Dr. Marissa Norman is a Sport Psychologist holding a M.S. in Sport and Exercise Psychology and a Doctoral Degree in Clinical Psychology. Marissa has 7 years of experience working alongside athletes of different backgrounds and levels (youth athletes to professional athletes) in addition to her own personal experience competing as a Division I Track and Field Pentathlete and Heptathlete.
Confidence, at its core, is the belief in your ability to achieve your goals. Confidence can also mean believing that you have the tools, support, and skillset to successfully complete whatever it is you’re trying to achieve (competition, presentation, tricky skill in practice, etc.).
Athletes who are overconfident might show off or feel the need to prove that they’re better than their peers. The issue with overconfidence is that athletes can lose their humility, and they might develop the mindset that they’re “too good” to critique themselves or to take advice or feedback from others. This mindset can keep athletes from reaching their full potential. A confident athlete believes in their abilities enough that they are open to constructive feedback and they don’t feel the need to prove anything.
Confidence can come from both external validation and internal validation. In my experience, it’s external motivation that starts the momentum toward an athlete building confidence. Positive feedback and encouragement such as someone saying, “You did such a good job, that was amazing!” contributes to the early parts of confidence building. While external validation can get the ball rolling, intrinsic motivation keeps an athlete confident longer-term.
Support systems: Support systems are hugely important when it comes to athletes developing confidence. An athlete’s support system might include coaches, teammates, family members, and friends. Athletes can draw reassurance from a strong support system, and knowing that someone else trusts and believes in them gives them the courage and confidence to believe in themselves. On the flip side, doubt and mistrust from people within an athlete’s immediate circle can make them feel unprepared and negatively impact their confidence.
Growth mindset: Growth mindset is a strategy that allows athletes to view challenges and mistakes as learning opportunities. An athlete who responds to mistakes with the idea that they just aren’t good enough will have a difficult time gaining confidence. An athlete who views setbacks with a growth mindset, with the perspective that setbacks are opportunities to grow, is more likely to embrace even the difficult aspects of their journey in sport and use them as experiences that fuel their improvement.
Intrinsic motivation: Intrinsic motivation is the drive to engage in an activity for your own personal satisfaction rather than for external factors such as to either receive rewards or to avoid criticism and punishment. If an athlete is intrinsically motivated, meaning they’re competing for themselves rather than for external validation, then they’re more likely to feel calm and confident. It’s much less scary for us to fail ourselves than it is to fail our coaches, teammates, parents, family, and friends!
Process-oriented: Athletes who are focused on the process over the result tend to be more focused on what they can control. As a result, they feel much more confident in their abilities than athletes who are worried about variables that are out of their control and place more emphasis on the outcome than on their experience.
Preparation: An athlete can use all the tools in the world but if they’re not prepared, they’re not going to feel confident. An athlete with adequate training on both the mental and physical sides is much more likely to feel confident in their ability to succeed. At the end of the day, preparation is #1 when it comes to confidence.
It’s helpful to break down perfectionism into two categories. One type of perfectionism is focused on personal striving and can be used as a tool to push athletes to be their best selves. Another type of perfectionism stems from fear of failure and pushes athletes to avoid making mistakes and trying to be perfect so that they’re not judged or mislabeled. Research shows that perfectionistic striving for personal growth is optimal for performance and can have a positive impact on an athlete’s confidence. On the other hand, perfectionistic avoidance can hurt confidence and cause an athlete to underestimate their abilities.
Confidence and perfectionism are often conflicting ideas. When you’re confident, you truly believe in yourself, you trust that you’re prepared, and know that you have what’s necessary to achieve your goals. Perfectionism is the opposite of confidence because it fuels the mindset that an athlete has to be perfect in order to succeed. To deconstruct this perfectionistic mindset, I often work with athletes to better understand when and why they are trying to be perfect. If they’re in a competition, I encourage them to trust that they’re prepared well rather than focusing on doing everything absolutely right. If they focus on the work they put in and the variables they can control in those moments, then they’re more likely to get the results they want. In practice, it’s okay to lean into the personal striving type of perfectionism and to continue to push for improvement. There’s a time and place to strive for optimal performance, and it’s important that athletes recognize the difference between perfectionism as a form of motivation versus perfectionism as a form of self-sabotage.
Mindfulness and imagery are two mental strength tools that athletes can use to increase their confidence. When it comes to mindfulness, I encourage athletes to notice what they’re paying attention to on a daily basis. If an athlete is focusing on all of the ways they’re messing up during practice, then they’re wasting their time and energy on thoughts that aren’t helping them improve their performance. It’s important that athletes put just as much energy into areas they’re doing well in as they are into areas that need more work.
When athletes practice mindfulness, it’s important that they practice bringing awareness to themselves and their surroundings in a way that’s non-judgmental. By simply noticing and observing thoughts, feelings, and experiences, they can collect data and information and that can help them learn and grow. This practice also keeps athletes from attaching painful emotions to mistakes, setbacks, or the body languages of teammates and coaches.
Additionally, I encourage athletes to reflect on their performances, especially after competitions or meets. Athletes learn to feel more in control of their performance when they reflect on their performances, think about what they learned from that experience, think about what they could’ve done better, and also notice what they did do well. Then they can use that feedback to be intentional about how they train before their next competition.
Coaches can help athletes gain confidence by balancing constructive criticism with both positive feedback and open-ended questions that encourage athletes to make their own corrections. Supporting athletes in making their own corrections is valuable because it challenges them to think about what they noticed and allows athletes to feel confident that they can make quick adjustments when it matters most. Athletes who are self-aware are more likely to be confident, and the more an athlete understands the “why,” the more likely they are to trust themselves. Coaches who explain why certain drills, skills, and feedback are important help their athletes better understand the value of what they’re doing, which helps them feel more confident that what they’re doing is going to contribute to them reaching their goals.
At the end of the day, confidence is important but it’s not everything. As a society and as an athlete community, we place a lot of weight on confidence. I’ll ask athletes if they’ve ever not been confident but still performed well, and when they really think about it, most athletes can come up with examples of when they weren’t confident and still performed well. I encourage athletes to think about what contributed to performing well even though they weren’t confident. Oftentimes there are key practices that they’re engaged in that help them perform well such as staying in the present moment, being an encouraging teammate, having positive body language, and giving 100% effort. Engaging in these practices will allow athletes to perform well, and then confidence will come. Sometimes you don’t start with confidence, and that’s okay. If we can do the things we know that will help us with our performance, then confidence will eventually follow.
The Pressure Principle: Handle Stress, Harness Energy, and Perform When It Counts by Dr. Dave Alred MBE
The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt by Susan David, PhD