Fear of Failure in Athletes

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Fear of failure is the motive to avoid failure in achievement situations. It is not difficult to imagine a Division I college basketball athlete at the foul line, with no time left on the clock and a tied score. Is it the fear of failure or the achievement of success that determines whether the athlete will make the shot? Athletes of all levels and abilities fear failure, because of different experiences and developments. The fear of failure can be developed for a number of reasons and how the athlete copes with failure determines their success.

A multidimensional, hierarchal model of fear of failure was created by David Conroy to attempt to analyze the different consequences of failing that lead to the fear of failure. Fear of failure can be represented in a hierarchal structure with five lower order factors and a single higher order factor, representing a general fear of failure. The five lower order fears of failing include fears of experiencing shame and embarrassment, fears of devaluing one’s self estimate, fears of having an uncertain future, fears of important others losing interest, and fears of upsetting important others (Conroy 2004). These fears show similar patterns with measures of self-talk, achievement goals, and contextual motivation. To investigate whether the hierarchal model was similar to the previous mentioned measures Conroy conducted a study between two different groups of athletes. Conroy chose 438 students from a large university that were engaged in recreational physical activities to complete the Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory. He also chose 71 female members of a Division I track team to complete the Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory, Achievement Goal Questionnaire for Sport, and the Sport Motivation Scale. Conroy found that all lower order fear of failure scores exhibited the same pattern of correlations with scores for self-talk while failing, achievement goals, and contextual motivation. Conroy learned that when the individuals thought they were going to fail, they reacted in a manner that resembled the original consequences they fear. The findings of this study suggest that different forms of fear of failure vary in their maladaptiveness.

Fears are generally accepted as a standard during childhood and are considered an adaptive emotional reaction to threat. Therefore, it is acceptable to assume that fear of failure is developed during an athletes childhood. Three factors have been associated with the development of children’s fear of failure, parent-child communication and interaction, family climate, and parental high expectations and demands (Sagar 2009). To learn whether young athletes’ fear of failure comes from their parents Sagar conducted interviews on three families of young elite athletes. The athletes were 13 to 14 years old and competing at national or international levels. The interviews and observations were conducted with one family at a time during a three to four week period. The results helped to better understand how the fear of failure was conveyed between parents and athletes. Sagar’s findings revealed failure was conveyed through parental punitive behavior, parental controlling behavior, and parental high expectations. The most common fears of failure reported were fears of others’ negative judgment, of not attaining aspirations, and of non-selection to future competitions. Sagar proved that parental view of failure influences the way young athletes view and interpret fear of failure.

Sagar decided to further her research and initiate a study that would explain whether educational programs could help the parent-child relationships, thereby, helping to reduce the athletes’ fear of failure. Sagar comprised two separate programs that taught parents about the fear of failure and their importance in the development of their child’s fear of failure. A questionnaire administered after the program showed that the parents reduced...
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