Understanding confidence in sport4 Opinions
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About Elliot Newell
Performance psychology consultant working with athletes, coaches and support staff at British Canoeing
Confidence is best considered a belief a person has about their ability to execute a specific task successfully (e.g., a penalty kick in rugby) in order to obtain a certain outcome (e.g., points, self-satisfaction or coach recognition). Years of sport psychology research tells us that confidence is the key differentiating psychological factor between successful and unsuccessful performance in a variety of sporting settings.
Confidence however is dynamic, unstable and susceptible to change based on a range of factors. This can leave athletes feeling like they have no control over their confidence and more ready to accept that the peaks and troughs they experience over a course of a match, competition or season are inevitable. This doesn’t have to be true. Athletes can take ownership over their confidence; they can have more control.
This article is not intended to be an academic review of confidence in sport settings; rather it seeks to explain common errors made with athlete’s conceptual understanding of confidence. It is hoped that exploration of what confidence is and where is comes from can help confidence to be better understood and as a result, better controlled. Let’s start by breaking down confidence to help our understanding. Below are five common errors some athletes make regarding their confidence.
1) Some athletes focus on ‘feeling’ confident. They talk about it all the time; “I don’t feel confident about this competition” or “I’m sure I can beat this opponent; I feel confident about it”. This is inaccurate. Confidence is not an emotion, we can’t feel it. Confidence is a belief; this makes it a thought.
Tip 1: Stop trying to feel confident and start thinking confident
2) Some athletes leave confidence to chance. You wouldn’t leave your physical preparation or nutritional intake to chance so why take the risk with your confidence. One of the main reasons for this is that athletes do not know what to do exactly to enhance their confidence. There are no magic potions, no quick fixes, but there are things that can be done.
Tip 2: Take ownership of your confidence and devise strategies that make confidence on competition day an expectation rather than a hope.
3) Some athletes think of their confidence as a singular entity. Confidence is multidimensional. This means that there are many different types of confidence which can be more or less important to overall confidence in any given situation. For example, as a footballer about to take an important penalty, I may be confident about my technical ability to make good contact with the ball as well as my ability for accurate placement. I may however not be confident about my ability to beat the goalkeeper or my capacity for handling the huge pressure I am under. The differing degrees to which I am confident in these different types of confidence will impact my overall confidence for the penalty kick.
Tip 3: There are many different types of confidence that underpin your overall confidence. Understand and develop these types of confidence and overall confidence will take care of itself.
4) Some athletes fail to fully understand the sources of their confidence. Confidence has to come from somewhere. I am often surprised by the way in which athletes talk about their confidence.
“I am really confident about this upcoming performance”.
OK, great. Where does that confidence come from?
“I just don’t think that I can do it. My confidence has gone.”
OK, where has it gone?
Confidence does not simply emerge or disappear from thin air at unpredictable moments; it has to come from somewhere. Identifying where confidence comes from is vital in ensuring any degree of consistent, robust confidence for sports performance. The places from which confidence comes from are best considered your sources of confidence.
Tip 4: Understand where your confidence comes from. Once your sources of confidence are understood, then you can begin to take more ownership over your overall confidence.
5) Some athletes try and build confidence from the top down. Confidence is best built ‘bottom up’. A common error that some athletes make is that that focus on trying to develop overall confidence. This is a challenging process and is likely to fail. It is best to build confidence like you would a Lego house. Create solid foundations that are built on a wide range of difference sources of confidence. These sources will serve to underpin specific types of confidence, which in turn will develop overall confidence. Figure 1 may make this point a little clearer.
Tip 5: Whenever seeking to build overall confidence it is best to start at the bottom and work up. This is achieved by targeting sources of confidence rather than overall confidence.
Our overall sense of confidence is underpinned by a range of different types of confidence. These types of confidence are unique to each individual and to each situation the person finds themselves in. Types of confidence are important because they form the foundations upon which the person’s overall sense of confidence is based.
Let’s look again at a penalty kick taker case example to give this some context (Fig. 2). This footballer’s overall penalty taking confidence is underpinned by five types of confidence. These are technical ability for good contact, past successes with penalty taking, ability for accurate placement, ability to beat opposing goalkeeper, and ability to handle pressure. It is very important to note that these types of confidence are specific to the individual and to the situation they are currently in. On another day this player may not consider his ability to handle pressure as a key type of sport confidence. Instead his confidence may be underpinned by his physical state (fatigued or energised) and his perception of his teammate’s faith in him to be successful. Types of confidence are individual and environment specific. For any given situation, the quantity and types of confidence may change. As a general rule it is best to a) have a wide range of types of confidence (more types = a more robust foundation upon which confidence is built) and b) have types of confidence that are within the control of the person.
As identified in point 4, each of these types of confidence will have some specific sources. The key question here is “Where does my confidence in my technical ability for good contact come from?” Below outlines some potential sources of confidence for the confidence type ‘Technical ability for good contact’. For this athlete the sources of confidence for this type of confidence were:
a) A clear understanding of the technical requirements for good contact with the ball
b) Positive self-statements about the players own ability to execute these technical requirements in the upcoming kick.
c) Successful training experiences in which technical contact with the ball was achieved to a high level
d) Successful technical contact with the ball consistently achieved in the game up to the point of the penalty being awarded
e) Positive coach feedback about technical ability for good contact
f) Positive mental imagery of the penalty being taking with excellent contact including the imagined ‘feel’ of the ball as excellent contact is made.
Now we have got somewhere! Confidence is now real…it is made up of tangible and realistic sources and is no longer the vague and elusive concept it once was. If this player wants to build his confidence for this upcoming penalty kick (specifically his confidence in his technical ability for good contact), they now have some places to go to seek this confidence. This may be a well-rehearsed pre-performance routine, a self-talk strategy, a deliberate imagined experienced of the upcoming kick, a moment taken to review the technical requirements of the kick, or seeking the positive words from a coach.
A final note relates to the timing of confidence building strategies. As with all performance scenarios, the best results are achieved by effective preparation before the performance occurs. The footballer in this example used strategies to enhance a specific type of confidence immediately before performance happened. A more effective course of action would have been to seek sources of confidence before performance occurs so that the player already feels confident when performance is needed. It is very difficult to drag confidence up from a low point in the seconds leading to performance.
This model of confidence is based on various contemporary theories of sport confidence, in particular the excellent work of Dr. Kate Hays and colleagues at the University of Cardiff. Those with an academic or applied interest in this topic area are encouraged to read their published articles on confidence and confidence profiling.