While teaching physical education as a substitute yesterday, I received a request from a teacher to let me know how the class behaved during gym. “They didn’t behave for the sub earlier this week,” she related.
I’ve taught thousands of kids over the years. The process hasn’t changed that much from one generation to the next. Treat them like real people and they generally respond well.
They had fun playing a game in which a court was set up on the grass and the goal was to throw tightly wound yard balls into a square of cones on the other team’s court. It was mildly competitive and largely harmless. They got to scream a lot and work off energy, and we headed back inside.
Walking back toward the entrance, I turned to one of the kids walking next to me and said, “You know, I’d give you guys and “A” for being good in PE today.”
“Oh, no…” the fifth-grader replied. “How about just a B. An A is too much!”
“What?” I responded. “Too high a standard to match next time?”
“Yes,” he laughed. “We don’t want that much pressure.”
That conversation made me chuckle all morning. I shared it with the teacher and she just rolled her eyes.
It got me thinking about times in my life when we don’t want face the pressure of a given situation. It is easy to be intimidated by expectations once you’ve run a good workout in practice. Now do you have to run that much faster all the time?
Or when we set a PR in our event, do we have to compete even better the next time?
It’s natural to experience fear, consternation or dread at the idea of having to go harder, faster or longer in endurance events. That deep-down feeling that it might hurt a bit keeps the confidence at bay.
So how do we deal with fear of success?
The most effective method I’ve found is to gather elements of confidence rather than trying to shoulder the whole boulder of expected or prior success. Fear of success is actually ‘fear of change.’ That’s what that fifth-grader was trying to convey. It was much easier to misbehave, he seemed to reason, than it is to abide by the rules all the time.
He was smart enough to ask for leeway in the “better behavior” department. Most of us like some flexibility in our lives, including not having to try our hardest all the time.
Yet there are times when looking for slack amounts to avoiding responsibility for our efforts. That’s when excuses enter the picture, or we self-sabotage to crawl back into our comfort or “safe” zone where the pressures aren’t so great.
Olympic Bronze medalist Rick Wolhuter once replied when asked how he handled competitive expectations, “Pressure is self-inflicted.” In other words, the drama in our head is what keeps us from achieving at the highest possible level. The ability to turn off or defer negative thought to replace them with constructive thinking, such as focusing on associative feedback, is one way to take the pressure off and concentrate on doing your best in the moment. Some folks like to concentrate on empiric data such as watts, cadence, heart rate, or pace.
Others find it best to find ways to relax and allow the mind and body to do their best work “in the moment” and respond reflexively to challenges along the way. Relaxation is key to mind and body working together. I once ran a great race after indulging in an hour of reading a book that I loved.
Having competed for nearly fifty years in endurance sports, having begun my running career at the age of twelve, I am familiar with the full spectrum of “fear” that athletes tend to experience. If Fear of Failure is at one end of the spectrum, and Fear of Success at the other, how do we actually know which is which?
I believe the answer is somewhat simpler than one might imagine. To quote President Franklin Roosevelt, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” But fears sometimes bubble up from strange places.
Most of all it’s about trepidation: that feeling of concern or agitation about something that may happen.
The key to dealing with fear of success or failure is to assess the source of those fears. Are they tangible and material, such as lack of training or mistakes in diet? Or are they intangible, such as how you FEEL about your current situation? And where do those feelings come from…?
That fifth grade boy was pretty smart in realizing that being given a higher grade meant being held to more challenging standard going forward. He was being kind in considering its effects on fellow classmates. He was also admitting out loud that new expectations weren’t all that welcome. Why? Because it seemed easier to have flexibility to misbehave than to live up to a perceived new standard.
In truth, he didn’t calculate an important factor in his decision to downgrade his class’ performance. What if the new standard actually made life easier? More exciting? What if getting an A for good behavior by the class meant more liberties, opportunities? Longer recess?
The fear of success is actually the limiting factor in all our objectives. We don’t know how good we can have it until we really try.
Fear is nothing more than a desire to escape responsibility. That’s why we consider people who are courageous to be heroes. They accepted the responsibility of the moment, or in a lifetime. It is also likely that some of the greatest heroes in the world will never be known. They accept their responsibility and move on, not wishing to discuss or celebrate either their accomplishments or their own character. In that light, some of the greatest heroes in this world are people who deal with challenges they never care to admit. Mental health issues such as depression or anxiety make life that much harder for many people. They work hard just to face what would be a normal day. Fear of existence is just as hard as dealing with fear of success or failure. We’re all dealing with trepidation in one way or another.
Tredipation actually wants nothing from you, and you don’t owe it anything. It may be the nearest thing to our minds, yet it is the farthest thing from our hearts.
The cure is do do something you love, the best as you can, and leave trepidation behind.