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The Power of Confidence

Introduction

No athlete is confident all the time. But they know confidence when they have it, and so do those around them.

Psychologists sometimes call it self-belief or self-efficacy, but whatever name you give it, confidence in sports can be a game changer: making an average player great and turning unsuccessful athletes into winners.

Take Jordan Burroughs, four-time World Champion with an Olympic Gold to his name.

The number two wrestler in U.S. history battled with insecurities for years while growing up.

Wrestling helped, but his mindset was what made the difference. For Jordan, preparation became everything. The more he set himself up for success, the more he won – and his confidence responded, reaching new heights.

The Psychology of Confidence

Confidence is a vital element of sports and performance psychology.

A key aspect of mental toughness, confidence, refers to self-belief. It describes the ability of our young athletes to see through to the end, something that for many would be tough (or even impossible) to achieve.

Professor of Psychology, Peter Clough, says confidence captures when athletes believe they “have the ability, knowledge, experience and skills to deal with whatever they face.”

Those high in confidence know that even the best plans can ‘go south,’ yet are comfortable that they can deal with the situation. While, someone low in confidence is more likely to feel defeated when the unexpected happens and they are knocked back.

Confidence can help you be your best self – but without it, you can be a shadow of your potential.

The Two Factors of Confidence

We can think of confidence in two ways: confidence in our abilities and confidence in our interpersonal skills.

Let’s break these down.

Confidence in our abilities: scoring highly here means our athletes are more likely to see themselves as worthwhile people – so they don’t need others to prop them up. It also suggests they are more optimistic – they focus more on how things can go right rather than wrong.

And it’s essential. Our young athletes may have excellent skills and tremendous talent, yet still doubt their abilities. They are likely to underperform if they lack the confidence to deal with the challenges they face.

Equally, there is another end to the spectrum. We have all met overly confident people who have vastly inflated ideas about just how good they are. They typically misjudge their weaknesses and turn up unprepared – and perhaps worst of all, unaware.

It’s less about abilities and more about realistic, goal-driven self-belief. We need to consider:

Can we make the best of what we have?
Do we believe we can get better?

We want our young athletes to get into an optimum position where they have the ability they need and are confident in using it.

Self-belief is about becoming the best person we can be.

Clough recognizes the hallmarks of a lack of confidence in his students. They hesitate in exams – not giving a full answer because they doubt themselves. And they get scared they are heading down the wrong path.

So, what does being confident in our abilities mean for our high school and college athletes?

They…

● Don’t need to go looking for external validation. After all, they know who they are and what they can achieve.
● Believe they have the skills required for the situation in front of them.
● Engage themselves in what’s happening – they speak up and get involved.

Clough says for the athlete in the spotlight, “success is often dependent upon unquestioning confidence in their abilities.”

Interpersonal confidence: a high score means our young athletes are comfortable not only in who they are but also in dealing with those around them.

 

So, it’s worth reflecting:

How open are our athletes to engage with others?

It’s more than being assertive – it’s about recognizing that they can influence others as much as they can be affected by them.

The confidence to connect and engage with others is vital. By doing so, they learn the skills and create opportunities to achieve more than they would otherwise.

In fact, someone with interpersonal confidence is most likely better at promoting themselves. So, they get on the team when others with the same ability are overlooked.

They can also handle difficult people and harsh criticism – both of which they will face in their academic and sporting careers.

Interpersonal confidence comes into its own when asking for, and clarifying, what is needed…

What’s this training set for?
How do we practice that skill?
I want to get better, but how?

We often stay silent when we should be speaking out.

Truthfully, how often have you left class without understanding what the teacher was talking about?

Most often, we are lacking interpersonal confidence – “I didn’t want to look dumb.”

The mentally tough student says, “I don’t care about looking stupid. I need to know what this is about and how I can use it.”

Can our athletes have too much confidence?

While we typically focus on our athlete’s lack of confidence, as already mentioned, too much can also be a problem.

Our ‘overconfident’ athletes may…

● End up thinking they have the abilities they lack.
● Not tolerate those who are less confident.
● Intimidate others.

So, the mentally tough, confident athlete also needs self-awareness.

The confident athlete

For the mentally tough athlete, confidence comes from within. It means that a failure, a knockback, or criticism will not dent their self-belief in their abilities or interpersonal skills.

A poor kick in football or a lousy pass in basketball may jar, but the player gets back on track. They move along with the game, ready for their next performance.

Take 6 feet 4 inches tall Olympic track and field star Eric Kynard. Despite his stature and success, he recognizes and accepts his insecurities but doesn’t give in to them. He says you can’t let external things dictate who you are and what you do. “So whatever your focus is, whatever your level of faith and commitment is to what you’re doing, you have to focus on those things,” he says.

The confident athlete

There are many ways of building confidence. Tools and strategies can include visualization, goal setting, strength awareness and use, reframing unhelpful beliefs, and self-talk.

Yet, creating a ‘confidence bank’ can be a game-changer.

While we are great at repeatedly revisiting our ‘fails’ – when things didn’t go as planned – we are not so used to focusing on our ‘wins’ – what went well.

Here’s how….

Ask the young athlete to think of a time when everything went right, or something clicked into place, or they overcame an obstacle. Perhaps it was a training breakthrough, a great game, or nailing a presentation in class.

Suggest they spend time going over it in their head:

What could they hear and see, feel?
What emotions did they experience?
What were they thinking?
How were they acting?
How would others have seen them?

Next, get them to walk through the lead-up – days, weeks, even months before:

What was the training like?
What went wrong along the way?
What went right along the way?
What did it take to get there?

Ask them to think about what they learned from their past success:

What were the takeaways?
How could you use them going forward?
Can you see how you can repeat your successes?

Ultimately, it’s about building up their confidence bank. The credits come from successes, and the withdrawals result from the confidence needed to face future challenges.

Wrapping Up

Confidence is a vital factor in success in sports and education. It’s also not fixed – it can be added to.

Given the right skills, training, and practice, our high school and college athletes can improve confidence in their abilities and in dealing with others.

Tools and techniques such as goal setting, self-compassion, visualization, and revisiting past successes are powerful and validated through research. They create a mentally tough mindset that accepts and learns from failures and a readiness for uncomfortable challenges.

Boosting confidence can set the young athlete on a path to pushing limits and challenging their skills – helping them continue to develop in line with their values.

References

Larsen, R., Buss, D., Wismeijer, A., & Song, J. (2017). Personality psychology: Domains of knowledge about human nature. McGraw-Hill Education.

Saad, S. K. (2019, July 25). 6 potential 2020 Olympic athletes reveal how they stay confident. Bustle. https://www.bustle.com/p/6-potential-2020-olympic-athletes-reveal-how-they-stay-confident-18229839

Clough, P., Strycharczyk, D., & Perry, J. L. (2021). Developing mental toughness: Strategies to improve performance, resilience and wellbeing in individuals and organizations. Kogan Page.