A kid asked me this before their first competitive cross country race recently. It was a specific question relating to that particular race but it got me thinking about how a fear of failure starts in childhood and for some people that can persist into adulthood and hold them back. I don’t mean hold them back from success in objective terms but hold them back from adventure, new experiences and growth opportunities.
This kid was smart because actually envisaging the worst case scenario and talking it through with a caring adult can help to overcome the anxiety around performance. I told them that Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players to have lived, was trusted to take a game winning shot 26 times and missed. We have to fail in order to succeed but there is often a pressure to only show or reveal our best side.
It is why I think it’s great for kids to compete in sport. Some will go on to be talented and successful at it and some won’t compete again usually because they discover talents and passions in other areas of life. Sport isn’t everything. But these moments do live with children, the nerves and overcoming them, handling disappointment if they didn’t perform as well as they wanted.
It lives with them and it makes them more able to step out of their comfort zone as adults in all areas of life, not just sport. Is fear of failure holding you back from trying a fitness class or something new? Ask yourself the same question as this kid. What if I come last? It metaphorically can apply to any situation because it basically means what if I fail. Coming last of course isn’t necessarily a failure, it depends on the context. A kid competing in their first race has an important element of success whatever their position. So apply the worst case scenario to your desired goal and ask yourself if failing is actually failing and if it is, remind yourself that no one reached their potential without making mistakes or handling disappointment.
It is also important to encourage kids without putting too much pressure on them at a young age. They need to feel they are worthy despite mistakes and whatever their performance is like. Conditional pressure can put them off sport for life and their first experience of competitive sport should be fun.
So the child lined up despite their nerves. The start horn blasts and the kids charge with that wonderful abandonment that comes with the lack of awareness of pacing. Some perform better than they expected, others perhaps wanted to place higher. All of them finished the race and they encourage each other and comfort each other on the finish line. There is a wonderful air of relief on the bus home, satisfied and tired faces, a collective sense of accomplishment.
I feel hopeful that they will grow into adults with a sense of adventure and a willingness to fail in order to live life to the full.