A former University of Colorado teammate of mine who just happens to be married to an old Burke schoolmate of mine (ski racing is such a small world!) sent me a Facebook comment yesterday asking “Is there a phenomenon called fear of success or something like that?” Well, in fact, there is, and I have a section of my book Positive Pushing devoted to just this topic. It seemed like a great topic for my skiracing.com column.
“Fear of success? Why would anyone be afraid of becoming successful? Isn’t that what everyone wants?,” you might ask. Yet children who feel threatened by achievement often harbor a fear of success. This fear is not based on achieving success itself, but rather on the ramifications of success. As the opposite side of the fear-of-failure coin, Dr. David Conroy defines fear of success as “a belief that a perceived success will be followed by an aversive consequence…,” such as the pressure to constantly match or exceed previous achievements, unwanted attention and recognition, social and emotional isolation, and an overly rigid future.
In a sense, attaining success “raises the bar” for your children, creating greater expectations of success and more pressure to succeed. After success, you are naturally going to expect your children to succeed more often. Your children’s successes also raise the level of achievement that is considered successful. You may assume that if your children attain one level of success, then they are expected to reach an even higher level the next time.
With each success and new expectation, the burden on your children can grow. Their fear of success worsens because each new level of success and heightened expectations diminishes their belief in their ability to succeed in the future; the higher up the competitive ladder your children get, the more difficult it is to be successful. Your children’s fear of success increases because they see failure as more likely, more disappointing to others, and, ultimately, more devastating to their self-esteem.
Achieving success can also put your children in the spotlight, where they receive more attention from coaches, peers, and perhaps even the media. With this success and added recognition, your children now not only have to deal with their own expectations and yours, but also the expectations of many others. Some children may not have a temperament that is suited to being on center stage. Children who are introverted, shy, insecure, or uncomfortable socially may develop a fear of success because of discomfort with the attention. The fear of success enables them to avoid the spotlight, but, unfortunately, it also keeps them from fully achieving their goals.
Because peer acceptance is an important issue for children, a fear of success may arise from concerns related to jealousy, rivalry, and worries about becoming socially isolated. Dr. Mary Pipher speaks of the “dumbing down” of adolescent girls because they believe that if they appear smarter than boys, then the boys will find them less desirable.
One of the dangers of your children’s early success in ski racing is being pushed onto a future life course to which they may not aspire. Showing promise in ski racing (or any other achievement area, for that matter) can cause you to see a bright future for your children in our sport. You may then direct your children’s life toward a predetermined future without asking them whether that life path is one that they want to follow. Fear of success may arise out of the concern that they will be required to live a life for which they have little interest or motivation to pursue. The easiest way for your children to circumvent this overly rigid future is to avoid the success that will lead to that undesired future.
Kelly didn’t know what to do. He had been ski racing forever because his father had been a racer and his family’s life basically revolved around the sport. Kelly’s brother had been a rising star on the U.S. ski racing scene and now raced for a top collegiate program and still had U.S. Ski Team aspirations.
Kelly was a showing promise himself, but he knew he could never live up to his family’s expectations. In fact, the idea of “following in his brother’s footsteps” terrified him. Also, whereas his brother was outgoing and boisterous, Kelly was rather shy and quiet. He didn’t like being the center of attention and the idea of having his family, coaches, and teammates counting on him to podium all of the time, well, he couldn’t think of anything worse. Kelly wanted to do his best, but he couldn’t face the possibility of letting everyone down. He wanted to quit racing, but he couldn’t because that would really disappoint people. So when Kelly became a J2, he developed a series of nagging, minor injuries that kept him from skiing his best. Everyone was sympathetic and people said that he would have been just as good as his brother if he wasn’t so injury-prone. No expectations, no spotlight, no pressure, problem solved.
Challenge of Success
Your children have an innate desire to achieve excellence, to push themselves beyond their perceived limits, to attain their goals, and to grow as achievers and people. If you nurture your children with the kind of love, support, and expectations that support their efforts, they will feel challenged rather than fearful of their successes. Then your children will be able to see themselves as competent people who not only have the capabilities to succeed, but also the desire to succeed. These beliefs will enable your children to view the demands of achievement as a challenge worth pursuing—with a positive attitude, high hopes of success, and feelings of excitement and joy.
Your emphasis should be on your children setting high goals, giving their best effort, having fun, and seeing achievement as exciting and enriching. Achievement, when seen as something to pursue rather than fear, is an experience children relish and seek out at every opportunity. Thus, the challenge reaction is highly motivating, to the point where children embrace rather recoil from achievement.
If your children perceive achievement as a challenge, they start their achievement efforts from a position of strength—competence, purpose, and determination. This position of strength initiates an emotional upward spiral that removes any fears of success they may harbor and propels them to success and fulfillment. Your children’s goal is to become the best racer they can be and all of their efforts are directed toward pursuing the challenge that will lead to that goal.