Threat vs. Challenge in Sports: The Difference Between Victory and Failure

05/15/2013 04:23 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2013

I have found that a simple distinction appears to lie at the heart of whether athletes are able to rise to the occasion and perform their best when it really counts or crumble under the weight of expectations and tough conditions on the day of a competition: Do they view the competition as a threat or a challenge.

What happens when you are threatened by something (think mountain lion). First, what direction do you want to go? Of course, you want to run away from the threat as fast as you can. Physiologically, your muscles tighten up, you hold your breath, your balance goes back, and your center of gravity rises. Psychologically, your motivation is to flee from the threat. Your confidence plummets because you don't feel capable of confronting the situation (that's one reason it's a threat to you). You are focused only on protecting yourself from the threat. And, naturally, you feel fear, helplessness, and despair (because the mountain lion will eat you!). In sum, everything both physically and mentally goes against you, making it virtually impossible for you to overcome the threat and success in your sport.

Where does threat come from? Most powerfully, from a fear of failure. That is the mountain lion that you see lying in the path toward your athletic goals. The threat is what will happen if you fail. Obviously you won't die physically. But at a deep level, you feel as if some part of you will die, usually your self-esteem. The threat arises when you believe that there will be serious consequences for not achieving your goals, for example, you will embarrass yourself, let down your family and friends, feel that your sport has been a waste of time, or be devastated because you didn't fulfill your sport dreams. The irony is that by responding with a threat reaction because of these worries, you actually cause the very thing that is most threatening to you, namely, failure.

A challenge reaction produces an entirely different set of responses. When challenged by something, you want to go at it, you want to conquer it. Physiologically, you feel fired up, but also relaxed, with just the right amount of adrenaline to make you feel strong, quick, and fast. Your muscles are loose, you take steady breaths, your balance is on the balls of your feet, and your center of gravity lowers. Psychologically, your singular motivation is to go at that thing that is challenging you and overcome it. You are confident that you have the capabilities to surmount the challenging situation. Your focus is like a laser beam on the challenge in front of you. As for emotions, you feel excitement, inspiration, pride, and courage. In sum, your entire physical and psychological being is directed toward triumphing over the challenge and your chances of finding success are high.

Where then does challenge come from? It starts with a focus on achieving success rather than avoiding failure. With challenge, there is no fear of failure, but rather a profound desire to pursue your sport goals with complete vigor and without hesitation. Challenge is associated with your enjoying the process of your sport regardless of whether you succeed or fail. The emphasis is on having fun and seeing competitions as exciting and enriching. Your sport, when seen as a challenge, is an experience that is relished and sought out at every opportunity. Thus, challenge is highly motivating, to the point where you love being in pressure situations. When you develop a challenge reaction, you put yourself in your best possible position to perform your best and succeed because everything that impacts your performing is on your side.

The strange thing about threat vs. challenge is that it's all in your mind; it's rarely about the reality of a situation, but rather in how you perceive it. Think about it this way. I was an fairly accomplished ski racer in my youth. I was never in a race where it was only 20 degrees below zero for me. I was never in a race where the hill was only steep for me. I was never in a race where it was only snowing on me. My point is that everyone has, more or less, the same conditions in a competition. So, what determines whether you see those conditions as a threat or a challenge all boils down to how you look at them.

Look at it like this. Two athletes, Athlete A and Athlete B, are of equal ability and equally well prepared for an upcoming competition. Upon arrival at event, they encounter really bad weather conditions. Athlete A sees the conditions and thinks "This is awful. I hate these conditions. How am I going to perform well today." In contrast, Athlete B thinks, "These are tough conditions, but I've been training under these conditions and everyone has them anyway. I'm going to crush it!" Clearly, Athlete A sees the race as a threat, while Athlete B sees it as a challenge. Who do you think will have a better race? Athlete B, obviously.

So, next time you're faced with a really tough competitive situation, whether bad weather, a hostile crowd, a really tough field of competitors, or the biggest competition of your life, ask yourself whether you see it as a threat or a challenge. Then, embrace the challenge and tell yourself, "Bring it on!"