Athletes working in elite sports careers are exposed to some of the most high pressure situations imaginable and must continually work on self-confidence, motivation and concentration.
We can benefit from the vast amount of research sport psychologists have carried out on these athletes by applying the same tried and tested tools to help us overcome difficult events in our life.
Self-confidence and resilience are both variables that are well known to have a huge impact on athletic performance. Going into a competition with strength in each area will greatly increase the chance of success and the ability to bounce back when things go wrong.
Self-confidence is the capacity to which an athlete believes in their own skills and ability. How the athlete perceives their abilities affects how they tackle objectives. A low opinion of one’s self leads to making undesirable choices and poor performance, inversely having confidence in your abilities will lead to better decision making and better performance.
Self-confidence depends on the following variables:
Correct interpretation and control of the situation
Adjustments between realistic expectations and the athlete’s expectations
Correct interpretation of how the success or failure was caused
Resilience, often described as ‘mental toughness’, is the quality an athlete uses to regain their confidence after a set back.
Here are some everyday examples of situations where resilience is advantageous:
Missing a competition lift or PB attempt
Missing your target weight or not achieving a weekly dietary goal
A training session that didn’t feel good
Failing an exam
Making a mistake at work
Relationship break up
All of the above have huge potential to knock self-confidence and performance if not handled correctly.
Some studies suggest instead of removing situations that risk anxiety, stress or depression, you should improve resilience by training your protective traits such as self-confidence, self-efficacy, optimism and your social support network.
The successful mindset is to consider such events as opportunities for improvement or challenges that must be overcome, not as threatening.
Studies have shown that the most resilient athletes all share the following traits:
A positive attitude
Self-confidence levels are affected by the extent to which outcomes meet expectations. If expectations are too high, negative results will lead to frustration and if this is not managed correctly, will lead to a decrease in self-confidence.
Below are some common unrealistic goals which are effectively setting you up to fail:
I want to lose 10 kg in one month
I’m going to completely cut out every enjoyable food from my diet
Training twice a week will make me look like an athlete
Instead it is important to have high aspirations but keep your short term goals realistic and achievable.
So if we take the first example, the overall goal is to cut body weight by 10 kg, a realistic approach might be to aim for between 0.5 - 1 kg a week (depending on your initial weight).
How does your level of self-confidence affect performance?
For solid performance there is an optimal level of self-confidence. It can be obvious that having too little self-confidence is not ideal, but the same can be said for having too much. As shown below:
Lack of confidence: when faced with possible failure this person will not be able to maintain their composure, so performance rapidly nose dives.
Excess confidence: This person will not bother with working to improve as they believe they are already good enough. This can include behaviours around training, their diet, mindset, giving time for recovery… This is self-limiting behaviour and prevents improvements in performane.
False confidence: Presenting a front of excessive confidence to mask the athlete’s inner lack of confidence. The detrimental effects on performance are a combination of those seen with lacking & excessive confidence.
Optimal confidence: This is the desirable level of confidence. Here, the athlete will engage in maximum preparation and establish a series of objectives that are within reach. They will create strategies for if they should be faced with tricky situations during competitions or events, which will help them to perform even under adversity.
It is useful to examine situations that you have been in personally where you have had excessive or minimal self-confidence to understand the impact of these extremes on your outcomes. The ability to self-evaluate in these situations will help you to regulate your confidence levels in the future. Poor management of self-confidence not only leads to poor results but also poor concentration, motivation and physical condition in general.
Internal and external locus of control
Attentional focus is a personality trait that determines whether the athlete sees performance as the result of external or internal factors. A person with an internal locus will tend to find the cause of their success in their own actions, whilst those who focus on external elements will believe good performance is somewhat out of their control.
Athletes with an external locus of control will typically:
Interpret their successes as the result of efforts beyond themselves, for example help from others or simply luck/fate
Tend to give up easily and present a negative attitude
Struggle when workload fluctuates
Shows emotional instability, in a sports context this will be in relation to success and failure
Lack of accountability for their failures, focus on blaming others or factors beyond their control e.g. lifting surface, spectators, coach etc.
Athletes with an internal locus of control will typically:
Take accountability for both their successes and failures, and do not blame others or external factors for failures
They do not give up easily, and keep clear and concise goals
Their emotions are much more stable, and they actively control them. They do not tend to show strong emotions, except when appropriate
More independent and maintain a clear focus on working towards achievement
Look to themselves to solve complex situations
Find satisfaction in achieving the planned goal or outcome
The two can be viewed as either end of a spectrum. It is entirely possible that one person may present both an internal or external locus in different situations, depending on the scenario or mindset at the time.
So what tools are available to you to help improve self confidence and resilience both in your sport and day to day life? There is a huge amount of sports psychology research in these areas as achieving high levels of athletic success involves training both physical and psychological variables.
This research has shown that the following set of tools can be used to improve self-confidence and resilience:
Thought control: This is one of the most imperative areas to focus on. It covers identifying, eliminating and preventing defeatist thoughts, and replacing them with more realistic and positive ones. To fit this into an example we will take this situation: “I am too tired, I don’t want to train”. This is ‘identified’ as a defeatist and a negative thought. You can then ‘eliminate’ this thought by thinking more positively and realistically around the issue - “Training tends to energise me. I will get to see my training buddies and check in with my coach. I’ll be able to keep up with my program”. The third step is to ‘prevent’ these common defeatist/negative situations from coming up by preparing phrases which you can say to yourself next time the situation arises. In our example, this could be: "I am allowed to reduce my expectations of myself when tired in my sessions and adapt my session to fit how I feel", "I know that even when I am tired if I train I feel more energised after a few minutes, and this makes me happy that I still trained".
Practicing to master the motor skills of your sport or physical preparation: to ensure you feel ready to perform the task.
Quality physical, technical, tactical and psychological training: This provides the athlete with more resources to then deal with different situations with an increased perception of control. Feeling in control helps promote confidence.
Using real data to reinforce capability: Particularly coming from a trusted and credible source such as a coach or real data concerning an athletes performance records. For example, numbers from a training log or past competition scores, can be used as a reminder that the individual is indeed capable of competing at the level they are at.
Successful outcomes or achievements: When your performance receives recognition it makes sense that experience will lead to an increase in confidence. This can be managed also by setting achievable short term goals to reinforce success along the way. For example hitting 6/6 lifts at a small competition, or a comp PB.
Establishing objectives: Short-term objectives can help an athlete feel they have made progress and seeing their efforts pay off will boost confidence. Long-term goals can sometimes be harmful for athletes with low self-confidence as they can block visualization of results in the immediate future. we would argue that having some big long-term goals can be beneficial, they can raise aspirations and help us consciously and unconsciously pick the right pathways to progress down, particularly if interim short and medium term goals toward these are well managed.
Acting with confidence: It is common to express negative body language when a situation seems to be getting tricky. If you can take on the act of someone who is still in control and confident in these situations it can confuse your opponents into believing you are maintaining control despite making a mistake. This can be practiced through learning about body language cues, and even acting skills.
Visualisation strategies: To improve technical motor patterns and skills. For example imagining yourself in the competition scenario and being successful, this can be helped by visiting the location before to get your head around where you will be on the day. It is important to highlight that this isn't a tool that is restricted to sport, use it for any life goal.
Modelling techniques: As a literal form of visualisation, the athlete watches other athletes performing a movement. Most people feel more comfortable performing a movement that they have seen, this could mean asking someone in your training group to perform the movement first so that you can get clarity or by watching videos of lifters in between your sets.
Rehearse competitions: Mimic real competitive situations during training sessions to work on incidences of low-confidence that only usually appear in competition. A weightlifting example of this could be to run a ‘mock competition’ where each lifter is given 3 attempts and lifts with the rest of the group watching.
Establishing routines: The aim of having routines is to be able to concentrate on the task at hand whilst minimising distractions and maintaining a sense of control. Feeling in control of your situation helps to build confidence. An example of this would be your pre-competition morning routine. Consider the time you need to wake up, what you need to pack in your bag, your breakfast etc. To optimise the routine you must also consider things that could interrupt the routine and how you will deal with this, for example, if you have to stay at a hotel and get your breakfast in a cafe, it may take longer to arrive than you thought. Instead of letting this cause stress you could use this time to practice visualisation or run through your plan another way.
Setting realistic goals and expectations: setting unrealistic goals or unrealistically high expectations can cause a lot of stress and disappointment. In particular, when someone first starts training for a sport (youngsters) it is important to regress the skills required so that they can begin with easy tasks and then work towards learning increasingly difficult skills. The aim of this is to not overwhelm beginners, however this remains relevant throughout an athlete's sports career. When athletes enter the competitive phase of their career, one method is to not program complex tasks leading up to competition, and focussing on the things that they are highly skilled at.
Objective evaluation of outcomes: stepping back from emotional response so that you can evaluate the situation objectively, for example if you usually perform well at competitions but have one bad experience, what was the actual reason for this? Use this rational reasoning to avoid catastrophizing that maybe all competitions will go badly from now on, and use the reasoning to make a plan for the next one instead.
Preparation is key:
The key to all of these strategies is preparation. It is clear from research that self-confidence comes from significant efforts to be prepared for all potential positive and negative outcomes. Strategising for outcomes will help you to maintain a feeling of control and positivity. As positive outcomes boost self confidence, setting achievable goals is also important to maintain a sense of achievement. Self-confidence is always a work in progress, you can experience boosts and set-backs throughout life, so in order to work on building self confidence you must be open to trying new methods. None of the tools above will work if you have already decided this, you need to have at least some trust in the process.
As well as self-confidence, high performance is also based on the following qualities which we will cover in future articles;
Attention and concentration
Anxiety and stress
Please contact us if you have any questions or would like any help with any of the topics or tools mentioned in this article either at firstname.lastname@example.org or on the contact form on our website www.canterburystrength.com
- Team Canterbury Strength
Psychological variables and sports performance (2020) Barca Innovation Hub Universitas.
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