Whatever you do, don’t screw up! Why avoiding failure is ultimately damaging.


Just before England began their EURO 2016 campaign, England midfielder, James Milner, said that it was vital for his team to avoid losing their first match against Russia if they were to do well in the tournament. You might take from this that the team would be focused on doing well in their opening game.

Makes sense. But did Milner’s statement actually reveal an underlying attitude that could really hinder a team as they progress (or don’t) through major competitions.

Achieving success or avoiding failure?

So what’s the problem with not wanting to lose your first game? Well, on the surface, there’s no problem. Why would anyone want to lose their first match in a major championships? Of course teams won’t ever want to lose. But rather than saying something like “it’s important that we play well and give every effort to get a positive result,” Milner chose to focus on avoiding failure, and therein lies the problem.

This seems to have weighed heavy on England teams in the past. The pressure and expectation has been so great that the default mentality has traditionally been one of not screwing up.

Lads, whatever you do, do NOT screw this up!
Lads, whatever you do, do NOT screw this up!

Need Achievement Theory¹ suggests, quite simply, that everyone wants to achieve success and everyone wants to avoid failure, but that the balance of these two motives isn’t the same in everyone. People who are highly motivated to achieve success and  less concerned with avoiding failure, are more likely to be high achievers.

On the flip side, people who concern themselves more with avoiding failure than achieving success, are much less likely to be high achievers. You can see where I’m going with this.

For optimal challenges (challenges that are difficult but within reach if all goes well), high achievers are the ones who step up because they see the potential for success. Low achievers. People who only see potential for criticism if they fail, shy away from challenges and, therefore, tend to be lower achievers.

“People who are highly motivated to achieve success and less concerned with avoiding failure are more likely to be high achievers.”

Avoiding outcome focus.

It seems obvious that teams playing at a high level would be full of high achievers, players at the top of their profession who have been selected to represent their country. They must be doing something right! But so much expectation has been heaped upon England football teams over the last… well the last 50 years, that the team mentality has been one of avoiding failure and focusing solely on the outcome.

If England are to do well, then it’s vital that they let go of their outcome focus and focus on the process of working their way through each game, but that’s easier said than done. The whole point of a tournament is to win it. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be a big, shiny trophy.

The media will always focus intently on the outcome of each game and ramp up the importance of getting results. But to be successful in competition, regardless of the sport, we need to let go of the idea that winning is under our control.

It’s easy to focus on winning (or avoiding losing) as a goal, but the emphasis should really be on process or task goals (read ‘why goal setting often fails‘ for more tips). That is, we need to focus more on how we’re going to play well. If our goals are focused on uncontrollable things like whether we win or lose, then we’re more likely to get anxious and make mistakes.

If we can focus on the small things, the nuts and bolts that go towards winning games, and if we can be mindful and stay in the present moment, rather than letting our minds fixate on what might be, then we’re putting ourselves in the best position for a positive outcome to become a reality. And in the end, that’s all we can ever do.


¹Atkinson, J.W. (1974). The mainstream of achievement-oriented activity. In J.W. Atkinson & J.O. Raynor (Eds.), Motivation and achievement (pp.13-41). New York: Halstead.

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