This blog will explore the essential role that risk taking plays in athletic success. Before I continue, though, let me preface this discussion by saying that, when I talk about taking risks, I don't mean taking stupid risks such as texting while driving, jumping off the roof of your house, or taking drugs. That's not risk taking, that's being stupid. Instead, risk taking means pushing your limits, getting out of your comfort zone, and confronting failure, so that, when the risk pays off, you will experience success as you pursue your athletic goals.
What is Risk?
The dictionary defines risk as a situation in which you expose yourself to danger. Though physical risk is an inevitable part of many sports, the risk I'm talking about is psychological and emotional. Clearly, risk is essential for success not only in sports, but also in every aspect of life, whether winning an Olympic gold medal, starting a tech company, or telling someone 'I love you.' If you don't take risks, you won't improve, grow, or achieve your athletic goals. And you will never find out what you are truly capable of or how far you can go.
This kind of risk comes when you face a test of your ability, effort, and preparation. You are putting your self-identity, self-esteem, goals, hopes, and dreams on the line. After the competition, you will learn whether you succeed or not at the test. The risk then becomes clear: failure!
Given the risks of taking risks, there are obvious upsides to not taking risks. You stay safe. You never get uncomfortable. And you avoid total failure which I define as giving it your all and not achieving your goals. By avoiding total failure, you don't have to admit you're just not good enough, which protects your self-identity, self-esteem, and goals.
Of course, there are far more significant downsides to not taking risks. You will be perpetually stuck where you are. You will never be truly successful. You will feel really frustrated. And you will never be completely satisfied with your efforts.
To Risk or Not to Risk, That is the Question
Hopefully, I have convinced you of the necessity of risk in sports. But taking risks in sports is a simple, but not easy, choice. It's a simple choice because would you rather take risks and succeed or play it safe and fail? The answer is obvious. At the same time, it's not an easy choice because no one likes to fail and, when you take risks, failure is a distinct possibility (that's the nature of risks). Also, there are a variety of powerful psychological and emotional forces that hold you back from taking risks:
- Fear of failure (no way you'll take a risk if you are afraid to fail).
- Perfectionism (the bar is set so high anything less than perfection is failure).
- Need for control (taking a risk requires that you give up control).
- Lack of confidence in your abilities or preparation (you're not going to take a risk if you don't think you can succeed).
At the heart of risk taking is the willingness to accept that, when you take risks, you might fail. By its very nature, you are more likely to fail when you take risks. But, paradoxically, when you take risks, your chances of success also increase. If you can truly accept failure, it is no longer a danger and, without that danger of failure, there's no reason not to take risks because all you see are the upsides.
I'm not saying that you should take risks indiscriminately all the time; that's a recipe for disaster. Your goal should be to increase your willingness to take appropriate risks when the time and situation is right and the chances of the risk paying are higher than not.
Risk Taking is a Lifestyle Choice
As I write this article, I realize that risk taking is not so much a skill as a lifestyle choice. The chances are that if you're not a risk taker in your broader life, you're probably not one in your sport. So, to become a risk taker on the field, course, court, track, hill, or what-have-you, you should embrace risk in all aspects of our life. If you can make taking risks a part of who you are, then risk taking in your sport will simply be what you do.
One great place that I have been challenging athletes I work with to take risks is socially and academically. For example, if you can ask someone you like out on a date (but haven't been willing to take the risk of rejection), you'll find it's a lot less scary to take a risk in your sport. And if you can speak up in class when your teacher or professor asks a question, taking a risk on the field of play will seem like a piece of cake.
Do you want to learn more about how my Prime Performance System can help you or your young athletes achieve their sports goals? Get your FREE Prime Sport: Psychology of Champion Athletes e-book.