Fear of failure syndrome is a psychological phenomena that inhibits a person from being involved in any challenge where a result can be achieved.
Fear of failure syndrome can affect people from any age and who are involved in any task, from competition sports to college exams and everything in between.
The cause of FOFS can be found rooted in child hood development. From a sporting perspective children can be made feel that they won't be socially accepted unless they win medals, especially if they have friends on the team that have won medals.
In some cases parents who create stress and cause pressurised environments around children in sport can also be responsible for creating FOFS in their own child. How many times have you seen a parent barking orders at a child involved in a sports competition? And if that child doesn't win or place, how many parents criticise and tell them what they did wrong? There are plenty. A child in this situation now relates being scolded and criticised to being involved in competition. Inevitably turning what should be a fun endeavour into a task that could result in them feeling like they've let the parent down, which results in a spiralling psychological breakdown where the child equates performance to family acceptance. They inevitably quit sport. Fact.
The problem with FOFS, if it's not already obvious, is that it can and will plague a child through their teens and haunt them well into adulthood. So much so that tasks such as interviews, exams and other sporting events are avoided or results are diminished due to the hard wiring of their thought processes carried out when they were children back when this fear was established.
When I was in school in 1993, junior cert year, there was a girl who had her arm purposely broken so she could not sit her exams. Her excuse was her parents would "kill her" if she under performed. Of course the school got wind of the arm break incident and councillors and child psychologists became involved. She had to sit the exams anyway. This is a very cruel example of the lengths a human being will go to avoid being challenged or tested, simply based on a result that will either have them accepted or not.
I've come across many many manifestations of FOFS. I had a mental blockage myself over the years of 2005 and 2006/7 when I became an instructor. Now I felt my performance on the mat would determine whether I was a good instructor or not. I fought in Bulgaria in 2007 and had to ask people who travelled with me to wait outside the arena, in case I lost. I made it into the final which was broadcast on Bulgarian television. FOFS had me by the neck. It wasn't until I became involved with coaching at a higher level and had 8 one on one sessions with a sports psychologist that I began to learn about this phenomena and the damage it can do. Only by understanding it could I move to deal with it. Becoming involved in White Water kayaking and going on the be an instructor in this sport was when I really began to understand the phenomena a whole pile more.
Coaching juniors in the combat sports can really open your eyes to how FOFS can get in their way of what should be enjoyment. I've seen it first hand, it mostly manifests itself in the form of feigning injury or sickness. At the European Championships in 2008 I had to deal with a fighter who didn't want to fight because of a sore toe. In 2011 a fighter broke down and cried their eyes out. In both cases neither person was concerned about their well being, they weren't concerned about being hurt in the ring, they were concerned about their result. FOFS loomed over them like a black cloud. In both cases in my opinion, it was more about peer acceptance and the need to be seen to perform so they could fit in with the team and the team's results. Sounds silly doesn't it? But it's completely paralysing.
Social media has also weighed into this problem with its two feet. Now I'm seeing junior athletes, only new to the fight scene with a handful of international outings creating athlete "like" pages on facebook. Youth culture in the 21st century equates the amount of likes they get on a picture or a post to actual acceptance and friendship. To many, including adults, there is no differentiation between real friendship in human terms and the sight of a little blue thumb on a facebook post.
These like pages can be problematic. The junior athlete will put up their statuses about their fight preparation. About how their training is going, early morning sessions, gym visits and healthy eating habits etc. This attracts well wishes and slaps on the back from all their "friends" both real and virtual. Before long they have created an online reputation of being a skilled and dedicated athlete. Problem is, it's just an online reputation. The athlete wins at some small local tournaments, 14 gold medals strung around their neck, facebook goes wild. The reputation grows. But now they face the real challenge of international competition. All the likes and friends remind them they're going for gold, all out victory is at hand, the crowd await the arrival of the emperor who has told the crowd about how cool they're going to look.
On the mat they face an athlete who has no page, probably no facebook. They've trained in silence. Our online hero receives a defeat. How hard that must be to have to report that back to the virtual fan base. Some don't report back, many will claim they were "absolutely robbed", others might claim to be injured or sick. The excuses will be many. But all of the excuses are not needed.
Junior athletes no matter what the sport need to have a healthy approach to competition. One that allows them the opportunity to enjoy participating above having to perform for medals or results. A competition day needs to be a day out with friends, having a healthy competitive edge where they want to feel like they've performed their best, even if they didn't. The psychological advantages to this approach will manifest 100 fold as they develop as young adult athletes and into adult hood in society.
As coaches and parents there many ways to help FOFS stay at bay.
Here are some tips:
1. Unconditional positive regard no matter what the result. A person's sporting performances does not define them as a person.
2. Parents - Remember it's them in the ring performing, not you. You're not competing for your own reasons.
3. Allow coaches to do their jobs. Win or lose a good coach will always find the positives and create an atmosphere of achievement. Just because you watch UFC and trained for 6 months as a child doesn't qualify you to know more than the pros.
4. Always, always, always encourage participation in competition and never focus on the result - "You should go and enjoy yourself! You'll feel great afterwards whether you win or lose!" - needs to be the language used.
5. Avoid unnecessary parent coaching. Chances are the child knows more about the sport than you do.
6. Make big the effort the child has made in competing, make sure that the effort made is not overshadowed by the lack of a medal and vice versa, never make a bigger deal when a medal is won you don't want to set that bar for every competition.
For anyone that has competed with me in the corner, they'll know what my last words are to them before they step on the mats "enjoy yourself".
In 2012, Brendan faced a tough Russian in the semi final of the WAKO junior world championships. There was thousands in the arena. We were centre ring, the lights were beating down on us. He did his usual routine when he stands into the ring, he looked nervous but focused. I stopped him in his tracks and said "hey look around, breath in that atmosphere, soak up that energy. You're in the semi final of the WAKO worlds baby you've nothing to prove to anyone, it doesn't get bigger than this. This IS Olympic level kickboxing, you have to enjoy it, just like I am".
He smiled, he slapped my hand with his glove and he went to work like he always does and made the final.We enjoyed ourselves.