How to Coach Confidence Not Cockiness

May 9, 2013 | Wendy Rilling LeBolt


As coaches, we often present our female athletes with a conundrum—a confidence conundrum. We drive home the need to be assertive and secure. Then on the other foot, we shout out, "Be what the team needs" and "Give your all for the team."

It may not seem confusing in this context, but it is in the development of young athletes. It creates the problem where female athletes refuse to stand out because they don't understand how to be confident without being cocky. This can be a major problem when they leave the field and join the workforce. (See: "Hit 'Em With the Flex": Use Swagger to Boost Your Confidence—and Your Performance.)

I experienced it first hand at a recent William and Mary Celebration of Women's Athletics event. I was with four current William and Mary senior soccer players. The cream of the crop athletically, they had been top high school recruits. Each was a sought-after commodity, a combination of brain and game, with the skills needed to succeed at W&M and in life. Basically some of William and Mary's finest—a given when you play for a championship Division I soccer team.

Frankly, I was a bit surprised when they had trouble answering the question, "What is the thing you do best for the team?"

Each girl stumbled and stammered, throwing out incomplete thoughts: "I have leadership qualities," "I always work hard" or "I never give up." (Learn how to become a great leader with the How To Become a Team Leader Series.)

Everything sounded like it came from some "approved" list of media quotes. All except one girl who apologetically said, "I never do anything half-assed."

I tried to challenge them to give me answers besides the ones everyone else gave. They didn't even consider that "I play for a D-I soccer program" was a satisfactory answer.

To me it seemed like standing out as an individual was something they'd never aspired to. When we coaches preach "team," we make turning away individual praise a way of life.

Listen to the gold-medal winning U.S. Women's National's Team: "It wasn't my great header, I just got under a great serve by HAO," "Our defense played great,"and "We created lots of chances." The t-shirts they donned after the championship match read "Greatness Has Been Found."

The t-shirts only worked when the whole team put them on, because individually wearing them wasn't part of their DNA. My point: for women, even the best women, it's all about the "we," never about the "I." "There's no I in team." Isn't that Mia Hamm's theme?

But when we send these women out into the workplace, they need to toot their own horn a bit. Firms do not usually hire teams, so girls need to be able to talk about their individual accomplishments. They need to learn how to stand out and talk confidently about their abilities—without worrying about sounding like they're bragging. Their teammates won't be there to save them. No one else can describe how competitive their summer internship was or how hard they have worked. (See How to Become the CEO of Your Own Brand.)

As coaches, we're raising our girls in an environment that discourages self-aggrandizement and celebrates cooperation and humility. There's nothing wrong with that. But these girls have plenty to be proud of and plenty to put on their résumés. They should be confident about what they bring to the table as well as the field.

We need to teach them how to tell the truth about themselves, how to be confident and not cocky. Coach them to say:

  • I have done/received/earned/been awarded these.
  • I have contributed this consistently and effectively.
  • I bring this approach to what I do.
  • I am willing to try this.
  • Here is a story that illustrates me at my best.

Last, but most important, we need to help our girls tell the story that shows them at their best, so it feels less like they're saying they're the best. Because women rarely believe they're the best. We're always looking around at everyone else and figuring we fall short.

So help your girls tell the story that starts: "My team is better when I __________, and my teammates are better when I ___________."

Confident. Capable. Competent. Who wouldn't hire that young lady? And oh yeah, she's a real ringer on the company soccer team.

- Wendy LeBolt is the founder and CEO of Fit2Finish, a resource designed to help athletes prevent injury. LeBolt has a PhD in Exercise Physiology from...
- Wendy LeBolt is the founder and CEO of Fit2Finish, a resource designed to help athletes prevent injury. LeBolt has a PhD in Exercise Physiology from...
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