fear failure Head Coach Scott Frost University of Nebraska Football

On Hockey, Football, & Life: Overcoming the Paralyzing Fear of Failure

In Coaching Hockey, Leadership by Kelvin Cech

If you can show me a frightened hockey player, football player, or any athlete who makes a great play despite being afraid of the consequences should the play fail, then I’d say you’ve got not only an exceptionally gifted athlete on your hands, but one who defies logic itself.

Seriously, why would such a player, one who can calm their nerves and drown out the noise awaiting at the bench, need to feel such fear anyways? We all know it happens. This is when the wonderfully talented young player we coach scores a big goal and the bench staff breathes a collective sigh of relief because we’re all aware of the temperament of Dad should the player not score in a game. And we sigh because we can’t push this player any further – his parents already have him on the brink of frustration, aggravation, and fear.

But hold the phone – what about those instances where the coach instills that fear? We’ve all done it – most of us when we lacked experience early in our career.

Ask yourself: if you have to bark orders from the bench during the flow of play, haven’t you already failed?

Play the Odds

The rise of analytics in our sport has had huge implications on how we track repetitive plays in our game. For instance, tracking an individual’s fenwick (the amount of unblocked shot attempts for vs unblocked shot attempts against while a player is on the ice) for one game might yield spectacular or horrible results. Track it over the course of a season? You’ll notice trends. I know this because I’ve tracked fenwick for two seasons with my team. Over the long haul the players with whom you feel comfortable while they’re on the ice generally have more unblocked shot attempts at the opponent’s net than at your net.

The same methodology can be applied to the fine art of making mistakes. If a player is encouraged to make plays on a regular basis, then provided the talent necessary to make such plays exist and a large enough sample size those plays are going to be successful more often than not. The key is that the coach has to be alright with the occasional mistake. Believe me, if you tell the player it’s alright to make mistakes, they’ll run with it – there’s no fear from their perspective.

So, it’s not the player who has to overcome the fear of failure.

It’s the coach.

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How Much Failure?

Let’s say you have a skilled defense corps that can move the puck. That’s a blanket statement – you probably have seven or eight defensemen – just stay with me for a moment. Let’s also say you’ve been working on passing to the low forward in front of your own net to break the puck out. Four of your D can accept pressure and move the puck with ease. Two of them panic and pucks bounce off skates, they wobble, or they fire rocket passes that end up on the tape of the opposing defenseman creeping in from the blue line.

It’s not going to take too long before you make adjustments. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again to the same poor results.

We’re not insane. We just work in the field.

So teach those two defensemen not to be afraid of making a different play, a simpler play, one they’re comfortable with.


Scott Andrew Frost is an American football coach and former player. He is currently the head coach at the University of Nebraska Huskers Men’s Football Team. Here’s Coach Frost talking about doing away with the fear of failure.

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About the Author
Kelvin Cech

Kelvin Cech

Former editor in chief of The Coaches Site, current head coach of the Winkler Flyers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.


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