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Understanding the Freeze Response: How Fear of Failure Impacts Athletes

In the heat of competition, athletes often find themselves faced with a primal survival instinct:

fight, flight, or freeze. While the fight-or-flight response is well-known, the freeze response is

less discussed but equally significant, particularly when it comes to the fear of failing. In this

blog, we'll explore how the freeze response manifests in athletes, representing a fear of failure,

and how it can hinder performance by causing athletes to play it safe.

The freeze response is a natural reaction to perceived threats or stressors, triggering a state of

immobility and indecision. In the context of sports, this often manifests as hesitation, lack of

assertiveness, and reluctance to take risks. Athletes experiencing the freeze response may find

themselves stuck in a cycle of overthinking, second-guessing, and indecision, ultimately

hindering their ability to perform at their best.

At the core of the freeze response lies the fear of failure—a deep-seated apprehension of

making mistakes, falling short of expectations, or facing criticism from others. This fear can be

paralyzing, causing athletes to retreat into their comfort zones, avoid challenging situations,

and play it safe to minimize the risk of failure.

For athletes, playing it safe may seem like the logical choice—a way to avoid embarrassment,

preserve their ego, and maintain a sense of control. However, this mindset can be detrimental

to their growth and development as competitors. By shying away from challenges and

opportunities for growth, athletes limit their potential and deprive themselves of valuable

learning experiences.

In sports, as in life, success rarely comes without taking risks and stepping outside of one's

comfort zone. Athletes who are unwilling to push themselves, take calculated risks, and

embrace the possibility of failure may find themselves stuck in a cycle of mediocrity, never

realizing their full potential.

But if it was as simple as just understanding these concepts no one would do it. Unfortunately,

the process of overcoming it isn’t quite that simple.

Overcoming the freeze response and the fear of failure requires a shift in mindset and a

willingness to embrace discomfort and uncertainty. Athletes must learn to reframe failure not

as a sign of weakness or inadequacy, but as an opportunity for growth, learning, and


One effective strategy for combating the freeze response is through deliberate practice and

mental rehearsal. By simulating high-pressure situations in training and visualizing themselves

successfully navigating challenges, athletes can build confidence, resilience, and mental

toughness, reducing the likelihood of freezing when faced with similar scenarios in competition.

Additionally, fostering a supportive and encouraging environment can help athletes feel more

comfortable taking risks and pushing their limits. Coaches, teammates, and support staff play a

crucial role in building athletes' confidence, providing constructive feedback, and instilling a

growth mindset that embraces failure as an essential part of the journey toward success.

In conclusion, the freeze response represents the fear of failure—a natural instinct that can

hinder athletes' performance by causing them to play it safe. By recognizing the impact of the

freeze response and adopting strategies to overcome it, athletes can break free from the

shackles of fear, unlock their full potential, and achieve greater success on and off the field or court.


Stuart Singer, M.Ed., and PsyD (ABD) is the Director of WellPerformance, a Mental Performance Coaching and Consulting practice, and the creator of the DoSo app . For more information regarding this topic, he can be contacted at or follow him on X: @wellperformance, or Instagram: @wellperformance

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