How to Build Confidence in Sports
When you play with confidence, you play with freedom. You aren't holding yourself back due to fear. You're out there with complete trust in yourself and your skills and you simply play naturally.
For this reason, building self-confidence is one of the main mental skills any athlete needs to focus on.
But self-confidence, just like many mental skills, can seem vague and intangible. It's not as straightforward as improving your swing or mastering your throwing technique.
What does it actually mean to play with confidence? And most importantly...how can you become a more confident athlete?
To answer those questions, we need to take a closer look at the two forms of confidence for athletes: confidence in understanding and confidence in execution.
The Two Types of Sports Confidence
I've worked with many athletes, and one of the main areas we focus on is the disconnect between their play in practices and games.
During practice, they're killing it and performing their skills at a high level. But come game time, they often appear like different players.
Has something happened? Have they suddenly lost their skills? Of course not. What is happening, though, is that they're playing differently. Specifically, they are playing with a different level of confidence.
When I talk to these players, time and again they will tell me how they're not playing up to their potential during games.
They know they're capable of so much more, because they see themselves do so much more in practice.
This begins to show the two types of confidence, and the impact each has on your ability to compete. There's confidence in understanding and confidence in execution.
When an athlete explains to me how good they're doing in practice, this reveals a good level of confidence in understanding. They understand they should be playing better in games, because the skills they have are better than the performance level they're showing.
Confidence in understanding is all about knowing, on a logical level, that you're highly skilled.
It's being able to say, okay, yes I know I can throw the ball accurately, or sink a putt, for example.
For yourself, think of all the skills you have within your sport. They can be physical or mental. Would you say you have confidence in them?
Not necessarily confidence in your ability to perform the skills in games, but simply the confidence in knowing the skills are there. That level of knowing is the foundation of sports confidence and the essence of confidence in understanding.
Now, to compete at your highest level, you need to...well, compete. Performing your skills well in practice will only take you so far. There comes a point where those skills need to translate into competition.
That's when confidence in understanding needs to be accompanied by confidence in execution.
Confidence in execution involves the trust you have to execute your skills during games.
It's a more active confidence. With understanding, you know you have the skills. But with execution, you trust in yourself to take your skills and apply them in competition effectively and at a high level.
When you're able to do that, that's when you find yourself translating your play in practice into games.
Confidence in execution can also be broken down even further to pinpoint specific situations in games. Think crunch time moments.
You may play well for most of the game, but there's a certain point you doubt your ability to execute your skills. Maybe it's a late game shot, a certain hole in golf, or pitching late in the game with runners on.
Whatever the situation looks like for you, it may be the moment in the game when the trust you do have vanishes.
Both types of confidence are important. Which means it's crucial for you to work on building your confidence in understanding along with your confidence in execution.
As you do, the belief and trust you have in yourself and your skills will grow. And the more it grows, the better you will perform in games...when it counts!
Benefits of Building Confidence in Sports
Why is it that higher confidence equals higher performance? Well, it all comes down to the way confidence, specifically confidence in execution, causes you to play.
Later on, when we go into ways you can build your confidence, we'll talk about both confidence in understanding and confidence in execution.
But with the benefits, along with the mental game challenges it helps to reduce, we're going to focus mainly on confidence in execution. Since it's the one that plays out the most during games and has the most impact on your performance.
When you lack confidence in your ability to execute during games, how do you think you'll play? If you've noticed this lack of trust recently, how have you been playing?
There are a few main ways lack of confidence causes you to play that lowers your performance, including...playing it safe, trying to hide, trying too hard to be perfect, playing timidly, and playing stiff and tight.
All of these will lower your performance, and they stem from your inability to simply let go and play. Leading us to the main benefit of building your confidence...you allow yourself to let go and play!
Letting Go & Just Playing
Higher confidence equals playing freely. It removes the unhelpful need to force a good performance and opens you up to the opportunity to just be in the moment and perform.
A great example of this idea of letting go and playing comes from a baseball player I worked with.
When we first began working together, he had confidence in understanding. He was able to explain to me the skills he had as a hitter. However, his play in games was not confirming that skill.
This led to him trying to force hits, and going up to bat with a lot of tension and anxiety. Hitting with that level of worry only led to more bad at bats and a downward spiral of worse and worse confidence.
But by building his confidence in execution, this tension and worry decreased. And with each game he felt better and he played better. And as his performance increased and he got more hits, his trust in himself to get hits grew as well.
This led to more confidence and a general ease came over him while playing. He didn't feel the need anymore to force things at the plate. He allowed himself to simply let go and hit...trusting in the skills he worked hard to develop in training.
When you're able to play in this way, more naturally and freely, it's an incredible feeling. It's also where the flow state or the zone is felt.
And if you've ever played in the flow state, you know how great you perform when you do.
That only increases your trust in yourself, and just as the baseball player had the downward spiral form, this leads to an upward spiral of more confidence, equalling better performances, leading to greater and greater trust in yourself and your skills.
Main Mental Game Challenges Sports Confidence Helps Overcome
When you have a lack of confidence in understanding or a lack of confidence in execution, this can lead to a few different mental game challenges. Meaning, by building your confidence, there are a few different mental game challenges that can be overcome.
Fear of Failure
When you're afraid of making a mistake, you play timidly during games. You may even find that you hold yourself back. The more fear you play with, the lower your level of play will drop.
This leads to less and less confidence in execution. While you may understand that your skills are there in practice, the fear you have surrounding mistakes is so great that it overshadows this understanding.
While it's tough to do, building confidence in execution is a great way to reduce the fear you have during games.
Just think about it like this, if you have fear of failure, you don't have much confidence in your ability to go out there and compete at a high level. On the flipside, if you had total belief and trust in yourself and your skills, there would be less fear present.
So we can see that a great way to reduce the fear of failure is to focus on building your self-confidence, specifically confidence in execution.
Another mental game challenge that is helped a lot by building confidence is sports performance anxiety.
This one is very similar to fear of failure, due to how interwoven the two mental game challenges are.
When you are afraid to fail, you will likely worry about how the game will go. This worry is the foundation of performance anxiety. And the more you worry about not wanting to make a mistake, the more fear will grow.
The reason performance anxiety is helped by building confidence is because, just like with the fear of failure, the more trust you have in yourself to perform well, the less worry you'll experience.
There's a sense of calm that comes with knowing you can go out there and compete at your highest level. Belief that allows your focus to be centered in the present (on what you're doing in the moment), instead of drifting onto the future and being consumed with worries.
Negative self-talk is another mental game challenge building confidence helps overcome.
This one is interesting because negative self-talk is also a leading cause of low confidence. If you continually speak down to yourself and beat yourself up following mistakes, your confidence is going to take a hit.
Thoughts are the foundation of belief. A belief is simply a thought that decided to stick around long enough to become ingrained in your subconscious.
Negative thoughts that stem from negative self-talk can form powerful beliefs that work against the trust you have in yourself.
With negative self-talk, we see an impact occur on both your confidence in understanding and your confidence in execution. As a result, improving both will work to reduce negative self-talk and change it into more positive and productive self-talk.
This happens because of the effect confidence has on your inner voice, along with the necessity of changing your self-talk in order to improve your confidence.
And the fourth mental game challenge I want to mention in relation to building confidence is social approval.
Social approval is all about seeking validation that you're a good player from other people. You're looking outward when you need to be looking inward.
When you seek approval from others, your confidence becomes fragile. It is in the hands of other people and their opinions...or even worse, your interpretation of their opinions.
To build true confidence in yourself, you must seek it from within.
This means you aim to build the belief within yourself that you're a good player, you have the skills necessary to succeed, and you trust in your ability to execute those skills during games.
That level of self-belief works incredibly well at reducing the need for social approval. Since you're giving yourself the validation that you're a good player, you won't feel as much need to seek it from other people.
Of course it will still feel good when someone else gives you a compliment, but you won't need it. And that's a big difference.
You can use positive feedback and comments to boost your confidence, but you do not rely on them or need them, since at the core, you are giving yourself all the validation you need.
Strategy to Build Confidence in Sports
When defining confidence we broke it down into two categories: confidence in understanding and confidence in execution. And so, to work on building your confidence, you want to focus on these two categories individually.
Building Confidence in Understanding
Confidence in understanding is all about belief. It's a sense of knowing that you have the skills you need to go out there and succeed.
The actual execution of those skills falls into the second category, and we'll talk about that in a second.
But before you can trust in your execution during games, you must build a foundational understanding that you have the skills required to be a great player.
With this strategy, we're going to focus heavily on your thinking. Since thoughts drive beliefs, we are going to use conscious thoughts to form the beliefs you need.
Now these exercises are quite simple, but they're incredibly effective if you apply them consistently. And that right there's the key word...consistently.
Remember that every thought you have is adding to a belief. To build new beliefs that align with the confidence you want, you must work and work on feeding yourself confidence building thoughts.
That's what this strategy will help with. In addition, the final aspect will examine your weaknesses, as those are an important piece to the equation as well.
Part #1: Creating a Self-Talk Routine
Since your thoughts are so important to building confidence in understanding, you want to make sure the thoughts you have are directed towards building the beliefs you want.
To help, you can create a self-talk routine. This is where you outline all the negative or unhelpful thoughts you have about yourself, and then reframe them into more positive and confidence building thoughts.
Once you have your new list outlined, reread it to yourself once a day. This repetition helps to retrain your thinking.
Over time, this will actually work to build new thought patterns, making these confidence building thoughts more natural for you to have.
And as you think these new thoughts, new beliefs will be formed. Beliefs you want and beliefs that build confidence in understanding.
Here’s a video that goes into more detail on creating a confidence building self-talk routine.
Part #2: Reflect on Your Strengths
To build confidence in your skills, you need to allow yourself time each day to reflect on what you do well. These are known as the strengths of your game.
Reflection plays a large role in building confidence, because beliefs are built through your thoughts. And to reflect on something means you are going over it and thinking about it repetitively.
In terms of your strengths as a player, this will involve thinking about them each day.
Now, to make sure you remain consistent with this practice, you want to write your strengths down. That way, all you need to do is simply reread the list to yourself each day. This is very similar to the self-talk routine we just went over.
When you make your list, aim to write down at least ten strengths. These can be strengths in terms of your physical game or your mental game.
And since you are working to build your confidence, it may be safe to say you doubt your skills right now. So coming up with ten strengths may seem difficult or as though you are lying to yourself.
But remember that in order for something to be a strength, you don't need to be doing it perfectly every time. You simply need to know you've done it well before. So make your list of strengths, and begin reading it to yourself each day.
Part #3: Examining Your Weaknesses
Up to this point in the strategy, we've focused on feeding your mind positive thoughts. You should have a self-talk routine geared towards building confidence, along with a list of your strengths you're reviewing each day.
Now for this third part, we need to take a step back and look at your weaknesses.
Examining your weaknesses may not seem like a great way to build confidence in understanding, since the very nature of weaknesses means they are aspects of your game you don't do well.
But here's the thing...by focusing on your weaknesses and beginning to improve them, you can turn them into strengths. Further increasing the reasons you have to believe in your skills.
What you can do is make a list of all the weak areas of your game. This could be a list of three or a list of ten things. It really doesn't matter about the length as long as you're honest with yourself.
But now remember, you aren't outlining your weaknesses to beat yourself up over them. That would be counterproductive to the goal we're working to achieve, which is to build your confidence in understanding.
Don't criticize yourself, simply outline your weaknesses in an objective way.
Once you have your weaknesses listed out, look over each one and ask yourself, What do I need to do to turn this into a strength?
The answer to that question will turn into an action plan.
That's truly the aim of this part of the strategy: creating an action plan to turn your weaknesses into strengths.
When you begin working on your weaknesses, seeing them slowly transform into strengths, the confidence you have in yourself and your skills will grow.
In addition, since you are improving weak areas of your game, it's likely your actual production on the field or court will improve as well.
This in turn begins to add to the second type of confidence: confidence in execution.
Building Confidence in Execution
Once you have your strategy in place for building confidence in understanding, you want to transition into building trust in the execution of your skills.
Now admittedly, this is the more difficult of the two types of confidence to build. Mainly because it does require a certain amount of success during games.
But that doesn't mean you need to have a string of killer games in a row in order for your confidence to start to increase. But it does mean learning how to focus on what you did well, allowing the memory of success to be built within your mind.
Part #1: Visualizing Success
One trouble about building the memory of success, however, is finding the confidence to play well when starting out. If you lack trust in yourself, it's difficult to play well. Yet, playing well is the very thing you need in order to build trust.
You see how this can be a problem? I call this the confidence crisis: when you need to play well to build confidence, yet you need confidence to play well.
Luckily, there's a mental training tool you can use to help...visualization.
Visualization is all about imagining yourself performing your skills. By visualizing, you can begin building the memory of success needed to develop trust in yourself during games.
What you can do is spend time each day imagining yourself performing. Go into as much detail as possible, seeing what you would normally see and feeling how you would feel.
Continue to visualize yourself playing, seeing the game go how you want and seeing yourself performing your skills well.
Using visualization on a daily basis is a great way to leverage the idea of the memory of success, since each time you imagine yourself performing well you are ingraining the belief in your mind that you can play well.
Part #2: Learn to Reflect on the Good
For this second part of the strategy, we transition to success experienced during games. It involves you changing the way you examine your performance. Looking for things you did well, instead of looking at all the mistakes you made and beating yourself up over them.
Because remember, the goal with building confidence in execution is to build memory of success. And each time you reflect on what you did well you are building such memory.
What you can do is make a list, or simply think about, what you did well following the game.
I honestly recommend writing it down, so you are forced to focus on each individual aspect of the game you did well and you give it more attention.
When you just think about it, it's easy to brush over the good and immediately look at the mistakes you made. Also, if you write your list in a journal, over time you'll end up with a great record of all the things you've done well in games.
This provides you with powerful evidence that you can perform well in games and gives you more reasons to trust in yourself in the future.
Let's say you start to notice your confidence in execution increasing. But then comes a few bad games in a row. Your confidence drops and you begin to doubt if you ever had any trust in yourself in the first place.
Looking back over your list at that moment will help remind yourself of the success you've had, and will work to provide you with the confidence you need going into your next game or games to turn around the slump you've been in.
But even if you choose not to write down what you did well following games, you must make sure you are reflecting on the positives in some way.
It is a crucial exercise when it comes to building the trust you need in yourself and the successful execution of your skills. The skills you've built through hard work.
One Final Piece to Sports Confidence
Up to this point, we have focused solely on mental training tools and strategies you can use to increase your confidence; both confidence in understanding and confidence in execution.
Though there is one additional piece to building confidence that has less to do with a mental training exercise, but is equally important due to the vital role it plays in relation to your confidence. And that's preparation.
The first type of confidence we discussed was confidence in understanding. Now, in order to develop the understanding that you have the skills necessary to succeed, you need skills. Skills that can only be developed through hard work and preparation.
Now, I'm going to guess you train harder than most athletes. Mainly because athletes who turn to mental training and want to add it to their program typically are more serious and harder working than their peers.
Which is why I have saved this idea of preparation and the important role it plays in confidence until the end of this article. Mainly because I do not want you to think I am saying that hard work and training is the only way to build confidence.
Yes, it is one ingredient that must be added to the mix. But one that will only work if accompanied by the other ingredients (or tools) I've already outlined.
I've heard many people say that the best cure for low confidence is hard work. I'd agree to some extent. But if that were the case, why is it that many athletes work harder than their teammates, yet still struggle with self-confidence?
Clearly hard work alone is not good enough in these cases to build confidence. That's why it must be paired with the exercises I've outlined that increase both confidence in understanding and confidence in execution.
This idea is especially true when the athlete lacks confidence in execution. Their hard work translates into a strong understanding that they have high level skills. But this may also translate into incredible frustration when they fail to apply those skills at the same high level during games.
But, at the same time, we cannot overlook the importance of being prepared through hard work and consistent training. That's why, to wrap up this article on building confidence as an athlete, we are going to create your very own recipe for confidence.
Identifying everything that it truly takes to build both types of confidence in yourself, so that you can go out there each and every time you compete with a high level of trust in yourself and your skills.
Creating Your Confidence Recipe
The goal is to make how confident you feel in your control.
This means that on any given day, you get to determine whether or not you will feel confident. This eliminates any ideas of hoping to feel confident or wishing to feel confident.
Hoping and wishing won't get you very far. But having a clear plan in place that focuses on cultivating true confidence can get you to the level of trust and belief you want come game time.
Up to this point we have covered three main ideas in relation to your confidence: building confidence in understanding, building confidence in execution, and preparing through physical training.
This recipe pieces all of that together in a way that is tailored specifically to you.
What we're going to do is begin with the end result: you feeling confident during a game. Now we want to back track and think about what all goes into you playing with confidence.
Yes, it will include having belief in your skills and trust in your ability to execute those skills, but I want you to get more specific than that. What do you need to do to build that belief and ingrain that trust in yourself?
As you think of the answers to these questions, make sure that what you're coming up with is completely within your control.
For example, it's safe to say that your confidence will be high going into a game if coach has been complimenting you every practice and telling you how great you've been playing.
But that is not something you can control, so you do not want to add it to your confidence recipe.
Think about the different tools and techniques I outlined earlier. Choose a few, or all of them, and add them to your recipe. Performing each of them leading up to a game is something that is fully within your control.
In addition to these tools, think about what kinds of drills are important to your confidence.
What other aspects of physical preparation build the most trust going into games?
One athlete I worked with who's a runner described to me how stretching before and after he ran during training was an important part of his routine and made him feel like he was more prepared when it came time to race.
Another example is a softball player who had a specific hitting routine she liked to do each day that helped her feel confident and trusting in her swing.
For yourself, what kinds of drills or other aspects of your physical preparation are important to generating trust come game time?
In addition, think about other elements of preparation, such as rest, eating well, recovery, studying film, creating a game plan, and so on that increase your confidence to perform at your highest level during competition.
Once you've chosen all the ingredients that go into you playing with confidence, be sure to create a routine(s) for yourself.
This will include a weekly training routine to ensure you are doing everything you need to from a physical preparation standpoint. And it will also include a mental training routine you perform on a daily basis to ensure your mind is ready come game time.
Along with your physical and mental training routines, which allow you to feel confident in your preparation leading into the game, you also want to create a pregame routine (both physical and mental) to generate the optimal mental state you want going into competition.
Through the creation of your confidence recipe, you gain a clear idea of all the ingredients that go into you playing with full confidence on game day.
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