In my work as a mental performance consultant with athletes, struggles with confidence is one of the issues that comes up most frequently. Think of the most confident people or athletes you know. Were they born confident or did they develop the confidence you see in them over time? Nature versus nurture debates aside, when it comes to sports I think most of us have observed or experienced personally how fleeting confidence can be. One moment you’re feeling on top of the world, ready to take on anything and anyone, and the next moment you may be going through an existential crisis questioning what in the world you are doing on the competitive stage in the first place? Passing thoughts like ‘why am I doing this?’ certainly don’t contribute enhancing your sport confidence.
So where does confidence come from and how do we nurture it and build it over time?
Like physical training, confidence builds in increments. Rock solid confidence doesn’t come over night and like any other aspects of an athletes training, it will have setbacks and temporary slumps. How we work through setbacks and what we look to for sources of confidence can make a big difference in building and keeping confidence more consistent over time.
Look beyond competitive results. Don’t buy into the common misconception or cliché that “you are only as good as your last result.” We can’t deny that a great or peak competitive performance certainly adds momentum to confidence. But we also can’t let one disappointing day override the confidence earned to that point from months or years of practice and competitive experience. If you let your last competition, race, workout, or training session determine your daily confidence you’ll be in for a real roller coaster ride emotionally; not a good way to balance your emotional energy or perform optimally over time! Furthermore looking beyond results also helps you to focus on the bigger picture perspective of all the reasons why you enjoy pursuing your sport in the first place.
Create a confidence plan. Sometimes when the normal waves of pre-competition nerves and anxiety hit in the weeks and days before an event, our brain says hey this a threat and we need to prepare for it. That is when negative thoughts and doubts creep in and it becomes easy to question our preparedness and readiness to compete. Many athletes I’ve worked with have found it helpful to write down all the things that have contributed to their confidence over time – things they’ve accomplished, overcome, positive feedback and encouragement they’ve received: all and any reasons they have to be and remain confident. Reading over this list when pre-competition nerves strike can be a calming and centering routine which also helps to shift the focus back to an eager and excited pre-competition state.
Focus on your own plan. If there is one thing that undermines confidence more than anything else it is constant comparison with others and rigid expectations with those comparisons (e.g. I should be ahead of him/her). While competitive rivalries are there to optimally challenge us and bring out our competitive best, if you’re focused on others or constantly comparing yourself against others in training or in racing, it will only erode your own confidence over time since what others are doing (or what you think they are doing) is out of your control. Put your focus and energy into your plan, what works for you and what you need to focus on pre-, during and post-competition to do your best. For example, the late Al Oerter, an American athlete, was incredibly a four-time Olympic Champion in the discus throw. In an interview he said one of the secrets of his success was practicing in absolutely every kind of weather condition, an example of focusing on your own plan and preparation for anything!
To grow confidence it needs to be challenged. Like the title of this blog, confidence needs to be earned. If confidence was something that was given to us or that we could buy it wouldn’t mean much. Confidence grows from those moments of pushing through fears, anxieties, challenges, setbacks, workouts, races, competitions and coming out mentally and/or physically stronger from them on the other side. When we embrace training and competitive days as opportunities to push our current comfort zones when it comes to effort, focus, and overcoming adversities we can appreciate how they help to build confidence and belief over time. When viewed this way, successes and setbacks can both equally contribute to building consistent sport confidence.