How Athletes Can Take Risks That Pay Off
Good risks are required for athletic success.
Posted June 22, 2016
In part one of my two-part series on risk taking (the good kind) in sports, I looked at what risks are for athletes, the upsides and downsides of taking risks, and how risk taking should be a choice that athletes incorporate not only in their sports lives, but also in their broader lives as well. This article will consider what prevents athletes from taking risks and how they can make a plan to increase their risk taking.
No Time Like the Present to Take Risks
It never feels like the right time to take risks because, well, there are risks to taking risks. First, when you start taking risks as you learn to push your limits, those risks won’t be rewarded right away. In other words, you’ll likely make mistakes and experience failure more than usual because you’re playing at a level that you are not accustomed to.
Risk taking is, in a sense, a skill that take time, commitment, and persistence to develop. Just like any skill, however, when you first start taking risks in your sport, your mind and body aren’t going to be used to it, so your performances may take a step or two backwards in your practices and competitions. Because you haven’t ingrained the skills fully, it won’t immediately translate into improved performance.
This inconsistency happened to a world-class athlete I’ve been working with. In the first competitions of the season, he had some periods of great performance, but also made mistakes that cost him. But after about a half dozen events, his risk taking stared to click and he has had some a series of outstanding performance in big competitions.
Second, because you will struggle at first, your confidence may also suffer and you may question whether risk taking is the right path to be on. You might say to yourself, “Gosh, my past, safer approach worked pretty well, certainly much better than the way this is going, so maybe I should just stick with what has worked.”
But what may have worked in the past and gotten you to where you currently are won’t work in the future or get you where you want to go. As an old Texas saying goes, “If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you’ve ever got.” Your efforts shouldn’t be devoted to where you are now, but where you want to be next month, next year, or in five years in your sports. You need to prepare yourself for performing at the next level. And performing safe just won’t cut it.
In an ideal world, the off-season is the best time to start taking risks because you have no concern about results and you have the time to practice the skill of risk taking. But I would argue that there is no time like the present to start taking risks, regardless of the time of year. If you’re going to make a real commitment to risk taking to get your performances to the next level, you might as well start now because the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll reap the benefits.
Threat vs. Challenge with Risk
The real risk of taking risks is that you might fail. And if you are overly focused on the costs of risk taking, usually driven by fear of failure or feeling pressure to get results, the chances are that you will shift into ‘threat’ mode in which your survival instinct is triggered and you’re driven to protect yourself from that threat. As a result, you become risk averse (because risk is a threat to your athletic survival) and you’re not likely to take the risks necessary to perform your best.
You want to see risk taking as a challenge to pursue, not a threat to avoid. With this challenge response, you will be energized, committed, confident, and focused, all of which will help you make those risks pay off in great competitive performances.
Every time you compete, you are, without realizing it, doing a risk/reward analysis in which you weigh the benefits and costs of taking a risk, whether, for example, going for an ace in tennis, hitting over a water hazard in golf, or throwing long in football.
You, of course, don’t want to take risks every time; there is a place for risk and a place to perform a bit more judiciously. You have to decide your chances of succeeding when you take a risk and whether the risk will be rewarded.
You don’t want to just, all of a sudden, decide to take more risks in competition. Like making a technical or tactical change without careful thought and planning, that approach will certainly set you up for failure. Instead, you want to create a risk-taking plan in collaboration with your coaches to ensure that taking risks at this point makes sense (for example, you wouldn’t want to make this change before an important event) and that they feel you are ready to move to the next level in your sport. The fact is that you can’t use risk taking to your advantage unless you have a solid foundation of technique and tactics that prepares you to succeed when you add risk into the equation.
First, talk to your coaches about your desire to start taking more risks to perform better. Figure out with them how to incorporate risk taking into your current progression and training schedule. For example, you might decide to focus on technique or tactics early in your practice sessions and then shift focus to taking risks later in your practice sessions.
Second, remind yourself of the long-term benefits of risk taking so you enter your practices with a positive attitude and a willingness to persist in the face of initial failure. This attitude will help you stay confident and committed as you get accustomed to taking risks.
Third, acknowledge and accept that the risks you take may not pay off every time and that you may experience more mistakes and failures that before. You can even see the mistakes as positive experiences because they are evidence that you are, in fact, taking more risks.
Fourth, in the parts of your practice sessions in which you decide to take risks, make a conscious commitment to focus exclusively on pushing your limits and performing on the edge. When begin a drill, exercise, or practice performance, taking risks should be your only focus and taking risks should be your goal and measure of success.
Fifth, make sure you’re totally prepared, physically and mentally, to take risks. This high state of readiness will increase the chances that your risks will pay off.
Sixth, take a leap of faith. Trust your plan for taking risks. Be consistent and persistent in your efforts to take your athletic performances to the next level by taking more risks. And be patient, knowing that it will take some time for your body, mind, technique, and tactics to get accustomed to a new level of performance.
Finally, you may think that taking risks is, well, risky for your sport. But the reality is that not taking risks is far more risky because performing safe will not get you where you want to go. If you take risks, you will certainly have some setbacks in the short run, but, in the long run, you give yourself a lot better chance of performing your best and achieving your sports goals. So, when you look at it that way, taking risks in your sport isn’t really risky at all!
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