Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fear of Failure: It's not just about you.

How many times have you stopped yourself before trying a new skill? Picture this, you're at practice learning a new skill, and you have such anxiety that you keep getting in your own way.  Fear of failure is one of the most disgusting and insidious mind blocks we face as derby players.  I would personally rather take on the biggest, scariest blocker than admit that I have a fear of failure.

To make your fear of failure not be as large in your mind, you need to really examine why you're in derby.  If your fear of failure is crippling your game play, then you probably are extremely focused on what other people think about you and your skating. Some people don't come into derby with that fear, but some leagues foster it in their skaters.  In fact, if your league is a very critical one, you are definitely handicapping your players' mental game.  Read the following heartfelt explanation of fear of failure from an anonymous skater who has done a lot of thinking about stereotype threat.

The idea of stereotype threat is one that has had a huge impact on my teaching and also on how I try to help new skaters, act as a coach, and on how I understand my reactions to certain coaching situations where I feel like I am failing. Basically it says that if you perceive that someone expects you to fail, you begin to mentally monitor that, which leaves you less mental space to focus on the task, and hence leads to you failing.   (Read that sentence again. That is a huge key to why some skaters fear failure.)  The corollary is that affect matters: how you make people feel affects their ability to succeed. So I pay far more attention to how I say things, and to being positive and encouraging when I teach, saving my nicest and most encouraging for the days we are doing the hardest things.

How this related to derby is obvious, I think. If people perceive that there is the expectation that they will fail, they will be more likely to. Some folks say things like "I don't want to let me team down," but there's already a problem with that. If a team pays attention to affect, then the only way to "let them down" is to not try your best, or to give up. Trying and failing shouldn't be the same as letting your team down. I know that when I am around certain skaters and coaches, I feel threatened by them, and I am "on alert" with respect to them, and need to work extra hard to focus on the job at hand. I use this idea to work on my self-talk (because it's still my job to keep myself on task and focused), by saying things like "The only person thinking about you right now is you, you've learned much harder things, you can do this." or "Focus on the steps: what step is keeping you from getting this? Work on getting that right...."

I have a tale of woe and despair that makes most people want to go punch my elementary gym teacher in the face; I battle it every time we do something new, or someone new comes to practice, and under some other circumstances. Having a rational explanation for it, and some strategies for handling it internally helps. It's not perfect and sometimes it fails as a strategy (which usually means I go home from practice feeling like an asshole for acting like one). But it's not about fear of failure. I fail at things all the time. It's fear of being judge by others for failing. Or being accused of not trying because I am failing, and therefore meeting their expectations of me failing.

So what can we do about our fears?  First of all, look at your fear.  Is it rational?  Most fears aren't.  Are you afraid because you really think you are a terrible derby player, or are you afraid of what others might think of your skills?  I'm not Bonnie Thunders, but I have accepted that and try to work on what I'm good at.  If someone hands me the jammer panty, I may make an "UGH" face, but I'm going to go out there and do the best that I can.  I think to myself "My coach wouldn't give me this if she didn't have faith in me."  Sometimes that thought works; I'm lucky to have people in my league who support my growth as a skater and don't always criticize my abilities.  Nothing sucks the confidence out of a skater quicker than a constant listing of your faults.  

If you are a league that has a lot of anxious skaters, maybe you should start looking at your league's culture.  Are people constantly harping on mistakes?  Are they dismissive?   Do people make comments like "So and so always cuts the track, we can't have her jam" in front of other skaters?  Stop doing it!  If I were the skater who always cuts the track, I would already be in failure mode in my head.  That skater is probably just thinking about "Don't cut the track!  Don't cut the track!" and then that's exactly what she's going to do!  It's interesting.  We tend to remember failures of others and how they affected us way more than we remember the great things others do on the track.  Maybe we need to be less self focused and start being a little more supportive of our fellow teammates.  I mean, that's what being a team is all about, right?

Too bad the jammer fairy doesn't really exist, I'd have her bring everyone confidence!


  1. This is pretty much my favorite post ever!

  2. Take this post and replace every instance of "derby" with virtually anything else going on in your life and it fits.

    Great Post!

  3. I had to quit my last (and first) team, because of this. They were always negative and my self-worth shot down so far that I felt like I was back in an abusive relationship just trying to please them all the time. It definitely affected my personal life too. I'm just glad I was able to get out of there and over to a team who's helpful instead of negative.

    1. My derby wife used to say the derby was an abusive boyfriend.