Lapping It Up: Overcome debilitating fear of failure by setting goals, pushing forward and refocusing

I am scared of failing, in every aspect of my life. I am an over-thinker, a worrier, a perfectionist. I am afraid of failing and proving the devil on my shoulder right - that I am not good enough, or that I overestimated my capabilities. I am afraid of failing and either disappointing others, or proving them right.

The goal of sport is to get to the top. As such, many equate winning with success and any other outcome with failure. I think there is a vast difference between losing and failing. After losing a race or missing your goal, there is the opportunity to learn and to change. Losing is a step on the way to success, especially if you take something away from the experience and evolve.

Failure, on the other hand, is what happens when decisions are not made, action is not taken and effort is not made. Failure is complacency, when nothing is learnt and no growth is made. I know I have failed when I am at the precipice of pushing past the barrier and breaking through that wall of pain and discomfort, only to give up and step back into my comfort zone. Into what is safe.

Failure can come in many forms - physical, mental, emotional. They do not have to be major. Something as small as a bad thought about competing can grow into doubt that then leads to sleepless nights and anxiety over what should be fun and exciting.

I knew I was not going to swim well in Rio last year. I knew when I was stepping onto the blocks that I was going to disappoint. I had allowed myself to focus on all the negatives. On how my racing suit did not sit right, how I had not felt sharp and snappy in the water in the two weeks leading up to the Games. Instead of trying to hype myself back up, I used all that as excuses to fall back into my comfort zone. My rationale was that if no risks were taken, then there would not be any chance of failure. I played it safe and did not swim to my capabilities.

The scariest part about tapering for a major swim meet is that your chances to perform at your peak are few and far between, and if you do not do what you set out to do at your best, then it is almost a testament to the limits of your potential.

I cannot speak for everyone, but I do not like learning about my limits. For me, it is the leaping up and forward towards greatness only to fall short that frightens me. I am afraid of missing my goals, because failing can be painful, disappointing and embarrassing. When I fail, a part of me starts to question myself: Am I not good enough?


Quah Ting Wen was close to quitting many times, but her goals have kept her going. PHOTO: SSA

What is even scarier is when that self-doubt turns into acceptance - a form of defeat. It is also tiring, at times exhausting, to keep trying and to keep failing and to keep trying to push past that failure. It is scary when people tell you that what you do is a waste of time and energy, and even scarier when you start to believe it. I suppose that is what makes the greats so great. Because of what they have overcome and pushed past. Past what most people would have shied away from.

Failing is part of an athlete's life. It is part of anyone's life. Failing is not a bad thing if you learn to deal with it, shrug it off and start again. It is far from easy and I have been close to giving swimming up many times. What keeps me going is having goals.

I have goals for what I want to accomplish within the week for training. Goals for how I want to race in three months' time. Goals for what I would like to do next year and the year after that, both in and out of the sport. These goals are not constant. Sometimes I have to revisit some of them and make necessary revisions. I try to keep it simple.

Failing is part of an athlete's life. It is part of anyone's life... Failure can be a bitter thing, but take whatever you can from it and perhaps something sweet may arise from the lessons that you learned.

When things become too intense or if I get too overwhelmed, I try my best to think about the times when I felt pure joy and satisfaction. Those moments are addictive and hard to come by, but I chase them with a fervour. I use those memories to refocus.

When I look at people who are happy and look deeper into why they are happy, I realise it is because they have immersed themselves in things that excite them, things that they are passionate about and that drive them.

It is a cliche, but the road to success and happiness is never easy and not always fun, but that is what makes those rare moments so worthwhile.

My dad has always told me that anything worth doing is not easy. There is a Chinese saying, first the bitter, then the sweet.

Failure can be a bitter thing, but take whatever you can from it and perhaps something sweet may arise from the lessons that you learned. Perhaps you may learn that you are stronger than you realise and acknowledge, and can push past that fear of failing, to try again and again and again.


  • National swimmer Quah Ting Wen talks about her life as a competitive athlete and her journey to the 2018 Commonwealth Games in a monthly column.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2017, with the headline 'Overcome debilitating fear of failure by setting goals, pushing forward and refocusing'. Print Edition | Subscribe