THE BLOG
02/24/2011 01:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Confidence Matters for Athletes

Confidence is the single most important mental factor in sports. I define confidence as how strongly you believe in your ability to achieve your goals. Confidence is so important because you may have all of the ability in the world to perform well, but if you don't believe you have that ability, then you won't perform up to that ability. For example, a gymnast may be physically and technically capable of executing a back somersault with a full twist on the floor exercise, but he won't attempt the skill in a meet if doesn't have the confidence that he can successfully execute the skill.

Too often athletes are their own worst enemy rather than their best ally. When you compete, whose side are you on? Remember that opponents are against you and want to beat you badly. If you're also against you, you don't have a chance of performing your best and finding success.

Prime Confidence

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. You aren't negative and uncertain in difficult competitions and you're not overconfident in easy competitions. Prime confidence also encourages you to seek out pressure situations and to view difficult conditions and tough opponents as challenges to pursue. Prime confidence enables you to perform at your highest level consistently.

Prime confidence is the belief that if you do the right things, you will be successful. Prime confidence demonstrates faith in your ability and your preparation. It should not, however, cause you to expect success; this belief can lead to arrogance and overconfidence. It can also cause you to become too focused on winning rather than on performing your best. This perception can lead to self-imposed pressure and a fear of failure.

Vicious Cycle or Upward Spiral

To illustrate another influence of confidence, think back to a time when you didn't have confidence in yourself. You probably got caught in a vicious cycle of low confidence and performance in which negative thinking led to poor performance, which led to more negative thinking and even poorer performance until your confidence was so low that you didn't even want to compete.

This vicious cycle usually starts with a period of poor performance. This poor performance leads to negative self-talk: "I'm terrible. I can't do this. I don't have a chance." You are becoming your own worst enemy.

You start to get nervous before a competition because you believe you will perform poorly. All of that anxiety hurts your confidence even more because you feel physically uncomfortable and there's no way you can perform well when you're so uptight. The negative self-talk and anxiety causes negative emotions. You feel depressed, frustrated, angry, and helpless, all of which hurt your confidence more and cause you to perform even worse.

The negative self-talk, anxiety, and emotions then hurt your focus. If you have low confidence, you can't help but focus on all of the negative things rather than on things that will enable you to perform your best. All of this accumulated negativity hurts your motivation. As bad as you feel, you just want to get out of there. If you're thinking negatively, caught in a vicious cycle, feeling nervous, depressed, and frustrated, and can't focus, you're not going to have much fun and you're not going to perform well.

Now recall when you have been really confident in your sport. Your self-talk is positive: "I'm a good athlete. I can perform well." You are your best ally.

With the positive self-talk, you begin an upward spiral of high confidence and performance in which positive thinking leads to better performance, which leads to more positive thinking and even better performance.

All of the positive talk gets you feeling relaxed and energized as you begin the competition. You have a lot of positive emotions such as inspiration and excitement. You focus on things you need to perform your best. Competing is actually an enjoyable experience for you.

All of the positive thoughts and feelings motivate you to perform. If you're thinking positively, riding an upward spiral, feeling relaxed and energized, experiencing positive emotions, and are focused on performing your best, you're going to have a lot of fun and you're likely going to perform well.

Why Athletes Lose Confidence

Anything that counters your belief in your ability to achieve your goals will hurt your confidence. The greatest disruption to confidence is failure. Failure can mean making mistakes in a competition, for example, missing an easy header in soccer or falling on a double axel in figure skating. Failure will cause you to lose faith in your ability and cause you to become tentative or cautious. Failure can also mean having poor results in recent competitions. There is nothing more harmful to confidence than failure because it provides evidence that any confidence you may have is unjustified.

Confidence is a Skill

A misconception that many athletes have is that confidence is something that is inborn or that if you don't have it at an early age, you will never have confidence. In reality, confidence is a skill, much like technical skills, that can be learned. Just like with any type of skill, confidence is developed through focus, effort, and repetition.

The problem is that you have the option to practice good or bad confidence skills. If you are very negative all of the time, you are practicing and ingraining those negative confidence skills, so when you compete, just like a bad technical habit, that negativity is what will come out and it will hurt your performance. In other words, you became highly skilled at something that actually hurts your sports performance.

If you have a bad technical habit, for example, a softball player opens her shoulders too early when swinging, she probably has swung the bat that way for a long time. She has become skilled at swinging the bat the wrong way. The same holds true for confidence. You can become skilled at being negative.

To change bad confidence skills, you must retrain the way you think. You have to practice good confidence skills regularly until the old negative habits have been broken and you have learned and ingrained the new positive skills of confidence.

Confidence Challenge

It's easy to stay confident when you're performing well, when the conditions are ideal, and when you're competing against someone whom you're better than. The real test of confidence, however, is how you respond when things aren't going your way. I call this the Confidence Challenge. What separates the best from the rest is that the best athletes are able to maintain their confidence when they're not at the top of their games. By staying confident, they continue to work hard rather than give up because they know that, in time, their performance will come around.

Most athletes who perform poorly get caught in the vicious cycle of low confidence and performance. Once you slip into that downward spiral, you rarely can get out of it in the short term. In contrast, athletes with prime confidence maintain their confidence and seek out ways to return to their previous level. All athletes will go through periods where they don't perform well. The skill is not getting caught in the vicious cycle and being able to get out of the down periods quickly.

There are several keys to mastering the Confidence Challenge.

  • Develop the attitude that demanding situations are challenges to be sought out.
  • Believe that experiencing challenges is a necessary part of becoming the best athlete you can be.
  • Be well-prepared to meet the challenges.
  • Stay positive and motivated in the face of the difficulties.
  • Focus on what you need to do to overcome the challenges.
  • Accept that you may experience failure when faced with new challenges.
  • Most importantly, never, ever give up!

Learn more about Prime Confidence.