How to Stop Doubting Yourself During Games

Do you doubt yourself during games? Learn two tips I use as a mental performance coach to help athletes stop doubting themselves

I reached out to a tennis player I’ve been working with about a recent match she had. She’s playing in a professional tournament and this was her first match.

Her response was not too positive. Unfortunately, she lost. It wasn’t so much mental, she said, as it was technical. The other girl simply outplayed her.

However, something she did mention that had to do with her mental game was the doubt she felt as soon as she started to fall behind. Has this ever happened to you?

She and I have been working a lot on building her confidence and managing the pressure she places on herself during matches. She’s made a lot of progress, but this habit of doubting herself still persists.

So, we got to work on getting her to stop doubting herself when competing. What I want to do is share with you the strategy I used, so that it can help you if you’re finding yourself in a similar position, where you’re experiencing a lot of self-doubt during games.

What Happens When You Doubt Yourself During Games

To compete at a high level, and to do so consistently, you need confidence. There must be a certain level of trust present. Trust that is absent when you doubt yourself.

Doubt turns into second-guessing. You may find that you freeze up while playing, or hold yourself back. You won’t be as aggressive, since you’re thinking about everything that can go wrong.

Put simply, when you doubt yourself during games you get in your own way!

I talk a lot with the athletes I work with about muscle memory. Because muscle memory is such a crucial piece to your success.

Muscle memory refers to the idea that your body knows what to do. You’ve practiced your skills over and over until they’ve become second nature. So come game time, you want to allow muscle memory to take over.

Practice is where you build muscle memory, games are where you allow the muscle memory you’ve built to shine.

But when you doubt yourself, you keep this muscle memory from taking over. You get in your own way.

When you doubt yourself during games, do you sometimes feel rigid? Maybe even a little stiff? It’s as though you’re trying too hard to have proper mechanics and play well.

That happens because you are overthinking and worrying too much about what’s going to happen. Since you doubt yourself, you aren’t trusting the muscle memory you’ve worked hard to train.

So instead of performing naturally and freely, you play tense, timidly, and second-guess yourself. All as a result of the doubt you feel.

Where Doubt Comes From

So where does this doubt come from and why’s it there in the first place?

I’m sure you’re already aware that doubting yourself isn’t good…otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article. So if you know it’s not a good thing to do, why do you do it in the first place?

Well, the reason is because you aren’t actively choosing to doubt yourself (at least I hope not). It just happens. And it happens as a result of what you’re focused on and thinking about.

Let’s go back to the tennis player I mentioned at the beginning of the article. She told me that her doubt began as soon as she started to lose. Sometimes it was following a few lost points, and sometimes it didn’t begin until after losing a set or a game.

But the bottom line was, she began doubting herself after falling behind.

As her opponent’s lead grew, so did her doubt. This was mainly due to the idea of “Here we go again.”

She’s dealt with many frustrating losses in the past. She’s tired of losing and doesn’t want it to happen anymore. So, as soon as she begins to fall behind, her mind tells her that losing is exactly what’s about to happen again.

Now that’s not for sure what will happen, but she puts herself in a much better position to lose as soon as she allows doubt to creep into her mind.

Knowing that she was only hurting herself when she had self-doubt, why do you think she continued to do so? Because of her focus, that’s why!

As she fell behind, her attention went more and more onto the outcome. She jumped to the end of the match, without even giving herself the opportunity to play the remainder of the sets. In her mind, she was destined to lose.

The more she focused on that, the more her thoughts fed her reasons why she will lose and why she’s not good enough.

Has something similar happened to you? When you begin to doubt yourself during games, what would you say you’re focused on and what are you thinking about?

Are you thinking about not wanting to lose? Are you focused on how much it’s going to suck if you make a mistake, miss the shot, or strike out?

Such thoughts are the main driving force behind doubting yourself during games.

So along with other strategies, one of the major things we need to do is get you to change what you’re focused on and change what you’re thinking about during times when you experience self-doubt.

Tips to Stop Doubting Yourself During Games

Knowing it was her thinking and what she was focused on that continued to cause the tennis player to doubt herself during games, I knew my job was to change her thinking.

In addition to that, we needed to work on getting her to focus more on each point (staying present), instead of fast forwarding her focus onto the end of the match.

So, what I’m going to do is break down two tips that will help you if you’re in a similar situation, dealing with self-doubt during games.

Tip #1: Stay Present

As your thoughts leap into the future, self-doubt will fall upon you like a tumbling boulder.

The more you think about what you don’t want to have happen (or what you regrettably expect to happen) the more you will doubt yourself.

When doubt appears before a game, it’s because you are thinking about what will happen during the game. You may worry about how well you’ll play, or if you can beat your opponent.

This happens a lot when you’re facing an intimidating opponent, or someone you think is better than you are. In that case, it will be easy to doubt your ability to go out there and win.

When you doubt yourself during a game, your mind has traveled into the future; either doubting whether or not you’ll be able to hold onto your lead, or if you’ll be able to come back from the deficit.

Knowing how dangerous it is to have your thoughts travel into the future, both before and during a game, you want to work to keep your mind centered in the present.

Now, this is much easier said than done. Luckily, there are tools you can use to keep your mind present, and your thoughts off the outcome.

One tool is breath work. When you notice you’re doubting yourself, turn your attention onto your breath. It’s a simple way to take your focus off the outcome and bring it back into the present moment.

Simply take nice deep breaths, bringing your full awareness onto each breath.

Another tool you can use is a performance objective. This is going to be something that’s part of your process that you will focus on.

For example, the tennis player I mentioned earlier tends to think a lot about what will happen by the end of the match. To help her stay more present, we created a performance objective she could focus on.

Her objective is to keep her head still while hitting and focus on moving her feet.

It’s part of the process and something she can make sure happens. But what’s also great about it, is the fact it keeps her mind off the outcome.

For yourself, if you realize that you’re doubting your skills and your ability to win, let go of the outcome, and turn your attention onto a simple objective.

Tip #2: Think About What You Want to Have Happen, Not What You Don’t Want to Have Happen

When you’re doubting yourself, would you say you’re thinking more about what you want to have happen, or what you don’t want to have happen?

By the very definition of what it means to be doubting yourself, I’m going to guess you’re thinking more about what you don’t want to have happen.

But think about it like this, if you are constantly thinking about the possibility of losing, feeling frustrated, making mistakes, and so on, is that allowing you to feel very confident?

Absolutely not!

You’re filling your head with every possible thing that could go wrong.

Now, that may be good a day or so before the game, just to prepare and come up with strategies for if and when something does go wrong. But that’s not what’s happening right before and during a game.

Instead, you are thinking about what you don’t want to have happen in a worrying way. Not in a productive way.

The more you think about what you don’t want to have happen, the more you’re going to doubt your ability to play well and win.

Instead, you want to think about what you want to have happen. Now I know in the last tip I talked all about staying present, so why am I now telling you to think about the outcome?

Because, if you do happen to find yourself thinking about the outcome, you better make sure it’s the outcome you want!

Let’s say you’re doubting yourself a lot during a game. You are completely convinced you’re going to lose. But at that moment you begin thinking about how much you want to win. What do you think will happen?

Unfortunately, it does not mean you will 100% win the game. But what will happen is that your confidence will increase, and your motivation will return.

All because you’ve stopped worrying about what you don’t want to have happen and begun to think more about what you want to have happen.

Final Thoughts

Doubting yourself as an athlete is frustrating. You put all that work in during training, only to show up to games, doubt yourself, and then underperform.

Luckily, doubt is driven by your own thoughts and focus. Therefore, by changing your thoughts and what you’re focused on, you can reduce doubt and increase confidence.

To help, there are two tips you can apply: work to stay present by using breath work and setting objectives, and remember to think about what you want to have happen instead of what you don’t want to have happen.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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