The Winner Effect

Exploring the neuroscience of success and failure

Success and Fear of Failure in Sport and Life

Fear of failure can prevent us winning on the cusp of success

Last Sunday the Irish rugby team came within a whisker of a historic victory over the New Zealand All Blacks. At the eightieth and final minute of the game, Ireland was five points ahead, pinning the All Blacks in their own half. 

But then, unbelievably, the All Blacks broke out and scored a try, snatching victory from the dry-mouthed jaws of defeat.

What on earth happened?  This was the question that has been bugging me all week. Why so? – Because unlike many sporting contests where the team you are supporting loses, I detected little of that more common Irish response to a narrow defeat – a sense of stoical satisfaction over a tough battle well fought, making the final result relatively unimportant.

No, instead there seemed to be a response of flatness, even mild embarrassment – a nation left uncharacteristically mute.  It was that response which got me thinking and puzzling, too – and scrabbling for my textbooks – and to the theories of the late, great Oxford psychologist, Jeffrey Gray.

Gray proposed that there are two primitive systems in the brains of animals and humans alike, one for approach and one for avoidance. Watch a young child standing at the fringe of playing strangers in a nursery to see the approach-withdrawal conflict playing out in their very body posture and facial expressions: fascination and eagerness to join the fun edging her forward, but simultaneously fear and apprehension tugging her back.  Which will finally win out?

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The approach system is focused on seeking rewards – in the child’s case, the fun of play and companionship. The avoidance system is focused on avoiding punishment – the pain of rejection for instance.

Adults too are in the grip of these competing forces: say when offered a new job with higher salary but low security,  your mind will oscillate between focusing on the ‘approach’ rewards of the high salary and excitement of the new job on the one hand, and the ‘avoidance’ punishments of possible unemployment and failure.

During the heady lunacy of the pre 2007 financial markets, financial traders and bankers seemed only to know ‘approach’ and the associated financial rewards and status: the avoidance system had a near universal shutdown, banishing any thoughts of punishment.

Because Gray’s two systems not only affect our motivation to move toward or away from a goal – they also affect our very capacity to think and remember. In full approach mode, thoughts of future rewards fill our attention, which is a very narrow aperture into our consciousness. Once filled with these mood-lifting thoughts of future goodies, the ability to even think about possible punishments – a property crash for instance – is almost eliminated.

After the crash, the avoidance system takes over and all we can think of are more punishments because these are what fill our attention. This is the psychology of the bear market where avoidant thoughts of punishment make people want to squirrel away their money and spend little.  

The Irish rugby team came out onto the field last Sunday as complete underdogs. There were no expectations of victory among their fans – the talk on the media before the game was all of “fear”. That of course, took the pressure off the team completely and they could during training unleash their brains’ approach systems unfettered by any sabotaging thoughts linked to avoidance and that greatest of punishments – fear of failure.

The great thing about the approach system is its self-fulfilling nature. Anticipating the reward of success without the sabotaging handicap of failure thoughts, lets the brain function at its optimum by clearing brain-fogging anxiety, lifting mood, and boosting aggression and motivation. These are all rather primitive ‘approach’ states of the brain, in Gray’s terms.

Then to start winning tries, ending the first half 22-7 up, further boosted this approach system which in turn further upgraded the performance because of the mental enhancement caused by winning.

So what on earth happened? Of course I can only speculate, but here is one plausible possibility: with the end in sight, kicker Jonathon Sexton missed a penalty which would have put the game beyond the reach of the All Blacks. I suspect that at that moment, the team’s focus of attention momentarily cleared, only to be filled with “avoidance-system” thoughts of failure – ‘OMG, what if we lose now….?” – and the resulting anticipated punishments.

Immediately the cleansing, bracing and performance-enhancing success-oriented approach thoughts were squeezed out of the players’ mind’s eye by the failure-fear thoughts of the avoidance system.

If success breads success, so failure breeds failure.

The four horseman of the approach system – focus on achieving goals, confidence in achieving them, high mood and low anxiety – are replaced by the limping mules of the avoidance system – focus on possible punishments, inhibition, low mood and high anxiety. 

The four horseman enhance performance while the four mules impede it.

Gray’s approach and avoidance systems are in competition with each other – too much activation of one inhibits the other, and as we saw in the financial crash, all approach and no avoidance can get us into serious trouble.

In life, a reasonable balance between approach and avoidance, perhaps tipped a bit towards the approach, is what we need to survive physically and psychologically.

But in a great sporting contest, there is little scope for such a balance. A winning team requires a winning mind

. Ireland lost last Sunday’s game more than New Zealand won it and that was because Ireland lost their winning mind in the last five minutes of the game.

And what lost them it was fear of failure. 

Ian Robertson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and the author of The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure.

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