When athletes feel confident, they are more readily able to turn sporting potential into superior performance. Conversely, when they feel unsure of themselves, the slightest setback or smallest hurdle can have an inordinate effect on their performance.
What is self-confidence?
Self-confidence is commonly defined as the sureness of feeling that you are equal to the task at hand. This sureness is characterised by absolute belief in ability. You may well know someone whose self-belief has this unshakeable quality, whose ego resists even the biggest setbacks. In such people, confidence is as resilient as a squash ball: the harder the blow, the quicker they bounce back. Nonetheless, although confidence is a desirable characteristic, arrogance - or a sureness of feeling not well founded in one's ability - is undesirable. If self-confidence is perhaps the 'guardian angel of sports performers' then arrogance is their nemesis.
The six sources of self-confidence
The confidence an individual feels during a particular activity or situation is generally derived from one or more of the following six elements:
1. Performance accomplishments are the strongest contributor to sport confidence. When you perform any skill successfully, you will generate confidence and be willing to attempt something slightly more difficult. Skill learning should be organised into a series of tasks that progress gradually and allow you to master each step before progressing on to the next. Personal success breeds confidence, while repeated personal failure diminishes it.
2. Being involved with the success of others can also significantly bolster your confidence, especially if you believe that the performer you are involved with (e.g. a team-mate) closely matches your own qualities or abilities. In effect, it evokes the reaction: "if they can do it, I can do it".
3. Verbal persuasion is a means of attempting to change the attitudes and behaviour of those around us, and this includes changing their self-confidence. In sport, coaches often try to boost confidence by convincing athletes that the challenge ahead is within their capabilities: "I know you are a great player so keep your head up and play hard". An athlete might reinforce this by repeating the message over and over to him or herself as a form of self-persuasion. A tip here is to avoid stating what you want in the negative; so, rather than "'I really don't want to come off second best" try "I really want to win this one". Accordingly, your mind will not need to consider what is not required in order to arrive at what is.
4. Imagery experiences have to do with athletes recreating multi-sensory images of successful performance in their mind. Through creating such mental representations, mastery of a particular task or set of circumstances is far more likely. What you see is what you get
5. Physiological states can reduce feelings of confidence through phenomena such as muscular tension, palpitations and butterflies in the stomach. The bodily sensations associated with competition need to be perceived as being facilitative to performance and this can be achieved through the application of appropriate stress management interventions such as the "five breath technique" and "thought-stopping".
6. Emotional states is the final source of self-confidence and relates to how you control the emotions associated with competition, such as excitement and anxiety. Very often, the importance of the occasion creates self-doubt, which is why it is essential to control your thoughts and emotions. Learning imagery and concentration skills such as those described in "the spotlight of excellence" (Exercise 2 below) will help.
Five exercises that will boost your self-confidence
Exercise 1: Confident situations and situations of doubt
To achieve a greater sense of stability in your confidence, it is necessary to know exactly what causes it to fluctuate. Divide a clean page into two columns. Label the first column 'High-confidence situations' and the second 'Low-confidence situations'.
In the first column, list all of the situations or circumstances in your sport in which you feel completely confident. In the second column, list the situations or circumstances that sometimes cause your confidence to diminish. Clearly identifying the situations that make you feel uneasy is the first step towards building greater self-confidence. We will come back to these lists in some of the remaining exercises, but for now, it should have just served to increase your awareness of areas that can be improved.
Exercise 2: The spotlight of excellence
This visualisation exercise recreates the mental state associated with past performance success and will help you in bridging the gap between your ability and confidence:
Exercise 3: Positive self-talk
Positive self-talk will affirm to you that you possess the skills, abilities, positive attitudes and beliefs that are the building blocks of success. The statements you choose need to be vivid, should roll off the tongue, and be practiced well in advance of competition. Most of all, they must be totally believable. You should use these particularly in the low-confidence situations that you identified in the second column of Exercise 1. Here are some examples to help you in composing your own:
Make your own list of four or five positive self-statements and read them to yourself every night before you go to bed and every morning as you wake up. Through repeated use, they will become embedded in your subconscious and have a profound influence on your sporting performance.
Exercise 4: Exploiting weaknesses in your opponent
Your opponent will harbour doubts and fears that they will try hard to hide from you. Like any human being, they are susceptible to anxiety, fatigue and indecision. If you spend time thinking about your opponents, focus upon which weaknesses and frailties you might most easily exploit. Here are some specific guidelines to help you:
NB - you will notice that some of these techniques are entirely ethical and 'sportsmanlike' while others push the boundaries of fair play.
Exercise 5: Using the power of sound
Music has unique properties, among which is its ability to inspire, motivate and boost one's confidence. There are many tunes with inspirational lyrics or strong extra-musical associations that you can use to increase your confidence before competition. Good examples include I Believe I Can Fly by R Kelly (62bpm), The Best by Tina Turner (104bpm) and Gold by Spandau Ballet (143bpm). You may like to try playing some tracks on your mp3 player as part of a pre-event routine. I suggest that if you want to feel confident and keep your physiological arousal low, select tracks with a slow tempo (i.e. below 110bpm). Conversely, if you want to psych-up, go for a higher tempo (i.e. over 110bpm), and build-up to a tempo of over 150bpm just before competing.
This article should have convinced you that self-confidence is not solely in the hands of fate. Even when Lady Luck is not shining, you are the person responsible for determining how confident you feel in a sporting encounter. Ideas for promoting confidence range from the simple principles of understanding what causes confidence to wane, to the techniques of visualisation and positive self-talk. You have also learned how to adopt a 'can-do' attitude, exploit weaknesses in your opponents and use inspirational music to raise your game. The legendary American football coach Vince Lombard! once quipped,
'Confidence is contagious .. .but so is a lack of confidence.'
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The following Sports Coach pages should be read in conjunction with this page: