Conservative sports professionals who live in the past still believe that fear is a harmful thing that has no place in professional sport. Athletes should compete without emotions, yet fuelled by adrenaline, and of course, they should bring the best out of themselves. With this approach, athletes are forced to withhold their fears, until they will rear their ugly heads in competitive situations, causing significant fright to the unprepared athletes.
Better safe than sorry
Even though we know this saying well and are familiar with how much it is true in everyday life, adapting it to professional sports is still a major challenge. Some clubs, national teams, and individual athletes generate unfathomable situations in very important competitions. Everybody knows the sensation when they cannot wait to see their favourite athlete compete in the finals or their favourite team on the cusp to success. I think we know the feeling when everything is going the way we wanted it to, so we are roaring from the stands or screaming at home in front of the TV because our team is rapidly moving towards greatness. Everything is just how we planned it—a nice afternoon that our favourite athletes will brighten. We deify them and talk about them as if they were gods, while we also feel that we are successful because they are “our sons and daughters”, as we cheer them on. And then, everything collapses suddenly. A series of unexpected events comes, and our dream is about to shatter into a million pieces. That performance that worked so perfectly on the field: there is no sign of it. They cannot fight, and we are about to lose. Our favourite athlete is just standing there, frozen, unable to change anything, and the opponent overcomes them. Slowly, all the hope is gone, and we start to feel sorry for the athlete (or swear at them, depending on our temper). When we have a look at the coaches and the professional staff, who are also frozen, it is obvious that they feel that there is no way out of that situation. We lost. Who likes to be a loser, especially after getting so close to victory? Nobody. Sometimes this frozen state lasts for a few minutes, and hope emerges again, but in most cases, our dreams are forever dashed, and the whole situation leaves us confused.
Fear and fright
If we know that somebody is planning to scare us by jumping out of the closet, they will not succeed because we saw them, and we know exactly when and how the “scary” event will play out. We know because we see it in advance and our brain has learned to handle the situation. No matter how clever the “scarer” was in their planning, their plan did not work. There are much scarier things than such a “boo!” moment, of course, but we can declare one thing: if we know the process and have time to get ready, we can significantly decrease the effect of any scary situation. We will not freeze. We might have phobias that will always evoke negative feelings in us, and the feeling of fear might never pass fully, however, it is certain that when we see it for the 10th time, its effect will be decreased. The situation is similar in sports. I had the chance to see athletes play live in the finals of the Champions League, the World Championships, and Olympic matches. I often saw them freeze due to fear, which means the loss of the match and the collapse of dreams in individual sports, while in team sports it at least gets the whole team in a tough situation. I have also witnessed many athletes who made significant progress in this field. Their performance developed from one high-stakes competition to another. In their first matches, there were athletes who were the main reason for their team’s loss, while four years later they won the trophy for the team. Of course, in such cases, intelligent pundits come forward and credit “experience”, but few people dig much deeper into that idea. Just because we grow older, we will not be better at handling crises. Nevertheless, as we become older, we have more chances of going through high-stakes situations. However, if we do not encounter a real crisis or our coach does not trust us due to bad experiences, we will only become older, more tired, and physically weaker athletes. It is no wonder that finding the “balance” of fear and fear management is one of the biggest challenges of modern sports. It is hard to curtail an athlete’s current development, allowing them to possibly fall in a crisis, all because they need to learn to perform in a future high-stakes situation. This question places significant responsibility upon the sports professionals and mental professionals who support them, who must allow the athlete to learn how to manage the situation.