Tuesday Tips: 3 Tips To Overcome Fear Of Making Mistakes In Big Games

You can choose whether you are playing with fear or courage.

Photo: Paul Rutherford -- UltiPhotos.com
Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

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Many teams and athletes start their season with a big dream, like qualifying for regionals, winning nationals, or reaching the top three in a specific tournament. This helps a team to pull in the same direction and to step up in their habits of excellence.

However, as a coach and mental trainer, most of the time I found that this big goal, although at first very motivational for the athletes, felt more and more like pressure the closer we got to the big tournament. When the stakes are high, doubts, fear, and frustration start to creep in. It then becomes really hard to perform at our best.

In such critical moments, how can we feel inspired, confident, and assertive without feeling that pressure that opens the door to fear of failure? Here are three tips.

1. More Love, Less Judgment

Have you ever wondered why there are so many athletes who are afraid of making mistakes? Because at some point in their life, they judged other people or were judged for their own mistakes.

Everyone has opinions about everything, about what is right or wrong. Over time, you come to believe that passing judgment is a normal behavior. Then you start valuing more and more the opinions of others because you want them to accept and respect you.

If, as a team, we want to get rid of fear, we first need to get rid of judgment. We want to keep in mind that each member of the team is unique, that we each see life through our own perspectives and filters, and that as a result we each experience life differently.

One of the best ways to drive out the fear and the judgment is to open the door to love and acceptance. What does that mean specifically in an ultimate team? Here are two very simple tips, related to how you interact with your teammates:

  1. Focus on communication and behaviors that help your teammates. As a team, you want to eliminate negative comments, criticisms, and any unhelpful nonverbal attitude, like showing frustration or discouragement after a teammate makes a mistake. This is mental discipline. Hold yourself and your teammates accountable. Be a force of positive energy or helpful information like calling the force or communicating with the last back. When you feel frustrated, find another way to get it out of yourself – for example, breathe hard and visualize all your frustration and negative thinking go out with your breath.Also, make sure everyone on your team understands that communicating is not coaching. When you communicate on the field or from the sideline, you want to give information that helps your teammate in the present moment, not tell them something they could improve in the future – that is your coaches’ job.
  2. Focus on little successes and good behaviors. Stop focusing on mistakes; instead, pay attention and be loud about the little things your teammates do well. When the going gets tough, it is easier to see what is not working, but make the effort to figure out what your teammates do right and highlight it. Send positive energy to your teammates — they will give it back to you and you will feel even more energized and powerful.

Love and acceptance are the foundation of team unity. The more you promote these values within your team, the further you are going to go on the path of excellence.

2. Get Your Goals Right, Then Let Them Go

When you set an outcome goal, like winning a game or a championship, there are many things that you don’t have control over. As a player, you don’t control your teammates’ behaviors, your coaches’ decisions, or the performance of your opponent. These are all elements that can have an impact on your result.

When you try really hard to accomplish something you don’t feel completely empowered about, you might start to play tentative, doubt settles in, and fear of failure is only one step away.

Here are two steps to release fear of mistakes and failure:

  1. Give yourself as much control over your goals as you can during the season.
  2. On game day, let go of the need to control everything.

To overcome the fear of failure and mistakes, you must empower yourself. The first step is to let go of the outcome goal and redirect your attention on what you can control. Every practice and every game, you want to focus on specific goals that you can control, and that will most likely help you perform at your best and lead you to your big dream. Here are a few examples:

  • Positioning your body in a specific way in person-to-person defense.
  • Moving quickly and putting yourself in power position as a handler.
  • Looking at your reset earlier in the count (for example, at stall two) when on the sideline.

These are called process goals. A good coach will set process goals for your team in practices and in games. This is what you want to focus on. You can also set process goals for yourself, whether on offense and on defense, then direct your efforts and your attention towards these goals.

Once you have empowered yourself with process goals, the next step is to let go of the need to control everything, especially on game day.

When you let go of the result and the process, and you completely trust your body, your training, your reflexes, and your abilities, you give yourself the conditions to enter a state of flow. Nothing else exists but the present moment. You are no longer aware of the time, or of what has just happened, you no longer try to control what will happen in the next moment. You perceive all the details of your environment, everything is slowing down, and you know exactly what to do at every moment. Everything seems easy and effortless.

Have you ever had that feeling? If yes, what were you thinking about? Did you give yourself instructions about what to do, how to throw, where to go? Probably not. Chances are that you felt like your mind was empty and your body knew what to do without needing you thinking about it.

3. Put Your Energy in the Right Place at the Right Time

When we start to worry, we tend to become overly careful on the field. We want to avoid mistakes, and we play tense and tentative. A very good way to get out of that state is to go to the other end of the scale. Instead of being extra cautious on the field, get out of your head, stop overthinking, and play with your gut instinct. But how do we do that without increasing the risk of making mistakes?

In ultimate, there are some tasks that need a high level of stimulation and intensity. In performing these tasks, you can play very intense and connect with your instinct, without worrying too much about mistakes. Here are a few examples:

  • Covering your player on defense.
  • Being very active and dictating on your mark.
  • Cutting hard on offense.
  • Repositioning yourself quickly on defense.
  • Clearing swiftly after your cut.

To eliminate fear, you must bring out the emotion of courage in you. The hormone that stimulates courage and gives a feeling of power is testosterone. You produce testosterone when you make short and very intense efforts. So, every time you execute tasks that are explosive and intense, you feel stronger and more courageous. It can be as simple as jumping and running on the sideline before playing your next point. By doing this, you connect to your body, and you disconnect from your overactive mind that tends to imagine problems and catastrophes. When you stop thinking, you leave room for expressing your “automatic behaviors,” which is the ability to perform complex actions without conscious thought or intention.

When we feel anxious and get overwhelmed by the fear of failure on offense, we often think about our throws. But there are so many other tasks we can perform more freely and focus on! Throwing requires focus and precision and a lower level of activation, and that is why it feels so dreadful at the time. Until you get back in the zone, take the throws that are easy for you and spend energy focusing on other tasks you feel you can perform more freely.

Fear or Courage?

In terms of your mental state on the field while playing, fear is at one end of the spectrum and courage is at the other end. Which one do you choose? In big games, do you want to be a player who avoids mistakes to make sure that nobody will judge them, or are you going to choose to put your neck on the line and go for it? Can you acknowledge the courage you show on the field, every time you face your fears?

In the end, if you really want to get rid of the fear, you need to decide what counts the most for you: others’ opinions about a situation that is part of your journey they know nothing about, or taking control of your own journey and being proud of every step you take, no matter how big or small it is.

  1. Guylaine Girard
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    Guylaine Girard is the former head coach of the AUDL's Montreal Royal. She lives in Montreal and has been coaching for 25 years. You can download her free ebook for coaches, check out her blog and follow her on Instagram.

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