By Don Greif, Ph.D.
Failure looks both ways. One view gazes towards challenge and growth: opportunities to learn, to improve, maybe win next time. The other view is towards retreat, the illusory safety where feelings--not necessarily conscious--of shame and humiliation dominate. Failure is truly Janus-headed; it foreshadows either the possibility of transformation towards greater success or a demonic spiral of accelerating failure.
Consider Rory McIlroy, the 21-year old golfing phenom from Northern Ireland, who held a four-stroke lead going into the final round of the recent Masters golf tournament. With a golden opportunity to win his first major championship he completely unraveled, suffering one of the worst final-round collapses in major championship history, losing to another rising, young star, the South African, Charl Schwartzel.
Like any athlete-or any one competing at the outer edge of their competence and talent-McIlroy must now find a way to win the big one knowing he can also fail, and knowing what that failure feels like.
Everyone who tries, fails sometime. The two-headed psychological challenge of failure is a fact of life. Whether vying to win the club championship after having lost it the year before or trying for a promotion on the job after having been passed over previously, success requires developing the resilience and the courage to risk losing again. Indeed this may be the greatest challenge facing any athlete, performer or individual who fails while striving to do his or her best.
The most damning word in sports-and life-is "choke." No one wants to be known as a choker. Many people involved with sports avoid using the word because of the stigma associated with it. Yet choking is extremely common. Often overlooked is that people who choke in high-pressure situations have accomplished something that most others have not: They have put themselves in a position to choke; they have not shied away from competing at the highest level that they can. Being afraid to choke is the reason some people never allow themselves to face high-stakes situations in the first place. For this reason alone there is no shame in choking.
On the contrary, choking can be viewed as necessary in order to learn to win. Even Tiger Woods acknowledged that he choked the first time he had the lead going into the final round of a PGA tour event. <> <> Tom Watson, too, winner of eight major championships, acknowledged he lost many times before he won his first. He told a young pro, Brandt Snedeker, who played poorly after being tied for the lead in the final round of the 2008 Masters, "To win a major, you've got to learn from the ones you lost." Watson knows that for most golfers, losing--and learning from it--is an essential step towards winning.
Don't fear failure, learn from it
Failure can be a great teacher. Psychologists have found that learning requires recognizing, analyzing and fixing one's mistakes. However, athletes who are busy saving face after a loss may miss the opportunity to examine their failure and use what they learn to improve. When it comes to failure, we might say that the only thing to fear is failing to learn from failure.
But learning from failure is not easy. Our culture of success makes it especially hard to embrace failure-an inevitable consequence of risk--as an opportunity for growth. Over thirty years ago,William Zinsser, former NY Times columnist, Yale writing teacher, and author of On Writing Well, offered an explanation for why failure is so taboo when he lamented the pervasive fear among college students of taking risks and failing, which he attributed, in large part, to their having been inculcated, from the time they were young, with one message: "Do Not Fail." Zinsser wishedcollege students had "the right to experiment, to trip and fail, to learn that defeat is as instructive as victory and is not the end of the world." "The right to fail," he wrote elsewhere, "is one of the few freedoms not granted by our Bill of Rights" (Letter From Home, NY Times, 4/28/77).
Along similar lines, Bill Bradley, former U.S. Senator and professional basketball player, wrote, "The taste of defeat has a richness of experience all its own. To me, every day is a struggle to stay in touch with life's subtleties. No one grows without failing."
In other words: Don't fail to fail, it's how you learn to succeed.
Fear of failure: When failure becomes demonic
While the fear of success is an often unrecognized and covert impediment to optimal athletic performance ("Demon Victory: When winning isn't the only thing," Psychoanalysis 3.0, Feb. 18, 2011), its better known counterpart-the fear of failure-is a much more widely recognized phenomenon, probably because it is more often consciously experienced by athletes. The fear of success is usually subterranean, not easily accessible, and unacceptable. In contrast, the fear of failure is clear as day to athletes (as several readers of "Demon Victory" noted).
Fear of failure is not the normal, expectable butterflies most athletes feel before competing-those simply indicate that one cares a lot about doing well; that how one does matters. The fear of failure is essentially a fear of performing badly and losing to one's competitors; at its worst it involves anticipating or expecting that losing or performing poorly will make one feel embarrassed, ashamed, or humiliated-and being seen by others as a loser. Most athletes (in fact, anyone who competes in any domain) know, intellectually, that losing a competition does not mean they are losers. However, if their fears of failing are powerful enough then their core emotional beliefs overwhelm everything else they know, and they will be vulnerable to feeling awful if they do not perform well.
Disappointment is a predictable, healthy reaction to loss or poor performance. However, for those athletes whose self-esteem depends on winning, losing is much harder to tolerate. When self-worth depends on winning, then losing, in effect, means that one is worth less-or in more extreme cases-worthless. Athletes who feel that their personal value is measured by their performance may equate losing with being a loser.
These athletes are afraid of failing for very good reasons; they know, at least on a visceral level, that losing will be shattering. It's one thing to be deeply disappointed about not attaining a goal and it's another thing to be personally devastated. So reassuring devastated or downtrodden athletes that it's only a game, not the end of the world, will often fall on deaf ears. So, too, may telling them that their self-worth is not at stake since that's not what they believe and feel.
A sound psychological solution—albeit a long-term one—for athletes who feel bad about themselves if they lose or underperform—and are, therefore, afraid to fail—is this: Develop other ways, beside through athletic performance, to feel good about yourself. "Diversify your self-esteem portfolio," as my wife, Dr. Elizabeth Stringer, said. Having multiple sources of self-worth provides the best protection, in the long run, against the debilitating effects of being frightened to fail. This is the reason many athletes recognize that having balance in their lives is invaluable and it's also the reason why—as athletes mature and come to feel that other things in life are at least as important as sports—they often become more grounded and focused, and perform better.
McIlroy, at twenty-one, appears unlikely to fall prey to the fear of failure. He seems mature beyond his years. Following his loss he handled his final round debacle with grace, dignity and aplomb. He did not avoid the media's scrutiny, admitted that he didn't handle the pressure well, and said he hopes his loss will build character. He may be one of the lucky ones who is already grounded at a young age; if true, this bodes well for his fulfilling his extraordinary potential. (Incidentally, the professional ranks are replete with golfers of tremendous ability who haven't come close to fulfilling their potential.)
While fear of failure can be debilitating and limiting, it doesn't always impair performance. For some very successful people, including professional athletes, the fear of failure motivates them to succeed at all costs. For them, failing is so intolerable, and succeeding so vital to their psychological well being, that they are powerfully driven to succeed. In a sense their fear of failure is more potent than their wish to excel or win. If they are talented and fortunate enough they do succeed. As long as they succeed their self-esteem remains intact. But they continue to be prone to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," i.e., the multitude of factors that they cannot control, and their self-esteem remains in danger of plummeting if and when they fail. Equally problematic is that these people often do not experience the pleasures and joys of competing, excelling, or winning; rather, they feel relieved by not losing and being humiliated. Thus, even when the fear of failure propels an athlete to succeed, it is very costly from a psychological standpoint.
Fears of failure (and success) may be common among athletes (and other performers)—not to mention the rest of humanity. Whether they fulfill their potential, and give themselves the best chance to excel and win (and enjoy their success), depends on how they respond to their fears. Fears of failure (any fears, for that matter) are best dealt with by recognizing them—not by denying they exist or warding them off. Acknowledging fears to someone trusted can be very helpful, for when fears are accessible they can be given their proper place, and athletes can then focus on preparing to perform their best. Disowned fears are much more likely to lead to self-sabotage and underperforming. When fear is warded off it may sneak in unbidden, causing excess tension and rigidity—the death knell for most athletic performance, or any attempt at excellence. The fear of failure, then, becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in which the person unconsciously brings about the result they fear most. When this happens failure—and the fear of it—become demonic.
About the author:
Don Greif, Ph.D. is a psychotherapy supervisor and faculty member at the William Alanson White Institute, Executive Editor of Contemporary Psychoanalysis (where his recent article, "Revaluing Sports," appeared), and has a private therapy and forensic practice in NYC. He has consulted with the Yale women's golf team, individual amateur athletes, and performers in the arts. He is a former college lacrosse player and avid golfer and has mastered many-but, of course, not all-of his demons.
© 2011 Don Greif, All Rights Reserved