Throughout my time of running BelievePerform I have had the privilege to interview professional athletes, coaches and managers within sport. In every interview I ask the same question to each person “ What do you think is the most important psychological factor needed to excel in sport?”

The response: Self Confidence, Self Belief.

Everyone believed that self confidence helps athletes to reach that higher level. Self confidence allows athletes to thrive in their environment. Self confidence gives athletes the belief that they can overcome any obstacle and that they can achieve their goals.  The big question for coaches is: How do we develop confidence in sport? In this article we shall look at how a theory of confidence can be used and applied within the real world of sport.

Confidence is defined as the belief to perform a specific behavior successfully. Confidence is multidimensional and there are several different types of confidence. We can have:

  • Confidence about performing physical skills
  • Confidence to use mental skills
  • Confidence to make the right decisions
  • Confidence to learn new things
  • Confidence about physical fitness

When we are confident we feel like we can do anything. We feel as though as we can perform any skill and take on any challenge. When we lack confidence we feel scared, we are worried to fail and it can heavily influence our thoughts, behaviours and emotions.

How do we develop confidence in sport?

One theory which we can apply to the real world of sport is the self efficacy theory (Bandura, 1977).  Self-efficacy is defined as ones ability to perform a task successfully. Self efficacy is derived from 6 main sources.

  1. Performance accomplishments
  2. Vicarious experiences
  3. Verbal persuasion
  4. Imaginal Experiences
  5. Physiological states
  6. Emotional states

Performance accomplishments are all about our experiences with being successful and failing. If you have successful experiences self efficacy will be increased. As a coach how can you influence this? Do you set really challenging sessions where athletes aren’t experiencing success?  Are you setting realistic yet challenging goals?  When coaching think to yourself how can I create opportunities for my players to succeed. Can I set individual and team goals for my players that I know they are going to achieve. Can I discuss the goals with my players so that they understand them and feel that they can achieve them?  We want players to experience success but that does not mean that you can’t set a challenging session where players fail. It is important to teach players to learn from failure and to build resilient athletes who can overcome obstacles.

The next source is vicarious experience. This is also known as modeling. When we coach children we often perform a skill so that the player can watch and then perform it themselves.  Start to think how this links in with confidence. Are you a coach who demonstrates a skill that players find challenging and cant achieve?  Do you motivate your players when you are teaching them a skill?

Are your players paying attention to you? Effective modeling is about being aware of these aspects. As a coach you will want your players to be motivated and you will want them to succeed in the skills that they are practising. It is important that the players all practice the skills outside of training so that they become more confident to perform them.  When trying to teach your players a skill be inventive. Remember that not all of your players will learn best from a coach demonstrating. Can you show players skills on an iPad? Can you ask your players to watch elite athletes perform skills when they are playing in professional matches.  Demonstration is not just about talking to players about how to perform a skill. It is about motivation, focus, attention and retention. To learn a skill and perform it successful players have to practice it so that it become stored in their memory.

The third source is verbal persuasion which links very closely to praise. As a coach are you aware of what you say to players? Are you aware of how language can affect a players confidence?  Are you coach who constantly tells players what to do?

Subtle differences in language make all the difference to athletes. Young athletes rely heavily on adult feedback and it is important that the feedback which we provide is positive and constructional. As a coach start to praise the effort of your players. Start to make players realise the importance of learning and hard work. You want to develop players who enjoy learning and practice and who understand that it is important for physical and psychological growth.

The forurth source is imaginal experiences. Imagery is a great tool which is used to increase confidence. Not every athlete has the ability to use imagery and it is important that we are aware of this. How can imagining successful performance increase our confidence? Think to a time when you have been in a situation and used imagery to imagine yourself performing a task well. How did it make you feel? When using imagery you can take into account a number of variables including the sounds of the crowd, what you see, what you would feel when picking up equipment and even smell. Be aware of all of your senses. Finally, think about how you want to imagine yourself. Are you viewing yourself in first person or third person?

The fifth source is physiological states. Does the athlete view physiological arousal as facilitative or debiltative? When we are nervous we start to experience an increase in heart rate, increase in sweating, clammy hands, dry mouth, thoughts constantly running through our mind etc. The importance with this aspect is how we view those arousal states. It is natural for every athlete to become nervous before a competition or match. The important part is how athletes deal with their physiological arousal. If you view an increased heart rate as a cause of natural anxiety how is that going to influence your confidence?  If you view an increase heart rate as worry and fear, how is that going to impact on performance and confidence?  Anxiety and nerves are a way of our mind and body preparing us for competition. Try and and view physiological arousal as facilitative to your performance.

The final source is emotional states. By experiencing positive emotional states (happiness, joy, excitement) you are more likely to increase confidence. As a coach think how you can help athletes to experience more positive emotional states. Do you set fun and enjoyable training sessions? Do you set challenging goals which athletes want to overcome? Do you offer support to your athletes? Do you create a positive environment for your athletes? One very important aspect is individual differences. The best coaches will understand that every athlete is different. They will realise that not every technique or intervention will work for every athlete. As a coach it is important that you are aware of this and you understand what makes your players tick.

ReferencesShow all

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundation of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1990). Perceived self-efficacy in the exercise of personal agency. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 2, 128-163.