Mental Strength, Confidence and Athletic Performance

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I know we just moved out of ski season, but skiing has so much to teach us about mental strength, confidence and confidenceathletic performance.  So, I’m going to begin this post with a reference to skiing.

There you are in Lake Tahoe, Park City or perhaps Mammoth Mt.  You’re standing at the top of black diamond run trying to no avail to convince yourself that you can ski a clean run.  You keep telling yourself “be confident” and “I can do it” but it doesn’t seem to help your confidence or your performance.

Instead, the voice in your head is telling you, “You haven’t had a clean run all day so why should this run be different?” Typically, you get about halfway through the moguls when you start to tighten up because you just know you’re going to miss a turn and either take a spill or have to stop.  You want to be confident, since you know this is critical to your athletic performance, but you don’t know what to do to build your confidence.  So you stop, head off to the lodge and grab a hot drink and sit by the fireplace.

As an athlete in any sport this situation probably rings true for you, except perhaps the fireplace.  It might show up each time you are challenging yourself to successfully complete a more demanding task, try a new maneuver, or to push through whatever is holding you back.

To do so successfully requires that you believe you can do it.  But, how can you be confident when it’s something you haven’t tried before or haven’t successfully accomplished?  In this post, I’ll address the difficult mental strength topic of confidence and give some ideas about how you can begin to build and control your confidence immediately!

What is Confidence?

To better understand confidence, I’d like to make reference to a quote from a newspaper article from several years ago.  Michael Jordan had started a specific basketball game going 0 for 9.  The reporter asked MJ after the game, why he kept asking for the ball instead of ditching it to a player who had a hotter hand since he was honestly having an off night.  Michael’s comment was simple, he said he is not and never has been a 0 for 10 shooter…so the next shot had to go in!  What confidence in the face of seeming failure.  Whereas most asked athletes would be hesitant taking more shots, Michael didn’t allow this “failure” to affect his next shot; he maintained his belief in his ability to make a basket on his next shot.

Simply put, confidence is your belief in your ability to succeed.  While you probably already know that confidence is critical to performance, further support of this belief is found through research on élite athletes; high confidence is a skill that consistently characterizes élite athletes.  However, being confident doesn’t mean that you never doubt yourself.  In fact, highly confident élite athletes report negative thoughts and concerns about performance.

Being confident relates to performing well despite such concerns and negative thoughts.  Keep this in mind the next time you’re apprehensive about attempting a new skill or one that you’ve been having difficulty with, your apprehension doesn’t mean you can’t be successful.

Unfortunately, confidence can be a difficult concept to get one’s head around; it is a state that often times seems elusive and fleeting.  One dropped pass, one missed shot or one bad run and your confidence can drop faster than the Hindenburg.

Because of this, athletes and especially coaches often perceive that confidence is something you either have or you don’t have.  The reality is that confidence, just like other physical or mental strength skill, can be learned, built upon and control.  Sure it’s simple to understand, but it’s not an easy task to accomplish.

We understand and know how confidence relates directly to personal success and athletic performance and we also know it is a mental strength skill that you can learn.   The question you’re probably thinking is “what can I do to bolster and build my confidence and have some control over?”

Mental Strength Strategies to Build Confidence

Much of the understanding of how to build and support confidence can be credited to Albert Bandura. He conducted research on self-efficacy (self-confidence) a concept that is closely related to confidence, and identified primary sources of self-efficacy.  That is, he looked at the primary means by which people develop a belief in their abilities in given situations.

It’s from this research, as well as extensive interaction with athletes and coaches, that many of the following suggestions were developed.  Keep in mind that these strategies will be relatively easy to implement when you performing well.  It’s when you’re fumbling around, missing shots and generally performing poorly that it’s going to be quite a challenge to carry out these confidence building and confidence rescue strategies.  However, it is exactly during these difficult times when you need keep and build the confidence in yourself.  So be persistent and consistent in the implementation of these strategies and you’ll find your confidence will always be there for you.

Create and/or Look For Success:

Through years of research it has been found that the best way to build confidence is through successful past performances.  More simply put, success breeds confidence.  No big shocker here, right?

For most athletes and coaches, the surprise comes in understanding that successful performances doesn’t just relate competition, which is often what is assumed.  Athletes seem to think they need to “win” to build confidence. In reality, success can be found all areas of performance…in the little things you do on a daily basis.

Success can come from achieving a training goal you set for yourself or going for your morning one run when you really want to stay in bed.  Success can be the two additional repetitions you crank out in gym or simple as maintaining a positive attitude throughout training.  Success can also be executing correct technique through a difficult part a performance in practice.  Your goal here is to find and/or create a daily success journal that will help you build confidence.

Model Other Successful Athletes:

Another effective means of developing confidence is through the process of modeling (the success of others).  You can experience success vicariously by watching someone else successfully execute a skill or accomplish a task that you are learning or want to perfect.  Watching a teammate successfully execute a specific maneuver or skill will diminish your apprehension and provide you with a sense of confidence that you can execute that skill….”what one can do, any can do.”

Using this strategy, you might videotape another athlete performing the skill, challenge or run or event, i.e. skiing a difficult slop, in track and field video a 110 hurled race.  Then you can use visualization to see yourself executing the same run/performance with the results you want.  Imagine the boost to your confidences having seen someone else do something and then seeing yourself experiencing success.

Act As If:

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “fake it until you make it”, haven’t you?  Well, there’s a lot of truth behind this axiom.  Your thoughts, feelings and behaviors are always linked.  If you behave as if you have no confidence, this will unquestionably influence your thoughts and feelings related to your confidence.

Conversely, if you act confident, this will help trigger a confident mindset.  So, how does a confident person behaving act?  Well find one and model them…ever hear of Muhammad Ali? In addition, some typical responses might include; head held high, shoulders back, a slight bounce or strut in one step, control of pre-competition anxiety, wanting to be challenged and even seeking out challenges, and a focus on oneself.  Begin acting the part of a confident athlete and you will be a confident athlete.

Take Your P’s With You:

P’s?  No that that “P”…”P’s” as in Positives. Confidence can be built and enhanced by keeping your positives and successes in the forefront.  When confidence is shaky, there is a tendency to fall back to the negatives, to mistakes and deficiencies i.e. “I missed again”, “Why can’t I do this?”  Thoughts and focus need to be purposely directed to your positives.  Before starting a practice or event, instead of focusing on what you missed, remind yourself of the things you did right, that you could do again.

Focus on Achievable Goals:

Setting realistic daily goals is especially valuable strategy when things are going poorly, when you are struggling with your performance and in your confidence.  You need to experience success and quickly.  The best way to do this is to identify daily goals that are challenging but “do-able” to set yourself up for success.

Unfortunately, when struggling, athletes often compare themselves to their best performances, i.e. “I used to do this run under one minute and now I’m not even close”,Last month I lifted 25 lbs.” Stop thinking about what you used to and focus on what you WANT to do and accomplish (today).

Be Aware of Your Self-Talk:

We all know the importance of talking positively to help build confidence.  But, simply saying to yourself, “be confident” is not enough and most likely will not really have an effective.

A better approach is to program yourself, through your self talk, to be confident.  That is, you can tell yourself what specifically you need to do, i.e., catch the pass, you’re your line, stay tucked.  You can also tell yourself why you can and will be successful, i.e. you’ve trained hard or you’ve done this in practice a dozen times. Remember, this is not an easy task.  It is one thing to say it and quite another to say it with conviction.

There ya go…by implementing these mental strength strategies for building confidence you’re on your way to controlling, managing and programming your confidence.  Be patient, as this won’t happen overnight…unless you want it to.  And with commitment and discipline you can learn these skills of confidence and achieve peak performance

In the words of Chuck Knox (NFL coach) “One of the most important qualities for young athletes is the ability to believe in oneself.  If you have confidence in yourself, in your teammates and in your coach, you will succeed.”

OK…let me hear your thoughts and other process you use to increase your confidence in the comments below.

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