An Introduction to Confidence
Confidence is the single most important mental factor in sport and research points to confidence as the factor that distinguishes the highly successful from the less successful in sport (Vealey & Chase, 2008). It’s considered the most important because, even if you are top performer with elite skill, unless you believe in that capability as well, then you won’t play up to that capability. Too often the real opponent athletes have to conquer is within themselves. Their mind is their biggest rival, not who they’re actually competing against, and confidence absolutely factors into that. When we’re caught with low confidence it can easily turn into a vicious cycle. When you’re down on yourself (direct: “I’m f***ing this up”, or indirect: “I don’t know if I can…”) the negative thinking leads to poor performance and that performance reinforces the negative thoughts you were having beforehand, proving yourself right.
Hays et al. (2009) found that confidence impacts the coping resources of athletes, and those athletes who possess a stronger belief in their ability to perform are more able to perform optimally under pressure. Identifying potential confidence killers early on then becomes important in order to minimize them prior to any major competition. Regardless of the cause, in periods of low confidence, pressure creates anxiety, anxiety breaks focus, a lack of focus causes second guessing, and self-doubt undermines performance (Hays et al., 2009; Amasiatu, 2013). Commonly cited by athletes as the greatest disruption to their confidence is when they experience failure (mistakes, struggling to meet expectations, loss in competition…) but it doesn’t have to be. Take Phil Mickelson:
“Failure didn’t break them; it made them” (Fletcher & Mustafa, 2012).
You would think someone who missed their chance and comes up short would be disheartened, but Phil Mickelson and other like-minded athletes frequently cite the spark for their increased endeavor and commitment as those “failures” (Fletcher & Mustafa, 2012). Instead of seeing it as defeat, they re-interpreted the situation as a learning opportunity to double their efforts, which inevitably led to their success (Fletcher & Mustafa, 2012; Amasiatu, 2013; Vealey & Chase, 2008).
The truth is, confidence is not only the result of success and some of the most successful athletes we look up to in sport equally have many as failures. Confidence then doesn’t occur randomly and people aren’t just “blessed” with it. Instead, confidence is gained the same way any other skill or psychological attribute is learned and developed - through practice and repetition (Amasiatu, 2013). To develop a mindset like Phil Mickleson’s, athletes need to be good at doing two things:
Let go of, and reimagine, unsuccessful experiences, and;
Hang on to what successes they do experience no matter how small.
Research has identified 3 prerequisites that provide a foundation for confidence building that leads to the constructive thought process described above (Amasiatu, 2013).
The 3 Prereqs of Confidence (Amasiatu, 2013):
Possessing an Optimistic Explanatory Style - how an athlete responds to explain good and bad performances or situations they encounter. This habitual style of interpreting your environment is probably better known as the "glass half full or the glass half empty". In sport, this is how you reframe setbacks, obstacles, and disappointments to retain confidence.
Understanding how Thoughts Impact Performance - also known as the Cognitive Triangle, this point illustrates how our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all interconnected, influencing one another. When an athlete understands this concept they’re able to deliberately direct their thoughts to create confident feelings and produce better performance.
Practicing Self-Awareness - In order for the second concept to work you have to be aware of what’s going on in your inner world. But it’s a little more than tracking thoughts, it’s also being honest in assessing them. The inner rival, stirring up self-doubt, negativity, and hesitation creates the biggest obstacle out there. Successful athletes therefore have learned how to hurdle over that obstacle when it pops up.
How Inside Rival Develops Confident Athletes:
*Framework result of evidence-based research strategies recommended by Beaumont, Maynard, and Butt (2015).
The following can be done 1 on 1 with individual athletes or facilitated in a group workshops over a season. Works best in a team environment where coaching staff involvement and collaboration positively impacts overall team culture.
1. Teach athletes how to log evidence using reflection and/or journaling to increase self-awareness.
In collaboration with the athlete (and often with the coach’s input as well) we explore and develop signature strengths by helping them focus on the aspects of performance at which they excel and set them apart. Learning to own their success and internalizing the accomplishment helps those who tend to explain away their victories ("Yeah but anyone could've done it"...). Athletes who do this are more likely to lack confidence if they can’t connect their internal attributions to their successes and focus more on their short-comings.
2. Teach athletes how to use various mental skills such as goal setting, imagery, self-talk, attentional focus, and pre-performance routines to build, direct, and maintain their confidence.
In regards to self-talk, we can work to restructure and reframe specific unhelpful thoughts or general pessimism to a more resilient mentality. Implementing positive self-talk can be a valuable source of confidence because it is internal, always within the athlete’s control, and becomes stable and reliable overtime. Although CBT techniques may be helpful in the short-term, long-term work with us looks to increase the athlete's overall "window of tolerance" through the MAC approach to help athletes accept their unhelpful or negative thoughts/emotions and remain engaged in the moment, unaffected by them.
3. Advise the coaching environment on effective communication, creating a feedback culture, and preparing athletes for game-like situations in practice to test mental skills.
If not consulting in a team environment, 1 on 1 we work to find ways to incorporate this into practice/training in their normal schedule as well as through imagery visualization during consultation.
4. Consider individual differences among athletes and use different strategies for different needs and goals.
5. Learn what’s inside/outside your control so we can develop performance goals and pre-competition plans to monitor and adjust behavior to improve performance.
6. Influence the athlete environment by manipulating training and creating an environment that fosters belief and develops cues to help maintain confidence regardless of the situation.
Take our Confidence Check-In to see where you currently stand:
1. Vealey, R. S., & Chase, M. A. (2008). Self-confidence in sport. In T.S. Horn, (Ed.), Advances in Sport Psychology (pp. 66-97). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
2. Hays, K., Thomas, O., Maynard, I. & Bawden, M. (2009). The role of confidence in world-class sport performance. Journal of Sport Sciences, 27(11).
3. Amasiatu, A. N. (2013). Exploring the role of confidence to enhancing sports performance. Educational Research International, 1(3).
4. Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2012). A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13.
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