Confidence can be that elusive quality that inhibits many aspects of your life and can stop you doing things you really would like to try. Why not learn some of the techniques and strategies of the world’s top performers, who have all suffered from a loss of confidence at some stage, to become the person you want to be?
You will learn these skills, which in turn will lead to a more exciting and fun life. Nothing beats trying something you fear and experiencing the excitement to know you can actually do it, and it’s enjoyable. If there are aspects of your life where building more confidence is important to you, then these sessions will be ideal for you. After 25 years of working with some of the World’s top performers in sport and business, I am now allocating one day a week to private / clients.
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A Review of Confidence in Sport
If there is one single key factor in being able to perform when it counts, it is your level of confidence. Evidence is overwhelming that confidence is a critical mental modifier in influencing the performance of athletes in sport. Quite simply, confident athletes perform better than less confident athletes. However, confidence is the one thing sure to leave you when you feel you are not performing at your best. So how can you create a robust confidence that remains with you when you really need it?
What is confidence?
Confidence is simply a belief that you can do something well. Self-confidence is often used to refer to a positive attitude and healthy belief in yourself and your ability. It is the belief that you can successfully perform a given behaviour or task. This situation-specific self-confidence is known as self-efficacy. A football player may have a high degree of self-confidence in dribbling but a low degree of self-confidence in penalty-taking.
When you perform at your best, you might not be actively thinking of anything at all, simply having some great fun because you are totally absorbed at the moment, doing what you enjoy, what you have spent hours training to perfect. When you are not performing well, however, confidence can be an elusive character that runs away, nowhere to be found…
When you have ‘one of those days’ when things don’t seem to be going your way, how often have you said to yourself, “What the hell’s happening today?” This is not the time for negative or unrealistic thinking (e.g. “This always happens..”). Instead, it’s a time to make small adjustments and compensations to help get you back on track; it’s a time to look at the things that are working, however small, and build on these, or simply to start afresh. It might surprise you how small the adjustment might need to be to get you back where you need to be. Easy to say – not always so easy to do.
Sport psychologists might talk about fragile and robust confidence. Fragile confidence is ‘weak’ confidence, based purely on results – win and you feel confident, lose and you feel unconfident. Robust confidence, however, is more internal and ‘strong’ as it is based on a whole host of things such
as mastery, vicarious experiences, social support, coach support as well as winning, so the base is much firmer. This type of confidence is not wholly reliant on results and is the type of confidence of true champions.
What do athletes need to be confident about?
Taking an example from football, a player can be really confident about their ability to get a shot on target and score. However, how confident are they to (i) make the shot in traffic, in a crowded box (ii) make the shot under pressure, from a strong and physical defender (iii) read the defence to get open and take the shot, and (iv) remain focused and confident even though he missed the last four shots. So simply assuming that confidence in your ability to do something well would be an oversimplification of the term.
Athletes need to be confident in their ability in three basic areas (Vealey & Knight, 2002).
Athletes need to be confident:
1. That they can physically execute the skills they need to perform successfully.
2. In their mental skills to maintain focus and make effective decisions needed to succeed in their sports
3. In their resilience, or their ability to regain focus after errors, bounce back from performing poorly, and overcome setbacks and obstacles to be successful.
Confidence in resilience and mental focus skills were the strongest predictors of performance in a critical pressurised meet (vealey & Knight, 2002)
Why is confidence important?
As self-confidence is the belief that you can perform a desired behaviour, it leads to the fact that an athlete’s expectations of doing something will play a critical part in whether he achieves it or not. For example, a footballer confident in volleying a ball will not hesitate when a cross comes in at the right height and speed to take its first touch on the volley. A less confident player may attempt to first control the ball, losing valuable seconds and perhaps even the opportunity to shoot. An athlete confident in her preparation for a race will be less inclined to worry about who else is racing alongside her.
Benefits of being confident
Positive attitude, feelings & emotional adaptiveness
Confidence gives you positive feelings – when you feel confident, you are more likely to remain calm and relaxed under pressure. Athletes with higher levels of self-confidence will experience less anxiety at the same stress level as an athlete with lower self-confidence. Athletes who have strong beliefs about their abilities are able to manage the emotions associated with competition much more efficiently than athletes who lack confidence. Confidence allows athletes to effectively manage and cope with anxiety, freeing their minds to focus their attention on the sport situation and what they want to do as opposed to worrying about their abilities and possible failures. Confidence allows better concentration – when you feel confident, your mind is freed to focus on what is necessary to play well.
Confidence affects the way players play and athletes approach their sport – confident athletes tend to ‘play to win’. Footballers, for example, will show that they always want the ball, and are not afraid to take chances and take control of the match, whereas players lacking in confidence tend to ‘play not to lose’, in that they play cautiously and try to avoid making mistakes and often avoid touching the ball altogether! Confident athletes will also tend to approach their sport with the attitude “I’m here to win” or perhaps achieve a specific time objective.
Goal Setting, Effort and Persistence
Confidence encourages you to ‘stretch’ yourself, to ‘reach higher’ – confident people tend to set goals and face challenges in which there is quite a high degree of uncertainty concerning the outcome and pursue them with more vigour. Put simply, confident athletes set more challenging goals. Evidence shows that clear and challenging goals lead to greater achievement. People who are not confident either set goals which are easy to achieve or which are too difficult to achieve. These players, for example, will be content to play teams or go one-on-one against others who are either a lot less able than them or who are much better, so in effect, minimizing the challenge faced. When athletes fall short of their goals, they are dissatisfied.
Confidence encourages effort and persistence – confident players will often work harder and persist for longer, especially under adverse conditions. Athletes with low self-confidence tend to show low levels of effort in striving to achieve a task. When faced with difficult situations e.g. prolonged lack of success, tough opponents, the match score against them, their ‘heads go down’ more quickly (i.e players get demoralized and discouraged). For confident athletes, this dissatisfaction turns into an incentive, and they will increase their effort and persistence to achieve their goals. For athletes who lack confidence, this dissatisfaction turns into a disincentive and they will give up. Confidence allows you to be a rubber ball, in that it allows you to bounce back from setbacks!
“Confidence allows athletes to demonstrate persistent effort at ‘crunch time’ in matches, which is important to let opponents know that you’re not going to give in at all or tank the match due to mental or physical fatigue” Pete Sampras
Athletes who are not confident tend to make poor decisions. To be ‘cognitively efficient’ means that you use your mental (or cognitive) resources more productively. Confident athletes will think better than less confident athletes. They will have the mental skill to ignore distractions and manage their thinking. Confidence gives athletes the freedom to focus their attention on the task as opposed to worrying about their inadequacies and possible performance failures. Confident athletes are more decisive and better able to focus on the present and leave performance errors in the past. Confident athletes make more productive attributions for their success by attributing success to their ability, effort, and preparation, while less confident athletes tend to attribute success to uncontrollable factors. This is demonstrated in what is called your ‘explanatory style’ – or how you explain your success or failure.
Confident athletes also tend to use more problem-focused coping strategies (“This is what I need to do to overcome this problem”)as opposed to emotional-focused strategies, and engage in more mastery imagery and have better imagery ability than less confident athletes.
Overall, self-confidence helps athletes’ cognitive efficiency and enables them to think better about competition and respond with productive thoughts no matter what happens.
Where does confidence come from?
The prime source of confidence is previous performance accomplishments. If you’ve done it before, you’ll be confident you can do it again. Also, seeing self-improvement can be a great source of confidence – “I know I’m getting better all the time”; so you may not necessarily have achieved your goal as yet, but your improvement over time gives you your source of confidence.
These performance sources of confidence come particularly from competing, but also from training performances. It is, therefore, good practice to keep reminding yourself of things you do well, and this is a reason why training and performance logs/diaries can be beneficial. It is also why coach feedback can be a source of confidence.
Confidence also comes from seeing other players or sportsmen perform, especially when it is someone of similar ability or age to you – you might develop an “if they can do it, then so can I” attitude. This works especially well when the other people are similar in age and ability (i.e. teammates).
Encouragement from significant others (e.g. your parents, coaches and friends) can also help improve confidence, so it is important to have a good support network, particularly for when things are not going as well as they might have been going in the past.
If we look at sources of confidence in a little more detail, we can break them down into a whole host of areas, some of which you may not have considered previously. If you can imagine, however, a variety of confidence sources that you might dip into when the need arises, just think how good it might be if one source wasn’t working, so you simply go onto the next one. You’d want as many items in your box as possible!
Source 1: Winning
- Prior success
- Be able to beat your opponent
- Reaching tournament goals
- Achieving performance targets (shots/crosses / rallies etc.)
Without question, the most important source of athletes’ confidence is their past performance or achievement. Previous performance is the best predictor of athlete confidence.
Source 2: Performance Mastery
- Mastering skills
- Playing well
- Competing well
- Training well
- Achieving goals
- Developing new skills
- Knowing “I can do it”
- Look at your ‘successes’ (see below)
Athletes use both mastery (improving skills or mastering new skills) as well as a demonstration of ability (showing off skills to others, demonstrating more ability than others, winning) as important sources of confidence. Effective ‘goal maps’ can include performance goals that are controllable so that success is within the athletes’ control. All athletes (particularly male athletes) should be encouraged to define success and achievement in controllable ways (e.g. mastery) to help keep their confidence stable and resilient through the ups and downs of competition.
Source 3: Preparation
- Training hard
- Mentally prepared
- Psyching right
- Developing well-practised strategies to execute
- Knowing you’re prepared for the situation
Athletes have rated physical and mental preparation as one of their top sources of confidence and successful World-Class athletes have particularly emphasized the importance of quality training for their confidence and performance success.
“My job is to suffer. I make the suffering in training hard so that the races are not full of suffering.”
Source 4: Models
- Seeing others, such as teammates, friends, and other athletes, perform well
- Watching a videotape of self
- Using imagery to view oneself performing perfectly
Watching successful models can also be a source of confidence for athletes. Visual and verbal instruction from coaches can give athletes the confidence to successfully complete new skills themselves. Coaches are important models for athletes not only in skill execution but also for modelling confident behaviour, decision-making, and strategy development. Coaches who are more confident in their coaching abilities have been shown to have more successful teams and more satisfied athletes than less confident coaches. Team-mates also serve as confidence-building models (e.g. Davis’s home run at the beginning of the first game inspired them with confidence that they could win the series and sent a message to the A’s that the Reds were not intimidated). Self-modelling, using imagery or video tape is also an important source of confidence. Athletes who are in slumps and/or who are struggling with confidence often view videotapes of their previous performances when they were in the groove to serve as a model to improve their performance and ‘get their stroke back’. A common confidence builder is the development of personal motivational videos (PMVs) for athletes, where their best performances are captured on tape along with energizing music, often selected specially by the athlete. Watching PMVs has been shown to enhance confidence.
Source 5: Feedback
- Receiving useful feedback, as well as support and encouragement, from coaches and others (teammates, parents, friends)
The encouragement and feedback we receive from significant others in our lives is an important source of confidence. “I believed in myself because my parents/coach believed in me” might be a common saying among athletes.
Athletes who played with coaches who gave frequent praise, technical instruction, and error-contingent encouragement significantly increased their self-esteem over the course of the season. Coach feedback in terms of praise and information is positively related to self-confidence.
Source 6: Coach Leadership
- Believing that your coach is skilled in decision-making and leadership in terms of running the team and program.
Source 7: Self-Presentation
- I feel good about myself
- I feel my body is in good shape
- I like the clothes I wear in matches
- I do not get injured easily
Source 8: Social & multi-discipline Support
- “I have a lot of support.”
Source 9: The Organisation /Environmental comfort
- A culture of winning
- A culture of doing things right
- Feeling comfortable in a competitive environment
Source 10: Psychology & self-regulation
- Knowing you’re mentally tough
- Developing and using skills and strategies to maintain focus and manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviours that lead to optimal performance.
- Having good mental skills and experience
- Dealing with uncontrollable
Psychology and self-regulation involve developing and using skills and strategies to maintain focus and manage one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours that lead to optimal performance.
Self-regulation as a source of confidence is closely related to preparation because athletes must mentally prepare and practice their self-regulation strategies for them to work in competition. Using these strategies during competition often serves as an important source of confidence. A common example is the use of routines to create a familiar and comfortable plan for how to act and think as the time for competition nears. Athletes indicate that these routines help them feel a sense of control and confidence in relation to the upcoming competition. Pre-competition routines, rituals, and focus plans are critical predictors of how well athletes perform, especially in championship or pressure situations.
Source 11: Situational Favourableness
- Feeling that the breaks or momentum of the situation are in your favour
- Statistics and lies!
All these sources are available to athletes and can be used, but some are more controllable, more enduring and lead to stronger and more resilient self-confidence. Higher levels of confidence are related to focusing on sources or strategies that athletes personally control, such as mastery of physical skills and preparation. Confidence is more stable and resilient when athletes directly control the sources upon which their confidence is built. All sources of confidence are useful at times for athletes but focusing on mastery and improvement, achieving personal performance goals, exhaustive training and preparation, and personal self-regulation serve as the best sources for strong and stable confidence.
*Sources of Sport Confidence of Master Athletes, 2004. Wilson, Sullivan, Myers & Feltz. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology;
*Coaching the Inner Edge, 2004. Vealy
Ultimately, you become what you say to yourself most often, so make sure your own self-talk is very positive and optimistic. Be realistic and expect things to go well: “I may be playing a good player, but he’ll really know he’s been in a match today!”
*Martin Selligman. Authentic Happiness & Learned Optimism.
How can you develop confidence?
The primary way to develop confidence, if you have the talent, is by training hard and smart. If, for example, you develop your tennis skills to such an extent that you simply know they will be okay in competition, then your confidence will rocket! By targeting each of the sources of confidence above, an athlete can develop a robust type of confidence. These sources will need to be revisited often, as time, age, maturity, sex, and situations can all lead to differences in where an athlete might draw off their confidence on any occasion.
Listing your performance accomplishments and strengths can be a great source of confidence. By inviting coaches and others to add to your lists, your confidence will be enhanced even further. Personal motivational videos (PMVs) can also be a great source of inspiration and confidence by reminding you exactly how good you really are. Accompanied by your favourite movies, PMVs can be a perfect confidence boost for pre-competition. By constantly reminding yourself that you have done it before and so can do it again, you will give yourself a good base for building your confidence. The list can be extensive and include many ‘successes’:
Strengths: Listing your strengths and reminding yourself of these regularly can give you a serious confidence boost. Ask your coach, parents and friends to also tell you your strengths and compile as big a list as possible.
Improvements: What are the things you have improved on in the past year? Think positively here (technically, tactically, physically, psychologically, personally etc.)
Achievements: List things you have achieved, including attending so many training sessions, learning new skills, understanding sport psychology and nutritional requirements etc.
The Edge: What gives you the edge over your opponents? If they are physically stronger, are you mentally tougher? If they have a good forehand, do you have an edge with your backhand? Etc.
Preparation: What do you do to prepare for a match? How many hours of training do you have for a 90-minute match (which might include 18 minutes of rally time, incidentally!).
Hard to Beat: List the things that make you a hard player to beat. For example, “I am hard to beat when I….have a positive attitude / have a high intensity.”
To develop a really robust and strong confidence, one that isn’t shaken when things are going not so well, keep reminding yourself of your achievements, successes, strengths, edge and preparation -also, accept that losing is inevitable, and instead of looking at a loss as a failure, see it as another opportunity to learn and to improve.
Make a list of the following and keep referring to these to help build confidence and self-esteem:
1. Major athletic sporting achievements
2. Life achievements
3. What pleases me most about life
4. What’s good about me
5. My athletic strengths
6. My life strengths