Which voice do you listen to?

I felt like I had to be perfect to justify my draft status. I became my own worst enemy. I constantly stressed for others’ approval and worried about what they were thinking. I felt like I couldn’t even make the smallest of mistakes, and then when I did make a mistake, I agonized over it; this became a paralyzing cycle. I became cautious. I was tentative. My entire mindset became, ‘Don’t screw up’. Literally, I would tell myself, ‘Don’t screw up.'” – NFL QB Alex Smith

I’ve written about, or at least referenced, my fear of failure in many posts. If fact, I just looked it up and it’s come up almost ten times…wow. Not surprisingly, the subject comes up a number of times in Mind Gym. In fact, the author (Gary Mack) says that “The fear of failure, more than any single thing, keeps people in sports, and in all avenues of life, from realizing their full potential. Fear of failure prevents more of us from succeeding than any opponent.”

Later, Mack puts into perspective how fear of failure is a learned response, rather than innate: “If, as babies, we had a fear of failure – if we believed that failure is terrible – we might never learn to walk.” (Mind Gym – p112)

This simple statement stood out to me, both because it’s completely true (this fear is learned) and because of the vivid image it conjures. Babies fall all over the place, they pick up bruises, they break bones…and they just keep on trucking…but at some point as we grow up, many of us learn that failure is terrible or unacceptable, even when the consequences are trivial.

If you have a fear of failure, then you’re not alone. Even some of the world’s most successful athletes are fighting to overcome their fears.

While reading Mind Gym, I was reminded of a story told by Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith as part of his commencement address at the University of Utah (I read about it on MMQB):

From 2005 through 2010, Alex Smith had 19 career wins against 31 losses. From 2011 through 2013 he's posted a record of 30-9-1. [pic from Wikipedia]

From 2005 through 2010, Alex Smith had 19 career wins against 31 losses. From 2011 through 2013 he’s posted a record of 30-9-1. [pic from Wikipedia]

“When I graduated from Utah, I was headed into the biggest job interview of my life, the NFL draft. As you can imagine, I wanted so badly to impress; I wanted to be perfect. I tried to be the perfect draft prospect. In my meetings with the coaches and the executives, I tried to be the perfect interview. At the combine and at my workouts, I tried to be the perfect player. I tried to promote my strengths and conceal my weaknesses and on paper. I kind of succeeded; I was the first pick in the draft. And with that I inherited this big shiny trophy that I carried around, and it had one word engraved on it: ‘anxiety.’ You see, the problem was, and this is the point, I felt like I had to be perfect to justify my draft status. I became my own worst enemy. I constantly stressed for others’ approval and worried about what they were thinking. I felt like I couldn’t even make the smallest of mistakes, and then when I did make a mistake, I agonized over it; this became a paralyzing cycle. I became cautious. I was tentative. My entire mindset became, ‘Don’t screw up’. Literally, I would tell myself, ‘Don’t screw up. Don’t throw an incompletion. Don’t throw an interception. Don’t fumble. Don’t drop the snap. Don’t line up under the guard.’ That’s what I’d tell myself. I was young, and I let my insecurities and own self-doubt get the best of me. I worried about others’ approval, and the result was, I was stressed, I was exhausted and I was full of anxiety. And most importantly, I was completely unproductive.”

Have you ever felt that way: focusing on what not to do and paralyzed by fear? It’s a terrible feeling, but there is a way out.  On p115, Mack says that, “Every athlete hears two competing voices. One is a negative critic, and the other is a positive coach. Which voice we listen to is a matter of choice.”

“Every athlete hears two competing voices. One is a negative critic, and the other is a positive coach. Which voice we listen to is a matter of choice.” (Mind Gym – p115)

That’s right – as trivial as it sounds, we have the power to choose, and this realization can be very empowering.

I actually sent this quote to a friend the other day. He’s working very hard to achieve some fitness goals, and he grapples with these competing voices. One says that his activities and choices are correct, and that his progress has been substantial (it has!) and that he should be proud; the other laments any tiny slip-up and says that even this substantial progress isn’t good enough.

Sometimes it can be very hard to tune out the negative voice, especially if it’s been reinforced either by ourselves or by others. But let’s all do ourselves a favour and tell that voice to keep quiet.

Besides, failure is just a necessary part of growth; as we learned in Bounce, “The paradox of excellence is that it is built upon the foundations of necessary failure.” So if you fail at something, then you’re on the track to growth.

“The paradox of excellence is that it is built upon the foundations of necessary failure.” – Matthew Syed, in Bounce

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Posted in Books, Everything, Sports
2 comments on “Which voice do you listen to?

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