The Elephant in the Room (Part 1)

It’s something no one likes to talk about.

Coaches don’t want the word to enter the thinking of players about to compete. And often, parents tell their children to put it out of their minds and not to worry about it.

But, it can’t be ignored or wished away. It must be dealt with.

The word is Fear.

And, if we want young athletes to get the most of a team sports experience, we need to help them manage it.

It’s an Emotion We Know Well

So, why are we uncomfortable talking to young athletes about the role of fear in playing sports?

At one time or another, we all have felt it. When we start a new job, encounter unfamiliar surroundings, or are introduced to an activity for the first time, we feel a level of uncertainty. There is an unknown in the equation. That produces anxiety.

If we feel it as adults, just think what it’s like for young athletes, who lack the life experience and emotional maturity to handle it. When you add in the insecurity that comes from being compared to their peers, is it any wonder why fear might sap their confidence?

Young people need to understand that fear of failure is natural. Being fearful doesn’t make them weak mentally. It doesn’t mean they’re “soft”. And, it isn’t a sign that they aren’t cut out to play sports.

How Parents Can Help

Fear of failure is normal. It plays an important role in learning and growing, not just as athletes, but as individuals. Instead of shying away from it, or trying to “block it out”, children and young adults need our encouragement to take it head on.

This shouldn’t be difficult. We accept someone having a fear of heights. We don’t ridicule people who are afraid of close spaces. Those are considered rational fears. So why isn’t it just as rational for a young athlete to fear the embarrassment of making a mistake in front of friends and family?

We do our kids no favors when telling them simply to ignore their fears. What we can and should do is TEACH kids strategies that will help them overcome and handle fear. The key is to encourage them to talk about their feelings, then avoid being judgmental. We should take the time to work with them and look for ways to help them practice dealing with situations they find uncomfortable. Help them explore ideas on how best to overcome their fears. Let them choose. Then support their efforts to confront their anxieties and encourage them to keep working at it.

It’s Part of the Learning Process in Sports and in Life

Fear is a state of mind. That makes it just as real as being confident, happy, or sad. It often comes from the simple notion of not wanting to make a mistake. Kids will doing anything to avoid feeling embarrassed in front of their peers, and their family. This creates a mindset in which kids are afraid to try, and therefore would rather watch a play than attempt to make a play.

Youth coaches can make a big difference by how they deal with the fear encountered by young athletes. Coaches should identify it, recognize the impact it has on players, and then put in motion a plan to address it.

Coming up in Part 2, We’ll explore ways youth coaches can help young athletes overcome the fear of failure.

Photo Credit: Kristofor & Rebekah via Flickr | Co-Written by Matt Wilson


  1. […] make them tentative and prevent them from making the most of their abilities. As we discussed in The Elephant in the Room Part 1, the biggest fear of young players is that they will make a mistake and be humiliated in front of […]

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