Avoid the Mousetrap: How Athletes Can Manage Their Fear of Failure

The first key to managing nerves is to realize that we don't need to get rid of them.

There exists a crucial difference between fear and danger.

Danger is real.

Fear is created.


There exists a crucial difference between fear and danger.

Danger is real.

Fear is created.

Because we create many of our own fears, the good news is that we can learn to manage them.

The bad news is that our brain is not good at distinguishing between these two concepts.

For example, I was recently at the Grand Canyon, standing on an overlook thousands of feet above the Colorado River. As I approached the edge, my stomach dropped. I felt nervous, as a mere stumble could've sent me to an untimely death. My brain sensed that something around me was different and potentially dangerous, so it set off my internal alarm bells. That's totally normal, and such built-in alarm systems help us stay safe.

But I also feel nervous when I'm about to speak to a large group of people. Even though public speaking is not an inherently dangerous situation, my brain recognizes that it's unusual. I usually don't have a huge crowd of people staring at me and analyzing my every word/action. My brain sounds the same alarm as if this was real, life-threatening danger. But there's obviously a big difference between public speaking and potentially falling from a cliff to your death.

With the public speaking, I created a fear of something that wasn't actually dangerous.

How does this relate to sports?

Think about why we tend to get much more nervous before a competition than we do a practice. Why? The physical dangers of the sport are often very similar in both practice and a game. But how our mind processes the two situations is quite different.

We know that there is not a serious consequence for failing in practice, but during competition, our brain recognizes that something is different. It convinces us there is a serious negative consequence to failure.

We often think of this as "fear of failure", but the failure itself is not actually what bothers us; it's the fear of what others may think about us if we fail.

The difference is that in practice, we give ourselves permission to fail. But in competition, we tend to spend a lot of mental energy on avoiding failure.

This is exhausting! We are much better athletes when we focus on what we are going to do rather than what could possibly go wrong.

Consider a mousetrap. It's only dangerous when it's set.

But if someone were to toss you a mousetrap that wasn't set, your first reaction would still probably be panic. This is because our brain instinctively assumes the worst-case scenario.

Whether the mousetrap is set or not, our brain will assume that it is set in order to protect us. Obviously, this is a helpful part of our brain in terms of survival, but it can be counterproductive for performance.

Think of sports as the mousetrap. When we compete, our lives are not really in danger, but we still experience fear because our brains struggle to differentiate fear and danger.

Granted, there are inherent risks for injury in sport, but sports are generally not life-threatening.

We frequently set our own mousetrap by repeating something to ourselves until we believe it is actually true, then we try to avoid it.

For example, a baseball player steps up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning with the game on the line. He tells himself that if he fails, everyone will think he's a choker. He's not actually in danger, but he's created fear by telling himself that other people may think something terrible about him if he fails.

He naturally wants to avoid that, so now he's playing to avoid getting out rather than make something happen.

Managing your fear of failure is about refusing to set the mousetrap.

First of all, there's not a thought anyone can think about us or a word that anyone can say about us that actually makes us less talented. Giving attention to these "what ifs" takes our attention away from "what now."

Secondly, these assumptions regarding what other people think about us are probably not true! We tell ourselves that if we make a mistake, our coach will bench us, our parents will be frustrated or our teammates won't trust us anymore.

However, just because we think it doesn't mean it is true. We must challenge those assumptions.


We've discussed how our brain constantly tells us about all the things that could go wrong. When we repeat these "what ifs" to ourselves, they become "what is", and we set our own mousetrap!

In these moments, we should direct our attention toward what we are about to do (actions). By default, we will spend less time worrying about what could go wrong.

As mentioned in the beginning, nerves arise for many reasons. Whether I'm actually in danger or I myself have created the fear, I'll usually feel nervous to some extent.

However, I also feel nervous when I'm excited.

When I was a kid playing basketball in the driveway, I'd always be counting down from 5 seconds pretending to take the final shot in the NBA finals with the game on the line!

The reason we loved playing sports as young kids was because we wanted to be in those "big" moments that we saw on TV, the moments that make even the best athletes in the world nervous!

The first key to managing nerves is to realize that we don't need to get rid of them. In fact, nerves mean we're probably doing something we love to do, so crack a smile and let those nerves give you a little extra boost.

We're human. We're never going to eliminate fear and nerves completely.

Fortunately, we can train ourselves to perform well in these situations. Here's a checklist for managing fear and nerves:

1. Take a few slow breaths. Like a snow globe that has been shaken, we tend to speed up when we get nervous. Our heart poundings and our mind races. A few slow breaths help to settle the snow globe.

2. Crack a smile. A simple smile reminds our brain that these nerves mean we're excited and want to be in this situation. Sometimes we'll be both afraid and excited, and that's OK, too.

3. Focus on action. Ask yourself, "What am I going to do right now?" This takes our attention away from the "what ifs" and "what could go wrong" and refocuses on what we can control.

Keep in mind your opponent is dealing with fear and nerves just like you!

If you can train yourself to respond more constructively in these situations, not only will you be more consistent, but it can give you a serious edge. So much of managing fear is about not allowing yourself to set the mousetrap.

The next time you feel the fear of failure creeping in, remember these three things: take a few slow breaths, crack a smile, and focus on the action you're about to take.

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