Earn your Confidence

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.


Parenting Confidence?

How can I increase my confidence? This question is pretty common with athletes I work with these days. Whether it is the search for confidence in general, or striving to maintain confidence through injury, illness, poor training or disappointing competition results. Is confidence something we’re just born with or does it develop over time? Or both?

A book I’m currently reading was recommended to me by a colleague and sheds some interesting light on the development of confidence. The book is called The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance by Polly Young-Eisendrath, PhD. In the beginning the book mentions a study that labels anyone born in the early 1970s through to the 2000s as the GenMe generation.The researcher of the study stated, “Born after self-focus entered the cultural mainstream, this generation has never known a world that put duty before self.” Yikes! Words like narcissism and entitlement have also been used to label this generation, I guess I have to reluctantly say this is my generation. And for many reasons, which can be found in the book, “GenMe’s” are more likely to suffer from symptoms of the self-esteem trap characterized by obsessive self-focus, restless dissatisfaction, pressures to be exceptional, unreadiness to take on adult responsibilities, feelings of superiority (or inferiority), and excessive fear of being humiliated…..hmmmmhmmm.

After an interesting history of parenting presented in this book, the author indicates that part of the problem has been the shift towards the belief that parents and children’s rights and needs are nearly equal, that parents should be friends with their children, and that children’s self-esteem should be protected at all costs. In practice, well intended parents may offer laid-back or inconsistent discipline, feel the need to show off children’s successes and accomplishments, provide excuses for their children’s behavior, want to be friends and avoid conflict with their children, unrealistically want their kids to be happy 24/7, overpraise children, over serve children’s needs, or follow the chlid-centered belief that “if you just give children the right nourishment, open affection, a lot of freedom and encourage their inner genius, they will flourish.”

So what have some parents unknowingly lost touch with, that can contribute to raising self-confident kids? Perhaps it is the exposure to a little more healthy experience in adversity as well as less interference with opportunities for children to develop autonomy. As the book explains, it is finding the right balance between the best of Eastern and Western Culture. For example, one fundamental teaching from Buddhism is that human life always includes discontent and adversity. No one can escape difficulty, pain or loss and we all need to learn how to deal with the inevitable parts of life, such as illness and death, realistically and compassionately. Part of the path to self-confidence is based on our skill to relate to and understand our interdependence with others, as well as the planet!

On the Western or Individualistic cultural side of the spectrum, we need to recognize the importance of autonomy in developing self-confidence. Autonomy is our ability to self-govern and to guide ourselves by our own decisions. So in a nutshell, the basis of this book is founded on an approach based on the above two principles, as described on page 34-35:

“Robust self-confidence, self-determination, self-compassion, and resilience are founded on learning early and repeatedly that true happiness comes principally in two ways: being able to relate to others in a caring and kind manner (since we always depend on others, we need to sustain our connection to them), and knowing how to be responsible for ourselves and our actions.”

Like most parents these days who want to give everything and every opportunity to my children, this book reminds me of the importance to let my children fail, fall down and make choices, as well as develop age-appropriate independence and responsibilities as they grow. This will prepare them to one day leave the nest, like the quote, “we have them to raise them, not to keep them.”

As for athletes, we often hear the cliché, “You’re only as good as your last race”, which I have a love-hate relationship with. All too commonly, an athlete’s confidence and self-esteem can go up and down according to how his or her last training session or competition went. But real confidence comes from finding solutions to difficult problems, persisting through setbacks, overcoming disappointments, and committing to working on the process of mastery no matter how big the ups and downs of competition go! Parents and coaches, who “run interference” with this process will only thwart the healthy growth of a self-confident and self-determined person or athlete!

In the runner-up book in the Canada Reads 2012 contest, author and famous NHL goalie, Ken Dryden finished his book The Game with this poem, titled, I am a player…

I want to win

It matters to me if I win or lose

It matters to me how I play the game

I want to win without injustice or bad luck or regret

I want to own every pleasure and disappointment

I want to get lost in play

I want time not to matter

I want to do something more important than me

I cannot win alone

I need my teammates and my opponents to make me better

I trust, because I have to trust

I forgive, because I need to be forgiven

I play a game, not only a game

I try because that matters to me

I try because it’s more fun that way

I don’t quit because it doesn’t feel good when I do

I play with others, but I play against me

I learn when I play

I play when I learn

I practice because I like t0 be good

I try what I’ve never tried before

I fail to fail smarter

I want to be better than I was yesterday

I dream

I imagine

I feel hard and deep

I hope, because there is always a way.