“I feel terrible,” she said grimly, untucking her jersey and punting the soccer ball away with her toe in a whirl of frustration. “Coach said I have no confidence on the ball, and I’ve been even worse since she said that.” She shrugged and slammed herself down on the bench as her teammates filed into the locker room behind us.
I sat next to her. “Why do you feel worse?” I am used to working with student-athletes, and the psychological strain of balancing life, school and sport, as well as external pressures, is a very common theme. She went on to describe the stress of school, of missing her family, of the fear that her boyfriend was going to break up with her, and some recent disagreements with the assistant coach.
“I just can’t catch a break,” she shrugged. “I can’t win at anything right now and it just makes me want to give up completely.”
This conversation is familiar, one I have at least 10 times per season with any given athlete or team. “What does ‘winning’ look like to you, and how are you trying to achieve it?”
She looked at me dumbfounded, as if the question was entirely too stupid to answer. “The team who scores the most goals wins, so…you have to score goals…”
I chuckled. “OK, let me rephrase this. How do you personally define success for yourself, and how are you personally working towards it?” Now she was thinking. After a few moments of silence, she shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I just want to play well, contribute to the team, improve and be content with myself.”
“And do you think you deserve to achieve that?”
She shrugged again and shook her head. “Not really. At least not recently. I suck.”
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Look,” I said. “Let’s take back control. If that’s your definition of success, then everyone else’s definition and expectation shouldn’t matter. Let’s focus on what you can change and improve every day in small, measurable steps instead of impossible leaps, and let’s start flexing your confidence. You can’t succeed without believing you deserve it, or else you will never be happy with it.”
She smirked but nodded, likely believing I was serving her a devastating oversimplification of “winning.” However, over the course of the season, we worked together on building her confidence and focusing only on the present by using the following steps.
This blueprint is the three-step process for purposeful confidence-building that my team and I use with athletes in all sports and at all competitive levels, including for the previously mentioned soccer player.
Firstly, it is important to ask: what does confidence look like to you? How do you define it?
Secondly, ask: how is your confidence? Are you confident, according to your definition?
Confidence is one of our most important tools in the performance world. More likely than not, in life or sport, you are up against some people who are overly confident, even to the point of egoism. However, that’s not the kind of healthy confidence supported by research as most beneficial for high-quality and long-term sports performance. So how do you boost your confidence, even if you don’t feel like you measure up in the game, on the team, or at all?
Your first step in gaining confidence is to decide you’re going to be confident.
Does that sound too easy or brutally over-simplified?
It’s not. Don’t make the mistake of undervaluing this step.
Deciding to practice confidence is not deciding you will win; no one can entirely control their own outcomes.
However, practicing confidence does require you to decide that you deserve to give up on doubting, to feel well, and to see success without letting external criticisms, pressures and losses deter you.
Here’s the thing: The confidence we desire as humans and require as athletes does not come by chance. It is easy to see downsides, to receive negative feedback, to internalize failure and focus on self-limiting beliefs. Anyone in the competitive world knows it’s easy to be broken down by challenges and negativity in all shapes and sizes.
Eventually many athletes internalize those things so much that their confidence takes a big hit. Like my athlete, who had seemingly unmanageable amounts of negative stress thrown at her from many different sources. She did not feel like she deserved to or was capable of seeing success after taking some hard losses. And she let the voices of her coach, teammates and family impact her game.
However, when you decide to become confident, it is like deciding you want to have big biceps or better aim on your shots. You realize these improvements cannot come without practice, that they are skills to build and muscles to train. And, in order to improve, you have to put in reps.
You become aware of the negative thoughts and expectations, of how you process failure. You recognize the negatives and the positives more often. You own what you allow into your mind, learn to control your reactions and beliefs, and filter what you tell yourself. The unconscious becomes conscious and purposeful.
But, first, you have to decide.
Now that you have decided to build your confidence muscle, it is time to start replacing confidence-limiting beliefs and practices with confidence-building beliefs and practices.
You will spend the most time in this phase, so buckle up and get comfortable!
My soccer player’s self-limiting belief was that she was not worthy of achieving her definition of success as reinforced by recent failures, and her conversations with herself were inherently negative.
This is no recipe for winning.
So how can we approach the everyday difficulties that inevitably come up in sport?
Do you dwell on your mistakes? Accept them, learn from them and let them pass.
Do you spend precious energy trying to avoid failing? Stop trying to control what you cannot change and place your trust in yourself and your training.
Do you constantly berate yourself? Encourage yourself like you would a friend and use “I will” statements.
Does your confidence or mood on any given day depend on your performance? Start acknowledging the little wins, the small successes you achieve each day instead of the mistakes.
Do you neglect your mental training? Bad idea! To make this a habit, like physical training, dedicate time within your schedule to build your confidence muscle.
Just like with penalty kicks, free throws and learning how to skate, building your confidence and breaking self-limiting beliefs takes 10,000 repetitions!
When working with the athlete at the start of this story, we selected three positive one-word descriptors of herself for her to use when her confidence sunk.
Whenever a negative thought or self-talk intruded into her head, she said, “leader.”
Whenever she made a mistake on the pitch, she said, “resilient.”
Whenever she tried to over-control or over-compensate, she said, “strong.”
Yes, it feels fake, funny and tiring at first! But over time, it makes a real difference.
Even this athlete was so uncomfortable with this practice until about six weeks and 30 practices later, when the process finally became automatic. By the end of her season, it took no effort at all.
Again, it’s a decision and it’s a skill, but it is not a stable trait. It has to be built, but it doesn’t become unlearned, unskilled and irrelevant because you messed up. Put in your reps every day!
Remember the start of this article, when I asked you define confidence?
This “Flex” phase of the process occurs when you have met your definition of confidence and achieved your definition of success, whatever that looks like to you.
Reaching this step takes a lot of practice and patience. However, it is not the end goal. It does not make confidence a stable trait that will never fluctuate again.
You reach the Flex Phase every time you show up in a game, every time you feel “in flow” in a match, every time you successfully ward off your own self-doubt and believe you are worthy and capable of success.
For my athlete, after steadily and purposefully working on this confidence blueprint, her game improved tremendously, her playing time gradually increased, and she co-captained her team to the playoffs the following year. That’s a flex!
Flex that muscle when it matters. You earned it.
Then get back to training it again.
Confidence needs reps. It will not happen overnight, and it is a daily, purposeful, step-by-step process. Some days you may not feel confident at all, and some days you might just have trouble talking to yourself nicely.
That’s OK; by participating in this process, noticing those thoughts and putting in reps, you are already taking serious and important steps toward becoming a confident, grounded athlete.
Acknowledge the small things. Tip your hat to yourself. You did not get this far in life or sport by winging it or by chance. Props to you.
Photo Credit: Julia Eyre