Considering the new name of the website, I thought it would be fitting to expand on the relationship between belief and performance.

In order to maximize athletic potential, it is important to have belief in your abilities (e.g., Connaughton, Hanton, & Jones, 2010; Martin & Gill, 1991). As the stakes in sport get higher, the competition harder, and the level of play tougher, self-belief starts to play a more integral role in performance (Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2002). Beginner athletes can have success by fulfilling the tasks assigned to them by their coach. They see improvements by an increase in training, dedication, and frequency of competition. As the talent level funnels at the elite level, self-belief becomes more important. A good coach, supportive parents, and teammates can temporarily fill the void in self-belief that an athlete may have. For example, a coach can inject confidence through encouragement, the expression of their belief, and highlighting the positive strides the athlete has made. However, at the top level in sports, it is important that an athlete truly believes that they can achieve their goals, whether it is representing their country at an international event, or competing on the biggest stage, such as the Olympic Games. Training for one of these pursuits with doubt or hesitation will serve as a roadblock.

Nevertheless, even the best athletes in the world can suffer from a lack of self-belief. They may train with excitement about reaching their goals, but when they step onto the pitch or up to the starting line, their mind is clouded with doubt and fear. A question I get asked a lot by athletes is: “How can I become more confident in my abilities?”

Research highlights the important impact that self-efficacy can have on increasing the persistence and effort in achieving a performance goal (e.g., Feltz, Short, & Sullivan, 2008). In short, self-efficacy is the extent to which people have belief in their ability to achieve their goals and perform at a desired level. Bandura’s social cognitive theory (1986) explains four key components that promote self-efficacy: (1) mastery experiences (2) vicarious learning (3) messages from peers, coaches, and others important in your sporting domain and (4) personal interpretation of the physiological and emotional sates related to sport. Below, I focus on the first of these four components: Mastery experiences.

Self-belief is impacted by past experiences and performances, referred to as mastery experiences. These experiences are the most powerful tools for creating belief (Valiante & Morris, 2013). Successfully achieving a desired outcome in the past increases belief in achieving a desired outcome in the future. Mastery experiences form the foundation of perceived success, which helps build self-belief (Feltz & Ressinger, 1990). As an athlete, a successful performance will add more ammunition to your self-belief. Conversely, failures have a tendency to undermine self-belief (Bandura, 1997; Feltz & Ressinger, 1990). It is important for athletes to reflect on their successes and use these experiences to build confidence.

As an athlete, what are some ways to help facilitate successful mastery experiences?

First, it is important to have realistic, yet challenging goals (Locke & Latham, 2002; Valiante & Morris, 2013). Goals are the foundation of an athlete’s career: They help direct attention and motivate athletes. It is important that the goals are challenging enough to help develop confidence, but are still achievable. Long-term goals with process-oriented goals that serve as check points along the way are useful.

Second, develop a constructive way to handle successes and failures. As the saying goes, you win some and you lose some. However, both wins and losses can help you develop momentum towards your athletic goals. A failure is a great learning opportunity and gives athletes a chance to re-visit their goals. Re-framing failures is important because it prevents athletes from focusing on negative aspects of sport that can be detrimental to self-belief. A success helps build confidence and create more challenging goals in the future.

Third, reflect on your training. Athletes can make the mistake of blindly following their coach’s workouts. Trust is important in a coach-athlete relationship, but taking ownership over your training and learning the meaning behind training can help develop self-belief. A coach’s belief in their athlete can only take the athlete so far. Reviewing progress in training and consistency in workouts can help athletes learn and reduce competitive anxiety (Hanton, Cropley, & Lee, 2009), which in turn may increases their belief in their abilities (i.e., self-efficacy; Chase, Magyar, & Drake, 2005). Training is an important physical part of the sport, but it is also an opportunity to strengthen your mentality and belief.

“Make sure your worst enemy doesn’t live between your own two ears.” — Laird Hamilton

ReferencesShow all

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

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

Chase, M. A., Magyar, M., & Drake, B. M. (2005). Fear of injury in gymnastics: Self-efficacy and psychological strategies to keep on tumbling. Journal of Sports Sciences, 23, 465-475.

Connaughton, D., Hanton, S., & Jones, G. (2010). The Development and Maintenance of Mental Toughness in the World's Best Performers. Sport Psychologist, 24, 168-193.

Feltz, D.L., & Riessinger, C.A. (1990). Effects on in vivo emotive imagery and performance feedback on self-efficacy and muscular endurance. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 12, 132–143.

Feltz, D., Short, S., & Sullivan, P. (2008). Self efficacy in sport: Research and strategies for working with athletes, teams and coaches. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 3, 293-295.

Hanton, S., Cropley, B., & Lee, S. (2009). Reflective practice, experience, and the interpretation of anxiety symptoms. Journal of Sports Sciences, 27, 517-533.

Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2002). What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 205-218. doi:10.1080/10413200290103509

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57, 705-717. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.57.9.705

Martin, J. J., & Gill, D. L. (1991). The relationships among competitive orientation, sport-confidence, self-efficacy, anxiety, and performance. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 13, 149-159.

Valiante, G., & Morris, D. B. (2013). The sources and maintenance of professional golfers' self-efficacy beliefs. Sport Psychologist, 27, 130-142.
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  • Paul Trickett

    Firstly, great article. Self-belief is a strange old thing as it waxes and wanes with the influence of external and internal forces, and because of this it can be both your best and worst friend.
    We’ve all been there on a sports field when reality hits and all the training and preparation you did to build self-belief goes out the window because an opponent has brought their A* game or changed tactics, both of which you hadn’t properly prepared for. Self-belief can therefore have two levels of ‘state’ – the one in training where you almost deceive yourself that you are the best at what you do (because you’re essentially benchmarking yourself against old metrics (either yours, or what you think are your opponents)) to create a self constructed system of belief; and the other state of self-belief comes with the reality of competition. This one is far more fluid and dramatic and on the plus side can enhance your performance, but on the minus side can quickly destroy your self-belief, taking with it focus, clarity of process, and worst case scenario, freezing your critical decision making.
    My question to you would be, what thoughts do you have on being able to step outside the moment, going into crisis management mode, and finding that self-belief in the heat of the moment?

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