing! So what is so bad about total failure? If racers give everything they have and don't achieve the goal, they have to admit that they simply weren't good enough and there's nothing more they can do. They must surrender to the fact that they will never achieve that goal. And that realization is very difficult for a young psyche to accept. Better for young racers to fail with an excuse (called self-sabotage or self-defeating behavior; e.g., the course was too difficult, I made a huge mistake, I missed the wax) than experience total failure because it allows them to avoid the consequences of total failure (e.g., disappointment of others, shame) and always leaves open the possibility of success in the future.
Yet I would argue that total failure is a good (though not ideal) goal because, even though young racers may not reach their goal, they did everything they could to achieve it and no one can ask more of them than their best effort. To put this in perspective, I define total success as racers giving it everything they have and achieving their goal. Is total success a good thing? It is a great thing! But total success and total failure have one thing in common: giving it everything they've got. So the real goal for young racers is to experience "total" something, whether success or failure, because, in either case, they gave it their all and what more can they do. At the end of the day, will young racers be disappointed in not having achieved their goal? Of course. But there will also be indelible satisfaction at having given their best effort and skied as fast as they possibly could have. Also, the simple reality is that if racers don't give it everything they've got, they will have little chance of ever reaching their goals or achieving total success.
One of the most destructive aspects of fear of total failure is that young racers are afraid to take risks. By definition, the more risks that racers take, the greater the likelihood of failure (e.g., hooked tip, miss a gate, crash). Yet, risk is also essential for achieving total success (e.g., skiing a straighter line, holding a tuck a bit longer). Risk means racers getting out of their comfort zones, pushing themselves beyond what they think is possible, and, most basically, risking the possibility of failure. Without risk, there can be little improvement or progress, racers will be perpetually stuck in one place, and they will never realize total success. The paradox of fear of total failure is that the only way to be truly successful is to take risks. So, racers with a fear of total failure play it safe and avoid failure-that's a relief!-but they also experience the frustration of unfulfilled promise and miss the exhilaration of having "left it all out on the hill."
There are two cardinal rules that I believe all racers should live by. Rule #1 is that I don't want anyone to ask, at the end of a race season, career, or life, "I wonder what could have been?" That may be the saddest question anyone can pose to themselves because there are no "redos" in life. Rule #2 is that the one emotion I don't want any racer (in fact, any person) to experience is regret. Regret is defined as: "to feel sorry or disappointed about something that one wishes could be different; a sense of loss or longing for something gone," in other words, "Darn it, I wish I had tried harder." In the end, you want your young racers to make the statement: "I gave it everything I had," and experience two emotions: pride and fulfillment in having given it their all.
To achieve their ski-racing (and life) goals, your young racers must embrace the following:"To achieve Total Success, I must be willing to accept Total Failure." By doing so, they will have nothing to fear from failure and, as a result, will be liberated to pursue total success with unrestrained gusto.
Dr. Jim Taylor drjimtaylor.com,
knows the psychology of ski racing! He competed internationally for
Burke Mtn. Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado.
For the past 25 years, Dr. Jim has worked with many of America's leading
junior race programs as well as World Cup competitors from many
countries. He is the author of Prime Ski Racing Triumph of the Racer's Mind. Dr. Jim is also the author of two parenting books and speaks regularly to parents, students, and educators around the U.S..