The fear of failure—and the shame, embarrassment and ridicule that accompanies it—is a major hindrance of fluid, athletic motion and good performance on the field. It’s common wisdom that positive visualization and self-talk will enhance an athlete’s mindset, boosting confidence and outcomes on the field. Though this wisdom is tried, true and effective, it may not address a core problem that plagues ballplayers at all level: fear of failure.
The Fear of Failure Will Crush a Ballplayer…If He Lets It
Today was the day—you filled out the recruiting questionnaires, attended the showcases, filmed the videos and emailed the coaches. And today, the recruiting coordinator is in the stands with his radar gun fixed squarely on you.
You’re nervous, your coach is nervous, your Mom, Dad, Grandma and dog are all nervous. It’s the biggest day of your young life. How do you separate yourself from the crushing disappointment you’ll feel if you, well, choke?
As a former pitcher myself, I can tell you for a fact that the thought will run through your head. You’ll be out there on the mound knowing full well:
If I pitch well today, I may get my chance. If I don’t pitch well, I may never get another.
Coaches and athletes alike know that when you try harder…things only get worse.
The Best Players Don’t Give a Darn
In the sports world, a revered trait among athletes is to be perceived to not give a darn. Though I’m using the PG version of this sentiment, it rings true—the best athletes rise to the occasion and succeed under pressure because they’re either not afraid to fail, or are completely detached from the idea of failing. Either way, the best players pitch, hit and play like nothing is on the line…even when everything is on the line.
Positivity and confidence-boosting techniques definitely deserve a place at the table, but they may not remove the fear of failure in the same way as the technique outlined by Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the famous 18th century book Hagakure.
Why Samurai Regularly Visualized Their Own Death
Hagakure, compiled by author Yamamoto Tsunetomo, is a guide in Bushido, the code of the Samurai warrior. Samurai lived and died by the sword, and as such were subject to intense physical and mental training. Too many American athletes neglect mental training altogether, but they can learn countless lessons from the Samurai code. This passage from Hagakure is especially important:
“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead”
Why Is It Good to Meditate on Such Awful Things?
The goal, Tsunetomo explains, is to have experienced death so many times in one’s own head that he becomes immune to it, detached to it, and unconcerned by it.
When a Samurai had imagined his own death enough, he entered battle with a sense that he was already dead. How could he be afraid of his opponent’s sword if he was already dead?
The goal was to obtain a clear mind that allowed the warrior to simply react without fear and thoughts slowing down his sword.
Athletes of all sports report entering the zone, which is this same state of thoughtless action in which they play at their full potential without being slowed down by an anxious, cluttered mind.
How Does The Samurai Code Apply to The Ballplayer?
Baseball is clearly not life or death.
However, time spent visualizing the outcomes an athlete fears and struggles with can have a clear, tangible benefit. If a player only spends his mental training reinforcing confidence and positivity, what is he to do when he finds himself on the brink of failure, or when he has failed?
Experience always helps—things are less scary when we’ve been there or done them before. For pitchers who get nervous and fearful with runners on base (a common affliction), visualizing himself giving up those runners and watching those runs score—all the while in the safe, calm, no-consequence environment of his own head—can help him realize that it’s not the end of the world. Failure is a huge part of every sport.
The best athletes learn to shrug their shoulders in defeat, call it a fluke and turn the page. But when athletes take it too hard, get too anxious, and dwell on it too much…they struggle to make in-game adjustments or move on mentally to the next game.
How to Do This
Athletes, if you’re mature enough to have read this far, you’re capable of doing this yourself: sit down, close your eyes, get comfortable and imagine yourself in a pressure situation. Then, imagine it all going wrong. Do it over and over, then open your eyes 5, 10 or 20 minutes later.
You’re okay, right? You’re still you. Remind yourself this—the goal is to detach yourself from negative consequences and know for a fact that no matter the outcome, you’ll play another day.
And for parents and coaches, sit down with your athlete(s). Explain to him or her the drill and close your eyes together. Then, when you come to, have a discussion. Explain how negative outcomes will always be there and that we shouldn’t be afraid of them. When we face our fears, we realize that they hold only as much power as we allow them to. And, we give ourselves the best chance to succeed.
For The Samurai, They Played For Keeps
For the Samurai warrior, combat was not a game—it was life or death. If a Samurai was afraid of being killed in combat, his swordplay would suffer and he would almost certainly be killed—it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Mental training is sacrosanct in martial arts, because they know that a fluid, uncluttered mind yields the best performance; the body can react and do what it knows how to do. For this reason, meditation, visualization and mental training is just as vital as physical training.
Modern athletes can use this technique—meditating and visualizing negative consequences—as part of their mental training. It is not necessarily the right practice for everyone, but as athletes and coaches look for an edge in performance, they should give it a try and see how it fits into their mental skills routine.
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