We tend to stick to the things we’re good at, so what do we do when things don’t go to plan?

I used to be quite good at tennis and golf. At least, that’s what I tell my husband.

Years before we met, I used to visit the local driving range with dad. We’d buy a package deal with a bucket of balls and a can of drink. Great father-daughter time.

He was so invested in my development he even bought me one of those golf gloves and inquired about private lessons.

Which is why, to my great disappointment, when we went for a hit years later and I could barely hit a ball, I took it pretty personally.

Annual mini-golf trips with my in-laws have been plagued by a fear of underperforming.

Similarly with tennis, I haven’t been able to match my success as a 14-year-old, winning the under-14s trophy in the Glenelg district comp.

As an adult I have ashamedly ‘thrown in the towel’ — intentionally missing shots and seriously considered exiting mid-game, rather than conceding to a loss at the end.

Turns out I’m not alone.

So how do we manage this fear of failure? Is it such a bad thing? And when is avoiding something the better option?

It’s worth mentioning that my husband and father are both clinical psychologists. And I still need some help.

Tennis great Jon McEnroe recently commented that Nick Kyrgios had a ‘fear of failure’ as a reason for self-sabotaging his game at Wimbledon.(Getty Images: Stringer/Anadolu Agency)

Fear of failure: friend of enemy?

Andrew Martin has spent the past 20 years researching the fear of failure at the University of New South Wales.

“Failure reflects poorly on our ability, our competence and our intelligence,” Dr. Martin says.

“Research shows that when those things are threatened, that is potentially damaging to our self-worth.

“We will go to extreme lengths, including avoidance all together, to protect our self-worth.”

Mini golf has unfortunately been a sore point in my married life. Here’s me with my very patient husband mid round.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

There’s a dispositional aspect to this fear, for example people with higher neuroticism (a disposition to experience negative affects like anger, anxiety and self consciousness) tend to have a higher fear of failure.

Environment also plays into it — the messaging we get from society that suggests our self-worth is tied to our abilities.

“Many high achievers are failure fearers,” Dr. Martin says.

“It’s always hovering over their head: failure’s just around the corner.

“Even though there can be some success… the journey’s often fraught with anxiety, self doubt, driven by a maladaptive energy.”

Avoidance

An easy way to avoid losing is of course not playing, a strategy I have employed in other sporting arenas — notably tennis. Another skill that has deteriorated since my youth.

As a psychologist to elite athletes and corporate clients, Joann Lukins knows well the human drive to succeed — and tendency to fall short.

“I think for most endeavors in life, perfectionism is pretty hard to achieve,” Dr. Lukins says.

“Rather than risk having a go and failing, [you tell yourself] ‘I just won’t do it at all’.”

Dr. Lukins says it’s commonly associated with a fixed mindset, something that often starts in childhood.

“It becomes very clear cut as to what you can and can’t do,” she says.

Self-sabotage

When we assume we can’t do something to the desired ability, our actions often follow suit.

“I’ll get in my way or kind of pre-empt my lack of success to explain it before it’s even happened,” Dr. Lukins says.

“So then we’re not surprised when we’ve got a self-fulfilling prophecy around not performing as well as we might have.”

This can involve procrastinating — putting something off until there’s no way we’ll be able to do it well.

Another version of this is what Dr. Martin calls defensive pessimism.

“This is where people lower their expectations leading up to a performance… [to] make the bar easier to jump over,” he says.

One of my career highlights, playing with the boys (years before their growth spurts).(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“They’re the people telling you: ‘I’ll just be happy with a pass’, when they’re capable of much more.”

He says there is a social cost to this fear management, especially for people who tend to say this but perform well. The people around them get sick of hearing it.

Should we stick with things we’re not great at?

So, back to mini golf. Is it worth it?

“There’s a lot of talk about setting good goals and really striving towards them, whether it’s in mini golf or pursuing a PhD,” Dr Martin says.

“And for the most part, that’s the right advice.

“But there’s another line of research that talks about goal disengagement and that is, what’s the point where it’s actually rational to cut your losses?”

The biggest smile I could muster after my first half-marathon event in April, 2021.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

In some cases I have cut my losses. After running my first half-marathon in April last year I’ve taken an indefinite break from race events.

However, disengagement with the annual mini golf would mean disengagement with precious family time. In that case, Dr. Martin suggests changing the goal.

Rather than a goal of winning, maybe I can attempt to finish each round within three strokes of par. We’ll see.

Living with your fear of failure

No matter the goal, Dr. Lukins encourages you to approach it curiously.

“Curiosity is one of the greatest attributes anyone can have when something doesn’t go well for us,” Dr. Lukins said.

“Rather than beating myself up for making a mistake, be curious about that. How did that come about? Why did that happen?”

Dr Martin iterates the importance of getting our worth from various parts of life — sport, activities, being a good friend, being honest.

“When your self-worth is spread around a broader life you tend not to engage in fear of failure strategies in any one part of life because you’re not as vulnerable in any one part of life,” Dr. Martin said.

The family’s next visit is due at Christmas, I have until then to get my golf act together.

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