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Another near-miss? How fear of success could be holding you back in sport and life

This post is particularly about sporting success but the principles I talk about can be applied to any life goals.

Regardless of our conscious intentions, sometimes our unconscious has a completely different agenda. If you notice that you have a pattern of coming close to your goals but not quite getting over the line even though it’s within your capabilities, or of not being able to replicate in competition what you can do in training, it may be that you are afraid of success. Being afraid of success really means being afraid of the consequences of success.

If you think this may be true for you, do this short exercise:

Bring to mind the thing you want more than anything (the thing you’re not getting even though you know you have the potential). Now, close your eyes and imagine the moment of your dream coming true. The dream needs to be something that is within reach, even though it’s a challenge. Maybe it’s crossing the line first in the Olympic final or maybe you’ve been selected for the first team for your local club. Whatever it is, imagine the scenario in great detail. Imagine the moments before and after. Live it in in your mind’s eye. What do you see, what do you hear? In particular, notice how you feel. Is your whole body tingling with joy and excitement? What about the words in your head, are they all words of joy and delight? Or is there a nagging feeling tugging away at you? Is there just some sense of wanting to pull away from the imagery, from the feeling that goes with it? Is there a sense of I want this…but?

If you notice any of those things, you are tapping into a degree of ambivalence about success. You can try this with anything you think you want but aren’t getting (e.g. relationships, promotion at work etc.).

If you’ve established that you are to some extent afraid of success, we need to know why. This is something that sport psychotherapy can help you with, but as a starting point, ask yourself these two things:

What emotional response did I have when I imagined my success scenario? (e.g. fear, anxiety, embarrassment).

What are the consequences of success for me? (Particularly notice the consequences you don’t want).

The answers to these questions will be personal to you and your circumstances. Someone who is shy, for example, may notice feelings of embarrassment and want to avoid the consequence of having to talk to media or be the centre of attention at their local club. When success also equates to a degree of fame, this brings up feelings around public scrutiny. Someone who has aspects of their past which evoke a shame response may want to avoid the limelight to avoid this.

Success can also lead to changes and challenges within our closest relationships. If those around us and particularly our families are not high achieving, success can challenge our sense of belonging to those groups, or even make us feel guilty, particularly about out-achieving our parents. It can also change the dynamics in relationships, sometimes leading to financial dependence from those close to us. The achievement of a long-held goal can occasionally leave a sense of emptiness and lack of direction, having nothing to aim for anymore.

In many ways, it’s not surprising that people have a degree of fear of success. Success brings many positives but it also brings change. In sport psychotherapy/ sports counselling you have the chance to consider the things you stand to lose by succeeding. When you know what you are afraid of, you can get underneath your fear of success and know how to take on each barrier, so that success is no longer something to fear, but something you can wholeheartedly strive for.

If this is the case for you, contact me at for a free consultation to see how I can support your mental health in sport.

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