Coaching Tip Tuesday: Conquering the Fear of Failure

For 10 years, through prep school and college, I spent the weeks following Thanksgiving preparing for final exams. While many people in their first year out of school are relieved to have finally escaped this academic rite of passage, I am not one of them. I LOVE exams. I love staying up all night cramming for a 9 a.m. test; I love flashcards; I love running study groups; I love making midnight runs to the convenience store for coffee and Swedish Fish. But most of all, I love pressure and the ever-present fear of failing an exam. And that is why I always thrived during finals week.

coaching tip

People react to pressure in different ways. And I think very few can say they enjoy it (for this reason I am either lucky or insane). If you’re the tennis coach of a competitive player, one of your challenges is helping that student overcome mental barriers and deal with the pressure of losing. If you can teach your students how to cope with fear of failure on the tennis court, then they can learn to thrive under pressure and become a more successful player because of it.

Those who have followed my impressive journalism career will know that a few years ago I wrote a piece in my college newspaper about sports psychologist Jim Loehr’s theories on the ways athletes react to pressure. Since I’m certain approximately five people read that article, I will recycle bits from it now.

One way athletes respond to pressure is through anger. If you’re the coach of a tennis player who starts to throw their racket and shout obscenities the moment they go down a game, they are responding to the fear of failure by losing their cool.


Another way athletes handle pressure is by tanking. Tennis players who tank a match realize the possibility of losing is great and then deliberately don’t try. Tankers are afraid of trying their best and still failing.


Some athletes react to pressure by choking. In a high-pressure tennis match, chokers become so nervous that they are afraid to take any risks in order to win a point. The choker then loses as a result of wanting it too much.

A fourth group of athletes are those who respond positively to pressure and “love the battle.” Tennis players who love the battle fight back when losing and still fight when winning. These players are not afraid of failure, but rather they embrace it because they realize failure ultimately leads to future successes on the court.


Ideally, all your students will embrace pressure and love the battle. But more than likely you will have some students who fall into the other three aforementioned categories. The key to helping them become more successful players is identifying how they respond to pressure, talking about it, and then discussing ways to change their behavior. If you can do this, your student will eventually LOVE matches and thrive during the finals of any competition. (Love of flashcards and Swedish Fish not guaranteed.)



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