Helping Your Child Overcome Their Fear Of Failure

"Don't fear failure. Fear being in the exact same place next year as you are today."

- Anonymous

Building confidence and overcome a fear of failure in youth sports.

Tip 1 of 6 to help parents and coaches help their young athlete overcome a fear of failure.

From a concerned parent: “My 10yr old boy cries when he makes a mistake. It’s to the point that when he makes a mistake, he instantly meltdowns during a game.”

It either takes a lot of attention by the coaches to get him to play again, or they just let him sit the rest of the game and ignore it till he’s ready. No one knows how to really respond in these situations, nor does anyone know why it’s happening.

Where is this pressure coming from?

These moments are build ups. Lots of little things have lead up to these meltdowns. As a result, it is now the habitual reaction to mistakes.

Tip 1: Ways to build confidence vs fear response.

Take some time to identify how you as a parent and/or coach react both verbally and non-verbally to mistakes made by athletes.

What are you saying, doing, and expecting?

The knee jerk reaction as a parent or coach is to say, “It’s not a big deal, let it go,” “Do better next time,” “Try not to do that again,” “You are better than that,” “Crap, you just lost the game for us,” or “It’s just a game, don’t worry about it.” These are examples of either just stating the obvious or making broad stroke statements that get your child focused on the outcome and success related to winning rather than the process.

Be aware of your, thoughts, and verbal and nonverbal cues. And recognize how your athletes respond. As parents and coaches, change your thoughts and cues to change your athlete’s reaction.

"A person who never made a mistake has never tried anything new."

- Albert Einstein

Tip 2 of 6 to help parents and coaches help their youth athlete overcome a fear of failure.

Take the fear out of failure. Knee jerk reactions are what create this fear of failure response.

First, kids want to please and know that they are doing things the right way. As a result, they need positive affirmations from coaches and parents.

Secondly, kids want to know that they are improving and need that validation as well. So remember to provide feedback when they do something right.

Parents and coaches, you are their role models, so validate their progress and celebrate small successes.

Third, identify what type of mistakes are being made, like being unfocused or from taking a risk (reward vs failure). It’s easier to create solutions when you can identify the type of mistakes that are being made.

Lastly, teach your athlete to take ownership by using “I” statements rather than allowing them to blame others. I can make improvements if I can own my mistakes.

"There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure."

- Paulo Coelho

Tip 3: I can vs I can’t

I can’t....tends to be the reasoning for not trying something different or something new. Kids are expecting instant gratification and if they can’t get it, they won’t try.

First, identify the barriers. As parents and coaches, eliminate I can’t by focusing on I can. When you hear them say “I can’t!” Respond with, let’s figure out how you can!

Second, create solutions and steps your athlete can take. Instead of just saying, do it this way, break it down into smaller effort based steps. For example, a lacrosse coach teaches his 10 year old team to shoot on a goal by first getting them to a certain spot on the field to set up their approach. Then he teaches them the footwork and dodge to get a step on their defender. Last, he has them practice the proper shooting technique and where to target their shots.

Third, depending on how advanced the player is, the coach should reinforce the steps in that process where the athlete needs to practice and adjust.

Lastly, point out the obvious. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and may take a lot of thought and effort, but remind your athletes that repetition will make it feel comfortable and in time they won’t have to think about doing it.

"But effort? Nobody can judge that because effort is between you and you!"

- Ray Lewis

Tip 4: The Process.

a. Point out and praise effort, not the outcome. If an athlete is going to embrace an “I can” mindset, you (parents, coaches, and teammates) need to notice and praise their effort. For example, if you only cheer when an athlete scores a goal or wins a race, you are reinforcing success related to outcomes. Kids can start to equate outcome based praise to validation of love and support from parents and coaches.

b. Gratification is found when you praise the process not the outcome. As coaches and parents celebrate the baby steps (the process). The instant gratification that kids want is found in the baby steps, the attempts and their effort are the payoff. It’s the small attempts and effort that kids can see as daily examples of progress and improvement.

In the end, reinforcing small steps / small progress allows your athlete/child to make mistakes, to problem solve, use their imagination to visualize success, and to have the patience to work to improve.

"Everything you want is on the other side of fear."

- Jack Canfield

Tip 5: Celebrating Past Successes

Athletes can use past success as a point of reference to build confidence, create a positive mindset, and to stay focused in the moment.

1. Past success can be used as a guide for building muscle memory. Draw from the techniques and strategies that were successful in past practices and competitions.

2. Self talk scripts and cues. Athletes create cues like, “(basketball) Just focus on one shot at a time,” “My (tennis) serve is solid, hit it down the line,” and “(fencer) Active feet, stay aggressive.” Self talk cues like these help athletes focus on things that are controllable and helpful in the moment.

3. Past success shouldn’t be used to predict future outcomes. Just because you won in the past doesn’t mean you will or should win in the future.

"Fear is only as deep as the mind allows."

- Japanese Proverb

Tip 6: Building Success and Confidence

To build on success and confidence, we have to do it one day at a time. After competition and practice, create a habit to reflect on performance.

High, Low, Cheer: Julie Foudy uses this with her family to reflect on the day.

High: identify something you did well.

Low: talk about something that didn’t go the way you planned or a low point in the day. Also, create a solution or how to do it better next time.

Cheer: cheer or praise someone who did something nice or highlight a cool moment that happened during the day.

High, Low, Cheer can be a great way for your athlete to reflect on performance as well.


Reflection helps us to:

a. Learn from mistakes and it gives us ideas on how to improve.

b. Be humble because we are able to draw inspiration from others.

c. Be happy because we highlight things that we are proud of, improved on, and/or did well.

d. Communicate and share our thoughts and feelings with others.

e. Gain perspective. Daily reflection allows us to define each day and let it go, rather than allowing it to build up and meltdown.

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