Confidence is often a critical component of an athlete’s performance. Thoughts like “I knew I was going to make that shot” or “The other team was bigger than us, we don’t even have a chance” can tremendously impact whether a person feels good about their shot at success. So, how can we help our athletes feel more confident in their abilities? In this article I will cover the sources of confidence, how to help your athlete develop confidence, and how to “cheat the system” when confidence is lacking.
Why is Confidence Important?
Confidence is a relational emotion--it changes based on our assessment of the situation, including our perspective on opponents, playing field conditions, weather, the order in which we put our gear on, our last performance, or even if our shirt is itchy that day. That initial evaluation can make us think we don’t have a prayer in the world at succeeding, even if the facts state otherwise.
Decreases in confidence are often followed by negative thoughts and a wild train ride of “what ifs” running a million miles an hour. Without a mechanism to interrupt that train of negative thoughts, an athlete’s mind can go into overwhelm and they may struggle to recall the skills and plays they have been practicing for weeks before this moment.
Where Does Confidence Come From?
Confidence is closely related to self-efficacy, which is a person’s belief in their abilities to complete a certain task. This is not something that changes moment-to-moment, but simply the understanding that it is or is not possible.
Self-efficacy comes from:
● Verbal Persuasion - Someone telling us or telling ourselves we are capable
● Previous Experience - “I’ve done this before”
● Vicarious Experience - “I’ve seen someone like me do this before”
● Physiological Feedback - Our interpretation of the body’s physical responses
While self-efficacy is our belief that something can be done, confidence is our interpretation of if something can be done right now.
On top of these 4 factors, confidence fluctuates depending on our perceptions of likely success. For example, a soccer player might believe in their abilities to defend against an opposing team’s striker, but if a specific player is much taller and more muscular, their confidence level might decrease based on that assessment. But, once they see that player miss several shots during warm ups, their confidence might increase because they believe they are more skilled than their opponent, regardless of their size.
How to Develop Confidence
By understanding the factors that impact self-efficacy, and therefore one’s confidence levels, it is easier to customize skills that can improve a person’s moment-to-moment belief in themselves. Below are a few examples of ways you can help your athlete feel more confident in their abilities.
1. Positive Self-Talk (Verbal Persuasion): It might seem obvious, but the way we speak to ourselves (and to others) impacts our emotions. And yet, most people will still find a way to say negative things to themselves e.g. “You’re going to miss this shot” or “This team is ranked higher than us, we have no chance.” Instead, create mantras or catch phrases to mitigate the negative thoughts, then be sure to lead by example and use them for yourself as well as when you’re supporting them. My favorites are “Win the next play” and the classic “You can do this.” Need some help? You can access my Positive Self-Talk worksheet here.
2. Practice & Exposure (Previous Experience): Carve out consistent time slots to work on the task with breaks in between; more time between repetitions increases retention. The more times your athlete can execute the skill
correctly, the easier it is to look back on the triumph as a source of confidence.
3. Watching Others (Vicarious Experience): Videos and tutorials are a great resource for developing confidence. When an athlete sees another person achieve something, they have proof that it is possible.
4. Calming Routines & Body Functions (Physiological Feedback): Our body reacts the same way to any challenge, but it is our interpretation that causes us to feel positively or negatively about our chances. Developing a quick breathing routine (like box breathing) can slow down a high heart rate and breathing rate, which often induce feelings of fear from the fight or flight response. You can also help your athlete consciously reframe their body’s feedback. For example, if your athlete notes their heart rate often increases with pressure, it may be helpful to reframe with “My heart rate increases to get oxygen to my brain so I can think more clearly” or “The butterflies in my stomach are cheering me on.”
While it is easy to think these tools might be a quick-fix, athletes tend to need to try out and customize these approaches to find the right combination for what they are working through. You can reach out to me for a Free 30-minute session for questions, examples, and custom support for your athlete.
Believing in one’s abilities can be a large part of their success, but sometimes, it may feel impossible to increase confidence in a certain moment. And while this may be frustrating, I will let you in on a not-so-secret secret: You do NOT need to feel entirely confident in yourself to have a good performance.
Yes, it’s true. Confidence is NOT the end-all be-all for success.
If you notice your athlete struggling to increase confidence after utilizing the skills they’ve practiced, the best thing you can do is bring them back to the basics, the functions of the sport that they’ve been working on. You can ask questions like:
What are the skills required for this event? Explain to me how you execute those.
What will you do when X happens? What will you do if X mistake happens?
What does your coach want you to do in X situation?
When all else fails, I tell my athletes to remember that our brains can only focus on one thing at a time. If that one thing is your training and how to respond to each game scenario, there’s no room for it to focus on what-ifs, negative results, or what anyone else is thinking. There’s only room for your instincts that you solidified from training.
Putting Tools Into Practice
Our brains have been working the same way our entire life, so changing the way we think takes time and effort. Start with 1-2 skills and work on customizing each approach to find what works best rather than trying to implement too many changes at once. Once your athlete has seen some success, add in a new tactic to keep things fresh and exciting!
Looking for custom support? Reach out for a FREE 30-minute session with me so we can identify and zone-in on the obstacles that might be getting in your child’s way of success.
You’ve got me in your corner,
Rachel Hoeft, PsyD
West-Mont’s Official Mental Performance Coach