The paralysing effect of fear on performance: when high motivation backfires

In this article, Mardy Fish comes out about his anxiety struggles culminating in cancelling one of the most important and anticipated games in his career. A main reason for his anxiety was the feeling of not being up par.

June 27, 2023

Hashem ElAssad

A tennis champion who cancelled a game with Federer

“I am hours away from playing in the biggest tennis match of my life: the fourth round of the U.S. Open … on Labor Day … on my dad’s birthday … on Arthur Ashe … on CBS … against Roger Federer. I am hours away from playing the greatest player of all time, for a chance at my best-ever result, in my favorite tournament in the world. I am hours away from playing the match that you work for, that you sacrifice for, for an entire career. And I can’t do it. I literally can’t do it.

In this article, Mardy Fish comes out about his anxiety struggles culminating in cancelling one of the most important and anticipated games in his career. A main reason for his anxiety was the feeling of not being up par. He explains: “The idea that I wasn’t good enough was a powerful one — it drove me, at an age when many players’ careers are winding down, to these amazing heights. But it also became a difficult switch to turn off. I was, objectively, doing great. And looking back, I wish I had been able to tell myself that. But doing great wasn’t something that my frame of mind back then had time to process. All I could focus on was doing better. It was a double-edged sword.” Many people who have fear of failure experience this.

The Netflix Documentary “Untold: Breaking point”, showed how this anxiety had such a deleterious effect on Fish. He was in such bad condition afterwards that he didn’t leave his house for months. When he reached rock bottom, his father played catch with him, because couldn’t even get him to talk. This is the same Fish who had the work ethic to become one of the best 10 players in the world. 

Lower performance does not mean lower motivation

The relationship between motivation and performance is not linear. Too high of a motivation for a complex task leads to lower performance as the Yerkes-Dodson Pressure/Performance curve shows.

Many times people just assume that the solution to bad performance is always raising the stakes, adding additional tasks and putting controls in place to monitor performance. When in reality, their high motivation is what’s hindering them. Psychologist Devon Price, author of Laziness Does Not Exist, explains desire to get the job done may worsen stress leading to procrastination.

The damaging psychological tricks we play on ourselves are subtle

The adverse effects of fear on performance are not always apparent. We must be careful how the mind plays tricks on us. For example, self-handicapping is a psychological phenomenon where we intentionally sabotage our chances of success so that when we fail, we can blame it on circumstances that don't affect ourself-perception. If someone has a test, they could intentionally not study because when they fail, they can blame it on their lack of preparation rather than their intelligence.


Stay in the real world

One way I keep myself from falling into this trap is reminding myself of this: realised good performance is better than potential excellent performance. If you are a perfectionist, your “good” may also be better than you realise. For advisors, it’s also important to remember that the client’s “real world” may not value perfection as much as you do. So, scope the work carefully, and know when the pressure is real, and when it’s not. 

Reconceptualise failure as feedback

Take the situation as an opportunity to learn: “Turn your bad day into good data” as the expression goes and embrace a Kaizen mentality; “This is just feedback to improve my iterations next time”. It’s easier said than done in a professional firm, so the firm has to play a role building a culture that allows for this and processes (such as structured debriefs) to emphasise the organisational value of learning from experience.

Seek out a trusted confidant

Sometimes tackling the fear of failure can be through a conversation with someone in the firm who has your best interests at heart. This person can help you develop a plan to address the problem. Where raising the failure with someone more senior may feel intimidating, your trusted advisor is your safe refuge. They may provide wise counsel, or even volunteer to be part of the conversation or solution. 

Choose/create a working environment with a healthy culture

Not all failures are created equally. Amy Edmondson, Management and Leadership Professor and co-head of the Technology and Operations unit at Harvard Business School outlines the spectrum ranging from blameworthy failure of deliberate deviance to praiseworthy one of exploratory testing. She explains how learning from mistakes is not as simple as it seems and how the company’s culture is crucial for making the best out of failure. Few are the companies that properly pull it off Edmondson notes.

An inspiring model is Google X and how they embrace failure to encourage innovation. Astro Teller of Google X says:

“You must reward people for failing, he says. If not, they won’t take risks and make breakthroughs. If you don’t reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences. That wastes time and saps an organization’s spirit …If you shame them when they come back, if you tell them that they’ve failed you because they didn’t find a mountain, no matter how diligently they looked for it or how cleverly they looked for it, those scouts will quit your company.”

About the author

Hashem ElAssad is a researcher, writer and content curator. His research interests include psychology, education and career development. LinkedIn

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