Mental Aspects of Competitive Sports:  Confidence

Mental Aspects of Competitive Sports:  Confidence

In a previous blog post, I mentioned that I believe having the right mindset for sports success is the same mindset that is required for living our best lives.  Four key components are repeatedly mentioned by the experts for maximum sports performance:  Motivation, Confidence, Ability to Manage Pressure, and Self-Discipline.  While an argument can be made that any of the four could be the “most important” or “lead requirement”, confidence is likely the most important element in building success both on and off the field. 

Throughout raising two sons and an aspiring elite athlete, the best definition of what confidence is an how to build it is this:

Confidence is the self-assurance that things will ultimately work out for you in a positive way, despite whatever may be happening at that exact moment.

We all have things that don’t go our way at any given time.  (Maybe all of 2020?)  We haven’t gotten the grade we’d worked hard for, we’ve missed the game-ending shot, or sometimes we experience something much more serious.  However, truly confident people have a resilience that comes from deep within.  They know they will weather the storm and come out on the upside eventually.  High-performing athletes must believe that the hard work that they put in will pay off in the long run.  They can’t be deterred from their dreams by a missed pass, a harsh word, or lost game.  Even if they can’t run their goal time today—they have to believe that they are capable—or the battle is lost before it began.

Prime Confidence in Sports Performance

Jim Taylor, PhD. defined a concept called “prime confidence” in a Psychology Today article about the role of confidence in sports performance.  “Prime confidence is a deep, lasting, and resilient belief in one's ability. With prime confidence, you are able to stay confident even when you're not performing well. Prime confidence keeps you positive, motivated, intense, focused, and emotionally in control when you need to be.”  An athlete must have prime confidence to perform at the highest level.  So, how do we foster that kind of confidence in our children?

Confidence as a Skill

Many people believe that confidence is something that you either have or don’t have.  However, that is 180° opposite from the consensus expert opinion.  Sports psychologist speak of confidence as a skill—one that can be practiced and refined.  I read a lot of parenting books when I had my first son.  One of the biggest take-aways was that if you gradually allowed a child more and more autonomy, that would foster confidence and self-reliance.  The key was to add gradually—not giving them more than they could handle at any given time and encouraging them to take that next step towards self-sufficiency.  Praise them for being able to pull themselves up to a standing position.  When they were able to do that repeatedly, encourage them to take their first step.  First steps turn into second steps, which turn into running, which turn into all kinds of great things…like penalty kicks, game-winning goals, and a lot of soccer.

You wouldn’t have encouraged your baby to walk before they could sit, and you definitely wouldn’t demean them for crawling on their bellies before they reached their knees.  Athletic performance growth is the same concept.  Understand where your kid is developmentally and skill-wise. Then, when they have mastered a skill, encourage them to take the next step.  Help them set goals and drive toward them.  As they make progress, they’ll gain confidence and will be able to reach further and further heights.


Link Praise to the Effort

Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist and author of the bestselling book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do, tells parents to link our praise to the effort rather than the outcome.  Instead of saying, "Great job scoring those five points in the game," say, "All that practicing you've been doing has been paying off."  I found some of her other tips from this article particularly helpful on the sidelines, Essential Strategies for Raising a Confident Teen.

The Importance of Positive Self-Talk

I owe a lot to my high school coach.  At the time, I wouldn’t have said that building confidence was high on her list of developmental priorities.  I thought a lot of her even then, but she was smarter than I gave her credit for at the time.  She didn’t build confidence through praise.  She set a high standard and expected us to achieve it.  If we didn’t, we ran…and ran…and ran…However, the thing that would buy my teammates or I more sprints than anything else was violation of her #1 rule:  Never say the word “can’t”.  We were to eliminate the word from our vocabularies.  Like Pavlov’s dog, I still start sweating if I hear it.  It’s the word that shall not be named.  It brought nothing but pain. 

What I inherently knew but wouldn’t have been able to fully explain was that Coach was telling us that we are fundamentally what we believe about ourselves.  I love the saying “if you think you can or you think you can’t, either way you’re right.”  Self-talk is a critical piece of the confidence puzzle.   

Ken Ansall, sports trainer, runs a website/coaching business called Mental Toughness.  In an article titled Being Confident in Youth Sports, he ‘mathematically’ defined exactly what Coach was saying:

Confidence = Can’s – Can’ts

While the engineer in me loves a good equation, we don’t have to be math geniuses to understand that eliminating the “can’ts” from the equation gives the highest level of confidence.  

How to Talk About Confidence

Have you ever asked your teen what they think about before a big game or before taking a PK?  If they are thinking “I can’t do this” or “please don’t mess this up for the team”, they are not giving themselves their best chance for success.  Top athletes talk themselves through the fundamentals of the shot, visualize themselves scoring the goal, or have some other positive mantra/routine that enables them to rise to the challenge.  They are in the right mindset mentally before they perform physically.

 Again, this is something that can be taught.  Talk to your athlete about what worries them and try different tactics to overcome this.  Practice a mantra that allows them to settle into their ‘zone’ when they feel themselves start to get worked up. 

Confidence, not Cockiness

It’s important to note that confidence has a slippery-sloped alter ego:  cockiness.  Confidence and cockiness are most definitely not the same thing.  One is a critical positive component of long-term success, while the other is a deterrent to personal growth.  Confidence gives us the ability to help ourselves, perform for our teams, and receive feedback in a way that fosters improvement.  Cockiness can hurt relationships with peers, make us less open to learning, and can just make a person less likable.  Ken Ansall from Mental Toughness has a great quote discussing the two:

“Cockiness is developed when you know you are a really good player, but you also know that you are not the best, that you lack something that others have. This creates an internal conflict between wanting to be the best player and the risk of bruising the ego by not being the best. Now this conflict causes an overcompensation in confidence and other actions like anger, throwing the bat, arguing with umpires or coaches, taunting other players. The player tries to make up for or compensate for that perceived deficiency that the athlete feels exists to save their ego. This is why most athletes who are truly the best in their sport exude confidence, and those who know that they are good but not quite the best that they want to be, can exude cockiness.”

Cockiness actually results from having too little actual confidence.  People who are truly confident have an internal self-assurance that doesn’t require cocky behavior.  Overcoming this is not single-day task.  It is a journey that needs to be built one day at a time.  If you see this issue in your budding athlete, be patient.  Building self-sufficiency skills and positive self-talk can help.  Keep modeling humility and work with them on gratitude and a service mindset.