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  • Writer's pictureIan Pennekamp

The influence of fear of failure on performance in endurance athletes - Bachelor's thesis 2021-2022

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

Date: 31-05-2022

Accompanist: Drs. Hanno van der Loo


A personal case, where fear of failure caused a reduced performance during the triathlon world championship, is the basis of this thesis. The first aim of this thesis is to gain insight into the relationship between fear of failure and performance in endurance athletes, based on a literature study. The second goal is to formulate an answer to the question of what can be done to prevent the negative effects of performance anxiety in individual endurance athletes.

Performance anxiety consists of both fear and anxiety, both of which lead to a physiological defense response that affects performance. Fear is a response to an acute perceived threat, which triggers the activation of the amygdala. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a response to a possible future threat, which triggers the activation of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST). The relationship between fear of failure and performance is best described by catastrophe theory when self-confidence is included. By using problem-oriented coping strategies and the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) training method, performance reduction due to performance anxiety can be prevented and performance improvement due to performance anxiety can be utilized. However, research in endurance athletes on the relationship between performance anxiety and performance and the prevention of the negative role of performance anxiety is scarce and inconclusive. This thesis therefore also indicates possible directions in which further research can be done.

Table of Contents

Abstract. 2

Prologue. 4

Introduction.. 5

Search strategy. 8

Theories of Anxiety.. 8

Drive-theory. 9

Inverted-U-hypothesis. 9

Multidimensional Fear Theory. 10

Relation fear of failure and performance in endurance athletes.. 18

Coping-strategies.. 22

Mindfulness.. 24

Discussion & Conclusion.. 27

Reference list. 31


On August 21, 2021, I will be at the start of my first Triathlon World Championship over the Olympic distance. The Olympic triathlon consists of 1.5 km swimming, 40 km cycling and 10 km running. In the run-up to this tournament, I am fitter than ever. That's why I'm looking forward to getting the best out of myself and putting in a good performance.

I'm not nervous the days before race day. It is only on the match day itself that the tension slowly starts to come. I always get this tension before competitions. It is a feeling that your body is under extra pressure. However, I still have this pressure under control, not that I succumb to it. It lets my body know that I must start performing soon.

About an hour before the start, I start with my warm-up. The pressure starts to increase a little extra with time. Fifteen minutes before the start, all athletes are called for the start. Waiting among the other athletes, the tension slowly begins to spread over my body from the inside. Five minutes before the start I am called to walk to the starting line. I dribble to the starting line and walk past the first athletes. I have already seen some of these athletes race on television. My mind wanders from my race to thoughts of "those guys are way better than me". When I have arrived at my starting spot, all I have to do is wait for the start signal.

At the world championship, a heartbeat is played before the start signal. "BOOM-BOOM ... BOOM-BOOM". At that moment I almost collapse in my legs from the tension, I have never experienced this! I feel my legs getting very heavy and starting to shake a little. I just can't do anything about it. Then the start signal sounds. I'm the slowest out of everyone and my swim leg isn't going as planned. With the last ones I climb out of the water to start the next part, the cycling. While cycling, the tension begins to drop. Slowly I'm getting into the game and I'm even starting to think that I can make up for a lot with walking. With these thoughts I then run with a 7th running time to a 24th place overall.

This experience, that I almost collapse under the pressure, had never happened to me before. It therefore left me with some questions. What happened the moment I felt like my legs were giving way? How could that have happened? And how can I prevent this in the future? This case is the basis for my thesis to investigate how the negative role of fear of failure on performance in endurance athletes can be prevented.


In the prologue, the terms 'nervousness', 'tension' and 'pressure' are reviewed. These are terms related to the concept of fear (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019). Fear speaks well to the imagination, yet it is not a simple concept when looked at closely. To properly define fear, the English translation was first looked at, because the literature used in this thesis is mainly in English.

The first translation that Van Dale Uitgevers (2013) gives for fear is fear. In psychology, the English translation of anxiety is anxiety (Van Dale Uitgevers, 2013; Bakker & Oudejans, 2019). Fear and anxiety are similar in content, but there is an important difference. Fear is anxiety that arises from an acutely perceived threat with a subsequent physiological fight-or-flight response (Heshmat, 2018; Chand & Marwaha 2022). In the fight-or-flight response, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, which activates the body to the maximum to deal with or flee the threatening situation (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019). Instead of focusing on the here and now, Anxiety is more focused on the future (Heshmat, 2018; Chand & Marwaha 2022). With anxiety, there is no direct stimulus that leads to a response, it is the expectation of a possible threat that a certain perceived situation may cause (Heshmat, 2018; Chand & Marwaha 2022). With anxiety, both a cognitive and a somatic response can follow. These reactions of anxiety are subdivided into cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety.

Cognitive anxiety is about the anxiety that takes place in the head, such as negative thoughts and expectations about the outcome and feelings of whether you are good enough (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019; Ford et al., 2017). With me, for example, this was thinking that the other athletes were much better than me. Somatic fear is the fear that takes place in the body in response to the threatening situation (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019; Ford, et al., 2017). In my case, this was the feeling that I was sinking through my legs.

The moment my legs gave way, and my body took control of me was just before the start and caused a reduced performance in the beginning of my race. This description corresponds best with how Patel et al. (2010) describe fear of failure. According to Patel, et al. (2010), performance anxiety can be both fear and anxiety, resulting in reduced performance. Performance anxiety can occur in several situations, such as competitions, music performances and exams (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019; Patel, et al., 2010). In contrast, the concept of competition anxiety only focuses on the anxiety caused by a competition (Patel, et al., 2010). However, there was no fear of the match in my situation. In the case you can read that I was looking forward to the match. The anxiety only kicked in when I was under the competition and the moment of performance was getting close. Fear of failure in a sports context therefore seems to be the best description of the fear described in the case. The thought that those other triathletes were much better than me relates more to the fear that I am not good enough myself and that it increases the chance of failure. The fear that is therefore discussed in this thesis is performance anxiety in a sports context and can be both acute (fear) and future-oriented (anxiety).

Now that it is clear which form of anxiety occurs in the case, performance anxiety in a sports context, it is important to look at the effect of performance anxiety on performance. In his definition, fear of failure is not a bad thing. Fear of failure can have a positive effect on performance, as it motivates and improves performance (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019; Ford, et al., 2017). On the other hand, fear of failure can also have a negative effect on performance, it then has a paralyzing effect and leads to reduced functioning (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019; Ford, et al., 2017; Patel, et al., 2010). When fear of failure has a positive or negative effect on performance is explained in the chapter 'Theories about fear'. The case shows that the fear of failure before the competition had a negative effect on my performance. This thesis therefore investigates how the negative effects of performance anxiety can be prevented.

The effect fear of failure has on performance also depends on the athlete himself (Ford, et al., 2017). To better understand why it is also up to the athlete himself and what effect fear of failure has on performance, the anxiety component of fear of failure in general will first be explained in more detail. Anxiety consists of two forms: trait anxiety & state anxiety. Both forms influence cognitive and somatic anxiety, see figure 1 (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019). Trait anxiety is “anxiety as a personality trait” (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019, p. 154). Trait anxiety says something about how quickly someone has expectations that a situation is threatening. State anxiety is the fear in the here and now (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019). State anxiety thus resembles fear. State anxiety is also about the response to the threatening situation. The difference is that anxiety is about an 'expected' threatening situation rather than the presence of a direct stimulus that leads to a response, as is the case with fear. State anxiety can therefore still be changed over time, depending on how strong the expectation is that the threatening situation will occur. The case shows that my state anxiety was increasing before the race and was highest just before the start. At this point, fear also set in. The moment the state anxiety was almost at its highest, the played heartbeat came before the start signal (stimulus) to which my reaction was that I could hardly stand on my feet. Both forms of fear associated with performance anxiety, fear, and anxiety, were present.

Figure 1: overview of the subdivision of performance anxiety.

Finally, the case does not concern every sport. The case study is about triathlon, an endurance sport that, depending on the distance, can last between half an hour and sixteen hours. Because the fear of failure changes over time, the development of fear of failure on performance is different in endurance exercise than in sports where only a short effort is made. The influence of a team also has a different effect on the development of performance anxiety than when the athlete alone is responsible for the performance. To better understand what happened in the case, the focus of this thesis is on the effect of fear of failure in endurance athletes.

The first aim of this thesis is to gain insight into the relationship between fear of failure and performance in endurance athletes, based on a literature study. The second goal is to formulate an answer to the question of what can be done to prevent the negative effects of performance anxiety in endurance athletes.

Search strategy

In the literature search of this thesis, EBSCOhost Web was used to search for scientific articles in the database of APA PsycArticles, APA PsycInfo, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection and SPORTDiscus. Initially, the search terms were used: performance anxiety OR competition anxiety AND performance AND triathlete OR endurance athlete. Only English-language scientific articles were used in this study. In addition, the book 'Sports Psychology' (5th edition) by Bakker & Oudejans (2019) and the book 'Neuroscience' (6th edition) by Purves et al. (2018) were used. Relevant articles have also been extracted from the references of the scientific articles and the book 'Sports Psychology'.

Theories of Anxiety

The introduction already showed that fear of failure can have both positive and negative effects on performance. This is not a specific feature of fear of failure, fear in general can have positive and negative effects on performance (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019). Over the years, several theories have emerged as to how anxiety can affect performance. Each new theory supplements the old theory a bit and makes the new theory a bit more complete and more complex. The theory that best describes the fear of failure as described in the case study is the catastrophe theory. Before discussing this theory, the theories that preceded it will be discussed: the drive theory, the inverted U hypothesis, and the multidimensional fear theory.


The first theory, the drive theory, says that when anxiety increases, performance also increases linearly, see figure 2 (Bernstein, 1963; Bakker & Oudejans, 2019; Ford, et al., 2017). To some extent this theory is correct. In the case, however, it appears that my performance suddenly decreased if I was too anxious. Bernstein (1963) has also shown in his research that the drive theory is an oversimplified representation of reality. The drive theory does not explain the possible negative effects anxiety can have on performance.

Figure 2: drive-theorie, uit Bakker & Oudejans (2019)


The inverted-U hypothesis goes one step further. In the inverted-U hypothesis, performance will initially increase as anxiety increases, just as in the drive theory, and performance will eventually decline if anxiety increases too much (Graydon, 2002; Bakker & Oudejans, 2019; Ford, et al., 2017). A mountain parabola is created, see figure 3. The inverted-U hypothesis is derived from the study by Yerkes and Dodson (1908) in which electric shocks were administered to mice. In the first instance, the theory therefore focuses on the relationship between arousal and performance. “Arousal is a non-emotional state in which someone is activated and ready to take action” (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019, p. 148). Arousal is present with emotions, including fear. Fear and arousal are therefore not the same thing, but they are related (Graydon, 2002; Bakker & Oudejans, 2019). Hence, the inverted-U hypothesis is now also used to explain the relationship between anxiety and performance. Also, the inverted-U hypothesis has been further specified on different sports. Each rung has its own course of the mountain parabola, just like the difference in the course between an easy and a difficult task, see figure 3. Nevertheless, the inverted-U hypothesis is still an oversimplified representation of reality, because no distinguished between cognitive and somatic anxiety.

Figuur 3: omgekeerde-U-hypothese, uit Bakker & Oudejans (2019)

Multidimensional Anxiety Theory

The multidimensional anxiety theory does make a distinction between cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety, see figure 4. The multidimensional anxiety theory glues the drive theory and the inverted U hypothesis together, as it were. In the multidimensional theory, cognitive anxiety has a reverse course of the drive theory, more anxiety now means a reduced performance (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019; Ford, et al., 2017). Somatic anxiety follows the same course as the inverted U hypothesis (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019; Ford, et al., 2017). However, not much support has been found for the multidimensional fear theory (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019). Bakker & Oudejans (2019) explain this because in the multidimensional anxiety theory, cognitive and somatic anxiety are still kept separate, even though they could influence each other.

Figure 4: Multidimensional Anxiety Theory, from Bakker & Oudejans (2019)

Catastrophe Theory

Ultimately, the ideas of the multidimensional fear theory led to the further development of the catastrophe theory (Graydon, 2002). In the catastrophe theory, cognitive and somatic fear can interact with each other, so that this theory explains fear three-dimensionally, see figure 5. The x-axis shows physiological arousal, which is also seen as somatic fear, because it follows the same course in the time as somatic anxiety (Hardy & Parfitt, 1991; Hardy et al., 2004). The y-axis is cognitive anxiety. Finally, on the z-axis is performance. Figure 5 shows that the catastrophe theory has become considerably more complex. It is no longer a simple line, it has become a whole landscape, which is called the performance surface.

Figure 5, catastrophe theory, taken from Hardy & Parfitt (1991). The red line is the addition of the drive theory, the blue of the inverted-U hypothesis, and the green of multi-dimensional fear theory. On top of the 'cliff' is the part of the performance surface where the best performance is achieved, and the fear has a positive effect on performance. The bottom of the 'cliff' the part of the performance surface where it is only performed, and the fear has a negative effect on performance.

The characteristics of the previously discussed theories can still be recognized in the performance surface. If cognitive anxiety remains low and only somatic anxiety will increase, then the course of performance is a mountain parabola (as in the inverted-U hypothesis and the multi-dimensional anxiety theory, see blue line). If the somatic anxiety remains low and the cognitive anxiety will only increase, then the progression of the performance is a positive linear line (as in the drive theory, see red line). The last similarity is if the somatic anxiety remains high and the cognitive anxiety will only increase, then the course of performance is a negative linear line (like the cognitive anxiety in the multidimensional anxiety theory, see green line).

The new addition of the Catastrophe Theory is the mid-section of the performance surface. When the cognitive and somatic anxiety will increase together, you will finally reach a 'cliff'. Here the performance is the very best. However, if the somatic anxiety increases slightly, you fall off the 'cliff' and there is a lot less performance in one fell swoop. To be able to deliver a good performance again, the cognitive and somatic anxiety will first have to decrease considerably, more than when the relationship between the two was still on top of the 'cliff'. This 'cliff' phenomenon is also referred to as hysteresis (Hardy & Parfitt, 1991). This hysteresis is what really sets the catastrophe theory apart from the other theories. With the other theories, when the anxiety level is reduced, performance will increase in the same way that it decreased when the anxiety level increased.

The study by Hardy & Parfitt (1991) showed that this hysteresis was also clearly present in female basketball players. Hardy's (1996) study of 8 male golfers also showed that the catastrophe theory describes the relationship between fear and performance better than the multidimensional fear theory. The results of this study also showed that if self-confidence were included in both models, this would lead to a closer match with reality.

Cohen et al. (2003) found no support for the catastrophe theory with their research. Cohen et al. (2003) studied 16 athletes who had to throw darts while running on a treadmill. The athletes were not experienced darts players, which made them more manipulable for cognitive and somatic anxiety, according to Cohen et al. (2003). The purpose of treadmill walking was to change intensity, which should increase and decrease arousal. Because the treadmill was run with increasing and decreasing intensity based on heart rate intervals, the hysteresis should be observed. With increasing intensity, the performance would first continue to increase and suddenly decrease sharply at the last moment. With decreasing intensity, the same route would not have to be followed back, the performance would first remain low for a long time and only start to rise again when the intensity had decreased considerably. The set-up is similar to that of Hardy & Parfitt (1991), where the basketball players also had to take a beep test (shuttle run) based on heart rate in increasing and decreasing intensity and then throw the basketball into the ring. However, Cohen et al. (2003) did not observe hysteresis, which Hardy & Parfitt (1991) had observed. Cohen et al. (2003) offered as a possible explanation that this could be because self-confidence is not included in the catastrophe theory. The presence of self-confidence would allow the athletes to cope with a higher level of cognitive anxiety, so that hysteresis does not occur (Cohen et al., 2003). In addition, Cohen et al. (2003) also indicated that to properly test the catastrophe theory, they had strayed somewhat far from reality and that it was not very representative of a real sports competition. Hardy & Parfitt (1991), on the other hand, stayed close to the specifics of basketball to investigate hysteresis.

Self-confidence should be added to the catastrophe theory for the sake of completeness. Hardy et al. (2004) therefore included self-confidence in the catastrophe theory, in a study that was again conducted among 8 male golfers. Self-confidence seems to adjust the performance surface of the catastrophe theory (Hardy et al., 2004). Figure 5 therefore does not always look the same. Schiedek (2008) has also found support for the catastrophe theory when self-confidence is considered in his research on skydivers. Finally, Burgos & Lee (2014) also find support with their research, in which 804 piano teachers completed a questionnaire about learning to play the piano, that the catastrophe theory is a good representation of how people perform while playing the piano.

However, no research has been done to determine whether the catastrophe theory also applies to endurance athletes. However, the catastrophe theory seems to be a good explanation for how the fear of failure arises in the case. Only at the very last moment, when the sound of a heartbeat is played before the start and the somatic fear increased even further, did the feeling that my legs gave way: I fell off the 'cliff'. The negative effects of performance anxiety could then be described as the bottom of the 'cliff', see figure 5.

The black box

In the theories about anxiety discussed, it has come to light how fear of failure relates to performance. In these theories, the bodily process is, as it were, a black box. A threat is perceived, then something happens in the body and then a reaction is observed, see figure 6. This black box, what happens in the body because of which fear of failure can lead to a reduced performance, has not yet been recognized in the sports context. investigated. For the development of medication against anxiety disorders, it has been researched how anxiety affects the body (LeDoux & Pine, 2016).

Figure 6: The fear system, taken from LeDoux & Pine (2016)

LeDoux & Pine (2016) discuss the idea that the mammalian brain has a "fear system" is outdated. The fear system means that a perceived threat causes fear, and this then causes a physiological response, see figure 6. According to LeDoux & Pine (2016), the 'dual system of fear' is a better model of what is going on in the body is playing. Figure 7 is a simplified representation of the “dual system of anxiety” described by LeDoux & Pine (2016) based on the performance anxiety theory discussed. The black box contains the two systems, the 'defense system' that influences performance and the 'cognitive system' that influences fear of failure.

Figure 7: The ‘double system of fear’ adjusted for performance anxiety and performance, taken from LeDoux & Pine (2016)

The defense system can provide a physiological response in two ways, which then influence performance, see figure 8. One way is associated with fear and the other with anxiety (LeDoux & Pine, 2016). Fear and Anxiety are both used to describe performance anxiety (Patel, et al., 2010). In the event of an acutely perceived threat (fear) by higher brain functions, such as the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the amygdala will be activated, which triggers a physiological defense response (LeDoux & Pine, 2016). When the fear comes from something that might occur in the future (anxiety), the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) will be activated (LeDoux & Pine, 2016). The BNST is activated by higher brain functions, such as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) from which anxiety originates (Klumpers et al., 2017), and triggers a physiological defense response (LeDoux & Pine, 2016). These defensive reactions all happen unconsciously (LeDoux & Pine, 2016). Now it is also easy to understand why fear and anxiety are similar because the outcome is the same, but the activation is different.

Figure 8: The defense system, taken from LeDoux & Pine (2016) and Klumpers et al. (2017)

The cognitive system ensures the conscious perception of the feelings of fear and anxiety. These feelings are perceived by the higher brain functions: PFC, OFC, and the parietal neocortex (LeDoux & Pine, 2016). These higher brain functions are also involved in cognitive functions such as thinking, planning, and working memory (LeDoux & Pine, 2016; Purves, 2018). The insula also contributes to the conscious perception of fear, specifically responsible for somatic fear (LeDoux & Pine, 2016; Purves, 2018).

The dual system model of LeDoux & Pine (2016) was devised based on results from animal studies and from observations in patients with damage in the amygdala. Klumpers et al. (2017) have shown in their study that fear via the amygdala and anxiety via the BNST also trigger a physiological defense response in humans. They investigated this by showing 108 male test subjects a yellow or blue square. After seeing one color, a shock followed one out of three times, while the other color was not shocked, which served as a control. When the color for which a shock was expected (anxiety) was shown, only the BNST appeared to be activated. When an actual shock followed, the amygdala was greatly activated. Fear and anxiety thus lead to a physiological defense response in two different ways.

The amygdala and the BNST play an important role as a switch between the areas of higher brain functions (such as the OFC and the medial PFC) and the brainstem and hypothalamus, which ultimately mediate the physiological response, see Figure 8 (Klumpers et al., 2017). The amygdala has strong connections to the OFC, which receives all sensory information (Klumpers et al., 2017; Purves, 2018). After a threat is perceived (fear), the amygdala then activates the brainstem, which is a motor control center of the body for locomotion and balance (Klumpers et al., 2017; Purves, 2018). Here are the upper motor neurons that control muscles (Purves, 2018). The BNST has strong connections to the PFC, where information is processed for decision making (Klumpers et al., 2017; Purves, 2018). If a threat is expected (anxiety), the BNST then activates the hypothalamus, which regulates threatening situations, among other things (Klumpers et al., 2017; Purves, 2018). The hypothalamus does this by “regulating the secretion of stress hormones, balancing sympathetic and parasympathetic tone, and influencing the distribution of blood flow” (Purves, 2018, p. 442).

In the case you can read that just before the start I had the feeling that I no longer had control over my body. My legs got heavy, they started shaking and then I had slow reaction time. It seems that in that moment the control came from the brainstem instead of the motor cortex (MS). The motor cortex is responsible for “planning, initiating and directing voluntary movements” (Purves, 2018, p. 356). The brainstem is controlled by the amygdala, which in turn is influenced by fear. The negative effects of the fear of failure in this case are probably due to fear in the brain.

Relation fear of failure and performance in endurance athletes

It has now been discussed how degrees of anxiety are related to performance and how anxiety triggers physiological defense responses in the body. Research that investigates performance anxiety in this specific way in endurance athletes is still lacking. In general, research into the effects of fear of failure on performance in endurance athletes is very scarce. This chapter discusses three studies that have investigated this relationship.

Love et al. (2018) studied 119 amateur triathletes. Among other things, this study looked at the relationship between cognitive anxiety, somatic anxiety and self-confidence, and performance. The Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 (CSAI-2) questionnaire was administered to the triathletes (1 or 2 days before the competition). The CSAI-2 is a 27-question questionnaire divided into three equal parts that measures cognitive anxiety, somatic anxiety, and self-confidence.

The study by Love et al. (2018) showed that cognitive and somatic anxiety have a strong positive relationship with each other. This means that as cognitive anxiety increases, somatic anxiety also increases, and vice versa. Although cognitive and somatic anxiety are highly correlated, they do not both have the same effect on performance. Cognitive anxiety was found to have no effect on performance in the study by Love et al. (2018). In contrast, the presence of somatic anxiety produces a small increase in performance (Love et al., 2018).

Self-confidence has an opposite effect on performance than cognitive and somatic anxiety (Love et al., 2018). Love et al. (2018) found that self-confidence causes a small decrease in performance. These are striking results, because Cohen et al. (2003) stated that more self-confidence would shift the hysteresis in the catastrophe theory more, so that the athletes can handle more anxiety, which leads to an improvement in performance. The studies by Hardy et al. (2004), Schiedek (2008) and Burgos & Lee (2014) support that self-confidence modifies the performance surface only in such a way that it leads to performance improvement. In contrast, the research by Love et al. (2018) seems to show that self-confidence can also modify the performance surface in such a way that it causes a reduction in performance.

Parry et al. (2010) also studied amateur triathletes (N=12) who completed the entire triathlon (3.8 km swimming, 180 km cycling and 42.2 km running) and came to comparable results. One of the purposes of this study was precisely to see what would happen to the mood and anxiety of the triathletes in the run-up to the entire triathlon. To measure the mood of the triathletes, the Profile Of Mood States (POMS) questionnaire was used. The POMS is a 30-question questionnaire that measures mood across five subscales: tension, depression, anger, strength, and fatigue. This was measured one week before the triathlon, the baseline measurement. Subsequently, a measurement was taken in the morning of the game and immediately after the game. Anxiety was measured with the CSAI-2. This was only measured one week before the triathlon (baseline measurement) and the morning of the race.

The results of Parry et al. (2010) showed a large significant effect, with the triathletes having a higher somatic anxiety the morning of the competition compared to the week before. No difference with cognitive anxiety and self-confidence was measured. The triathletes in the study by Parry et al. (2010) all showed an improvement in performance over their expected target time. It therefore seems that somatic anxiety leads to an improvement in performance, just as in the study by Love et al. (2018). Parry et al. (2010), on the other hand, have not tested this relationship statistically.

In addition, the study by Parry et al. (2010) demonstrated a large effect in which the athletes had more tension before the competition and less tension after the competition, compared to the baseline measurement. The CSAI-2 was not administered after the match, so it is not known whether somatic anxiety also decreased during the match. Tension is closely linked to fear (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019). The results of Parry et al. (2010) show that tension and somatic anxiety both correspond on the morning of the game. The decrease in tension during the match is therefore a possible indication that somatic anxiety also decreases during the match.

If the somatic anxiety actually appears to decrease during a triathlon, this leads to different results. Parry et al. (2010) and Love et al. (2018) measured anxiety only before the start of the match. The performance improvement in their study was measured based on the expected finish time. A triathlon consists of three sports and takes a relatively long time. There is then enough time in the game to see changes in somatic anxiety, which in turn could affect performance. This effect may be even greater when completing the entire triathlon, as in the study by Parry et al. (2010), in which the triathletes spent an average of 12 hours and 40 minutes. Also, in the case you can read that despite the fear of failure just before the start of the competition, which resulted in a poor performance in the swimming part, I was ultimately able to achieve a good performance in the final running part. The decrease in somatic anxiety during the competition is a possible explanation for this.

The study by McCann et al. (1992) gives different results than the study by Love et al. (2018) and Parry et al. (2010). McCann et al. (1992) studied 53 professional cyclists. A climb time trial of 3 miles (= 4.83 km) was done, which took between 8 and 13 minutes (N=23). In addition, a bicycle test was also done on the ergometer in the lab where the resistance was increased every 3 minutes, which took them 9 to 18 minutes (N=42). 18 cyclists completed both tests. The CSAI-2 was administered 10 minutes before both tests.

In the time trial, in contrast to Love et al. (2018), a significant relationship with performance was now found for somatic anxiety, cognitive anxiety and self-confidence. Cognitive anxiety correlates moderately negatively with performance, somatic anxiety correlates strongly negatively with performance, and self-confidence correlates moderately positively with performance (McCann et al., 1992). Somatic anxiety and self-confidence thus seem to have the exact opposite effect to what was found in the study by Love et al. (2018). Under the lab conditions, cycling on the ergometer, no significant differences were found (McCann et al., 1992).

How anxiety is experienced personally (trait anxiety) influences the effect of cognitive anxiety, somatic anxiety, and self-confidence on performance (McCann et al., 1992). That is why McCann et al. (1992) also looked at the effect of trait anxiety on this. To measure trait anxiety, the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) was used. The STAI consists of 40 questions that measure trait anxiety and state anxiety.

This showed that a poorer performance on the time trial in naturally more anxious athletes (N=9) is associated with the presence of cognitive and somatic anxiety. The naturally less anxious (N=10) athletes, on the other hand, only perform less with somatic anxiety. Self-confidence does not really seem to help improve performance in a competition in both groups of athletes, see table 1 (time-trail). When the CSAI-2 and the STAI are administered in a lab situation, instead of during a competition (the time trial), this produces different results, see table 1 (ergometer). The less anxious athletes (N=16) appear to perform less well with self-confidence and better with somatic anxiety. In the more anxious athletes (N=17), there was no relationship between cognitive and somatic anxiety on performance, although self-confidence did appear to improve performance.

Tabel 1, uit McCann et al. (1992), p. 183

The research by McCann et al. (1992) shows that it is important to measure anxiety in a competition-specific situation to obtain valid results on the effect of competition anxiety on an athlete's performance. The same measurements in a competition and in the lab yield different results. However, it should be noted that when dividing into anxious and less anxious athletes, 13 athletes are suddenly missing in the analysis, 42 – (17 + 16) = 9 athletes in the lab and 23 – (9 + 10) = 4 athletes in the lab. time trial. It is not stated why these athletes were excluded from the analysis.


When fear of failure before a competition causes the somatic and cognitive anxiety to increase to the point that you fall off the 'cliff', the performance will decrease considerably. This chapter examines the effect of coping strategies on reducing anxiety and improving performance.

The moment that people fall off the 'cliff' due to increasing fear of failure must be prevented. Preventing performance anxiety in its entirety is not desirable, because the increasing cognitive and somatic anxiety ensures better performance in the beginning. Once the athlete perceives the performance anxiety, coping strategies can be used to ensure that the performance anxiety remains under control.

Athletes who can cope well with fear (copen) are more successful in sports and it contributes to maintaining fun in sports (Dias et al., 2012). Initially, Lazarus (1993) split coping strategies into two parts, problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping refers to those coping strategies in which a person acts (cognitive or behavioral) on his environment or himself in order to bring about a change in the stressful person-environment relationship, such as a competition (Lazarus, 1993; Dias et al. al., 2012). Emotion-focused coping strategies involve changing how one responds to a stressful situation (Lazarus, 1993; Dias et al., 2012). Avoiding stressful situations was initially seen by Lazarus (1993) as a coping strategy associated with emotion-focused coping. Avoidance behavior has later been distinguished as a third group of coping strategies, avoidance coping, and encompasses actions in which the person distances himself from the stressful situation (Dias et al., 2012).

Ntoumanis, & Biddle (2000) conducted retrospective research in 356 different athletes and Dias et al. (2012) investigated the relationship between coping strategies and fear of failure in athletes in 550 different athletes. Problem-focused coping strategies, including “active management,” “planning,” and “functional support,” have been shown to be most effective in reducing cognitive anxiety (Ntoumanis, & Biddle, 2000; Dias et al., 2012). This means that you 'walk away' from the edge of the 'cliff', as it were. In addition, Ntoumanis, & Biddle (2000) found that problem-focused coping strategies can even lead to performance improvement with more cognitive anxiety. This means that the 'cliff' is shifted to a higher fear level, so to speak. The problem-focused coping strategy “active approach” means that you act and are focused on changing something about the situation (Carver, 1997). ‘Planning’ means that you come up with a strategy for dealing with the stressful situation and what steps you need to take each time to deal with the stressful situation (Carver, 1997). Finally, the coping strategy ‘functional support’ refers to obtaining help and advice to work with that person to do something about the stressful situation (Carver, 1997).

Emotion-focused coping strategies, on the other hand, increase cognitive anxiety, resulting in reduced performance (Ntoumanis, & Biddle, 2000; Dias et al., 2012). Dias et al. (2012) did find that the emotion-focused coping strategy 'expressing emotions' can have positive effects on performance. 'Expressing emotions' in response to a stressful situation can contribute to taking action again. Taking action falls under problem-focused coping, which in turn reduces cognitive anxiety. It does depend on the situation and the person whether 'expressing emotions' takes this route to contribute to an improvement in performance. The research by Ntoumanis, & Biddle (2000) shows that 'expressing emotions' causes increased anxiety. The results of this study also show that 'expressing emotions' is used more when somatic anxiety increases in the group of athletes who see fear as a danger. Somatic anxiety increases pre-competition, leading these athletes to use such pre-competition coping strategies more often, resulting in reduced performance (Ntoumanis, & Biddle, 2000). Athletes who do show an improvement in performance when somatic anxiety is increased appear to make less use of the emotion-focused coping strategy 'expressing emotions'.

Finally, avoidant coping strategies also increase cognitive anxiety and decrease performance (Dias et al., 2012; Ntoumanis, & Biddle, 2000). An additional danger with evasive coping strategies is that athletes find themselves in a vicious circle. Evasive coping strategies often prevent athletes from finishing what they started. This can lead to the Zeigarnik effect, which means that uncompleted tasks are remembered better than when a task is completed (Dias et al., 2012). That means that when the athlete avoids stressful competitions, the athlete will be reminded of this more and more. The athlete will experience an increase in cognitive anxiety more quickly next time and will have less control over their own emotions, which makes switching to problem-focused coping more difficult (Dias et al., 2012). The athlete can then end up in a vicious circle.

Only the problem-oriented coping strategies can prevent performance anxiety from leading to a reduction in performance. Problem-focused coping strategies can even improve performance in the presence of more performance anxiety. It is therefore recommended to practice a lot using problem-focused coping strategies. This is because coping strategies can change over time and are not fixed to someone's personality (Lazarus, 1993). By using the problem-focused coping strategies extensively in training situations, they will be more easily applied when a stressful match presents itself (Dias et al., 2012). The negative consequences of fear of failure on performance will then be prevented.


A training method that has received increasing attention in recent years to improve performance by, among other things, reducing fear of failure is mindfulness (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019). This chapter examines the effect of mindfulness on reducing anxiety and improving performance.

Mindfulness is a completely different training method than the more traditional psychological skills training (PVT), which includes self-talk, goal setting and imagery (Gardner & Moore, 2017; Corbally et al., 2020; Gross et al., 2016) . PVT focuses on controlling and changing the internal state (such as fear of failure), while mindfulness aims to enter a different relationship with the internal state (Gardner & Moore, 2017; Corbally et al., 2020; Bakker & Oudejans, 2019). Mindfulness does this by training attention in three aspects (Gardner & Moore, 2017). First, mindfulness stimulates awareness of the internal state and acceptance of that state at that moment, without judgment (Gardner & Moore, 2017; Linder, 2019). Second, the task-oriented attentional processes (instead of internal processes) are stimulated because they must be controlled (Gardner & Moore, 2017). Finally, mindfulness contributes to full commitment to actions and behaviors that are important to the athlete and what the athlete desires (Gardner & Moore, 2017).

Mindfulness broadly means focusing on something, for example breathing (Linder, 2019). Subsequently, the focus will shift to something else, when this is observed, the focus is returned to the breath (Linder, 2019). These attention shifts are accepted and observed without judgment (Linder, 2019). These steps are then repeated (Linder, 2019). The Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) model is the first mindfulness model that has focused on sports and has already received a lot of support from empirical studies (Gardner & Moore, 2017).

Gross et al. (2016) studied in 22 female basketball players which training method, MAC, or PVT, reduces anxiety more and improves performance. Anxiety was significantly reduced in the basketball players who followed the MAC training method, while no significant reduction in anxiety was seen in the group who followed PVT. There was also a significant performance improvement in the MAC group and not in the PVT group.

Wolch et al. (2020) investigated in 32 male basketball players whether a short mindfulness training leads to better performance under pressure. All basketball players first shot at the basket under normal conditions and then under increased pressure. However, the group that received mindfulness training for shooting the basket under pressure did not perform significantly better than the control group. The research by Wolch et al. (2020) therefore does not support that mindfulness leads to performance improvement (Gardner & Moore, 2017; Gross et al., 2016). However, there is a significant difference between cognitive and somatic anxiety. These have remained the same in the mindfulness group or even decreased slightly, while they did increase in the control group.

The research by Wolch et al. (2020) does support the fact that mindfulness training reduces anxiety. The fact that no difference in performance was found in Wolch et al. (2020) could be explained based on the catastrophe theory. It is possible that the increased pressure in Wolch et al. (2020) did not cause sufficient anxiety in the control group to cause them to fall off the 'cliff'.

The systematic review by Corbally et al. (2020) investigated whether mindfulness is also effective in long-distance runners. Corbally et al. (2020) found that mindfulness has small to moderate anxiety reduction and no to small performance improvement in long-distance runners. However, little research has been done on this (three studies), one of which also has contradictory results compared to the other two studies (Corbally et al., 2020). The studies were also of lower quality than research in sports that require shooting at a target, such as basketball (Corbally et al., 2020). Therefore, it cannot be concluded with certainty that mindfulness is fully effective in endurance athletes.

It is interesting to see what the influence of mindfulness is on brain areas involved in the fear response. Neuroscience research supports that mindfulness reduces anxiety (Kummar, 2017). People who practice more mindfulness have more gray matter in their hippocampus and OFC than people who do not practice mindfulness (Kummar, 2017). At the OFC, a direct relationship has even been found between the number of hours of mindfulness training and the concentration of gray matter (Kummar, 2017). These higher brain functions have many connections with the amygdala (Klumpers et al., 2017). The hippocampus is involved in anxiety reduction by storing memories over and over and inhibiting the amygdala (Kummar, 2017). Inhibition of the amygdala means a reduced fear response, see figure 8. The OFC receives all sensory information (Klumpers et al., 2017). Kummar (2017) indicates that when the OFC has more gray matter, this leads to a reduced fear response, because conditioned fear responses become less strong. The amygdala is then less likely to be activated when a conditioned threat is perceived again. More hours of mindfulness training seem to reduce performance anxiety, because the amygdala is inhibited.

Mindfulness can be a good training method to reduce performance anxiety. However, good quality research is still lacking to confirm that this is also the case in endurance athletes. Neuroscientific research has shown that mindfulness actually causes changes in the brain, and it is therefore expected that mindfulness will also lead to reduced performance anxiety in endurance athletes.

Discussion & Conclusion

The first aim of this thesis is to gain insight into the relationship between fear of failure and performance in endurance athletes, based on a literature study. The second goal is to formulate an answer to the question of what can be done to prevent the negative effects of performance anxiety in endurance athletes.

The relationship between fear of failure and performance is best described by catastrophe theory when self-confidence is also included (Hardy et al., 2004; Schiedek, 2008; Burgos & Lee, 2014). The addition of self-confidence to the catastrophe theory results in a measurable performance improvement in three studies (Hardy et al., 2004; Schiedek, 2008; Burgos & Lee, 2014). However, Love et al. (2018) found in their study of triathletes that the addition of self-confidence to the catastrophe theory leads to a reduction in performance. This result seems to indicate that self-confidence can adjust the performance surface in catastrophe theory in such a way that it can produce both an increase and a decrease in performance. Research into the catastrophe theory in which endurance athletes are used as a target group is still lacking. Follow-up research into the effect of self-confidence on the catastrophe theory in endurance athletes is therefore recommended to test whether catastrophe theory best describes the relationship between performance anxiety and performance and whether the addition of self-confidence can lead to both an increase and a decrease in performance.

Love et al. (2018), Parry et al. (2010) and McCann et al. (1992) found different results between the relationship between anxiety and performance in endurance athletes. Love et al. (2018) and Parry et al. (2010) found that amateur triathletes had an increased somatic fear of the competition and performed better, while McCann et al. (1992) found a negative relationship among professional cyclists. A possible explanation of these conflicting results may be the difference between amateurs and professionals. These studies did not look at different degrees of somatic anxiety, it is possible that the amateur triathletes had not yet passed their critical value of cognitive and somatic anxiety, leaving them still on the "cliff" of the performance surface. With the amateurs it was only about achieving their own set time goal. In contrast, the performance of the professional cyclists played a major role in the assessment of selection for the national team and participation in competitions. It can be expected that this causes greater fear of failure than trying to achieve an own time goal that has no consequences. Research on the relationship between the intensity of competition anxiety on performance in endurance athletes is still lacking. It is then important to measure anxiety in a competition-specific situation, because according to McCann et al. (1992), the relationship between anxiety and performance appears to be different in a competition and in a lab.

In addition, the results of Parry et al. (2010) showed that somatic anxiety probably decreased during the match. The studies by Love et al. (2018) and Parry et al. (2010) compared pre-competition somatic anxiety with performance over the entire triathlon. It could be that the performance was indeed less at the beginning of the competition, but that fear of failure decreased to such an extent during the triathlon that it promoted the performance again. Follow-up research could show whether anxiety in endurance athletes decreases during the competition and performance increases as a result.

Neuroscientific research has revealed exactly how fear can influence physical processes (LeDoux & Pine, 2016; Klumpers et al., 2017). Via higher brain functions, the amygdala or the BNST are activated, depending on a fear or anxiety response (figure 8), which in turn activate the brainstem or the hypothalamus. The brainstem and hypothalamus influence the body's defense responses that affect performance. According to the catastrophe theory, an increase in performance is first seen with an increase in cognitive and somatic anxiety, and when this increases too far, athletes fall off a "cliff" with reduced performance as a result. However, research is still lacking on when the defensive response of this system has a positive effect on performance and when it has a negative effect. It is interesting to investigate how a fall from the 'cliff' then works in the body to prevent this fall in performance more specifically.

To prevent fear of failure, two possible methods have been discussed to achieve this. First, it is recommended to practice a lot with the use of problem-focused coping strategies. The use of coping strategies can be trained (Lazarus, 1993) and problem-oriented coping strategies ensure that the fear of failure decreases (Ntoumanis, & Biddle, 2000; Dias et al., 2012). This takes you away from the 'cliff' and a reduction in performance can be prevented. Second, the use of the MAC training method is recommended. This is a mindfulness training aimed at athletes. Mindfulness ensures that the fear of failure decreases (Gross et al., 2016; Wolch et al., 2020). However, the results of Gross et al. (2016) and Wolch et al. (2020) are not unequivocal about whether mindfulness also improves performance. Catastrophe theory can explain these different results, to see a significant performance improvement depends on where the athlete is on the performance surface. Neuroscientific research has also shown that performance anxiety decreases through mindfulness (Kummar, 2017). More hours of mindfulness training means more gray matter in the higher brain functions, such as the hypocampus and the OFC. These higher brain functions ensure that the amygdala is inhibited, which causes a reduction in defense reactions.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the aim of this thesis is to investigate the fear of failure in the target group of endurance athletes. However, research among endurance athletes about the relationship between fear of failure and performance is still very scarce and the little research that has been done among endurance athletes does not provide unequivocal answers. It is expected that the results will also apply to endurance athletes due to the results of neuroscientific research (LeDoux & Pine, 2016; Klumpers et al., 2017; Kummar, 2017) and the results of studies where a mixture was present in the research group of many different sports (Ntoumanis, & Biddle, 2000; Dias et al., 2012). More research in endurance athletes is needed to gain more support as to whether this is actually the case. In addition, different terms are used in research to describe performance anxiety that all amount to the same or almost the same thing (Ford et al., 2017). Therefore, the general theory about anxiety was also used because performance anxiety does not behave differently (Bakker & Oudejans, 2019).

Considering what has been written above, the relationship between fear of failure and performance is best explained by catastrophe theory when self-confidence is included. Problem-focused coping strategies and the MAC training method should be used to prevent the reduction in performance due to fear of failure. These two methods do not have the effect of completely eliminating the fear of failure. The problem-focused coping strategies and the MAC training method contribute to controlling performance anxiety, so that the performance decrease due to performance anxiety is prevented and the performance improvement due to performance anxiety is used correctly.

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