Fearing success in sport seems illogical and unlikely, but it is more common than you might think, says professor Greg Whyte

A fear of success is similar to a fear of failure, with many of the same symptoms. It can manifest itself in a variety of ways, ranging from a feeling you somehow don’t deserve to be successful, to being afraid of success because it means others expect you to continue being successful. The latter is a more common reason for being scared of success.

In sport, people often fear successful delivery of short and medium term goals as it may increase hopes that they will deliver success in their long term goal. When this happens, pressure can mount. A fear of success can lead to self-sabotage, where you begin to procrastinate about the delivery of your goal, unable to make any decisions. This loss of focus is often supported by negative self-talk. You will eventually begin to doubt your ability and lose the motivation to continue towards your goal.

It’s not unusual for people to give up on a challenge that they are more than capable of completing because they fear the consequences. It is important to remain in the present, to focus on achieving your next goal and to project only positive images on being successful.

But how do you tackle such fears? Now for a bit of science to help you on your way. Cognitive behavioural techniques (an academic’s way of saying ‘steps to affect the way we think and behave’) are widely used to change the way a person responds to a situation. When it comes to fear of success in sport, my three techniques of choice for turning a negative into a positive are writing, visualising and talking.

PUT PEN TO PAPER

By answering a set of simple questions, you can identify the likely outcomes of success and replace the negative thoughts of what you fear might happen and positive beliefs about success.

Try this simple exercise. Write down detailed answers to the following questions:

1 Why is successfully achieving this goal important to me?

2 Do I believe I can deliver success in this goal?

3 What is the worst that can happen if I achieve this goal?

4 How will my coach, friends and family react if I achieve this goal?

5 How committed and motivated am I to do it?

6 Do I believe I deserve to deliver success in this goal?

7 What emotions and thoughts am I currently having and what actions am I doing to limit my success in delivering the goal?

From your answers, extract all the positive statements that you have written down and write them in a list. Keep this list handy and read it whenever you begin to fear success.

CLOSE YOUR EYES

Another tool to reduce your fears is to visualise success and everything that goes with it.

Try this simple exercise:

Sit down in a quiet room and close your eyes. Imagine you have successfully delivered your goal.

2 Now imagine how you feel about that achievement. Focus only on the positive feelings and keep playing them over and over in your mind until you have eliminated all negative thoughts.

3 Now think again about how achieving your goal will affect your life – again, think only of the positive effects and keep playing them over until they become the only outcome of success. As with physical training, you’ll need to train your mind by working on your visualisation skills. It doesn’t always work straight away. What’s more, your fear of success will change on a regular basis, so you will need to continue visualising success as you progress towards your goal.

TALK TO YOURSELF

You may find you regularly find yourself having an internal conversation in your mind, a discussion between the good and evil of your goal. Your good side puts a positive spin on your ability to achieve it, your evil side represents the fear or both success and failure that could prevent it. If you fail to take charge of this discussion in a rational way, it will degenerate into an internal argument, the winner of which will almost certainly be evil. Your fears will be reinforced and it will negatively impact your progress.

But you can overcome the dominance of that evil voice by changing what you say to yourself. Positive self-talk is incredibly powerful. Whenever you think negative thoughts, you should immediately respond with positive thoughts, reinforcing your defences. Every positive word you use should be carefully selected as it will lead you to a specific destination. You can create phrases to combat your fears. They should be brief, to the point and easily memorised.

Try the following:

1 Think about a good versus evil conversation you have had with yourself about training or competition recently.

2 Construct a short, positive, catchy phrase to counter the negative thoughts. Eg: “I will keep my target pace because I’ve done it in training”.

3 Close your eyes and visualise what achieving the phrase would look and feel like.

4 Now, re-engage in the conversation in your mind but this time talk to yourself using the phrase and remind yourself of how it would look and feel to achieve your goal.

Combining self-talk, visualisation and writing techniques can be a powerful weapon to destroy your fears. And the strength of these positive approaches increases with repetition. Use them and you can overcome your fears and deliver success.

» Greg Whyte is professor of applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University and author of Achieve The Impossible (£12.99, Bantam Press) See achievetheimpossible.co.uk