Updated: Oct 15, 2020
Confidence is probably the most common aspect of the mind athletes want to improve (with dealing with nerves and anxiety coming a close second). Confidence looms large in athletes’ minds as they seek to heighten their performance both on and off the pitch. In the initial sports psychology meeting, over and over again I hear “I want to feel more confident.”
At this point, though early in our relationship, I always gently tell them that this is not a goal we can be sure of hitting. For the feeling of confidence can wax and wane from day-to-day, hour-to-hour, sometimes minute-to-minute. Feeling confident is never guaranteed. Athletes look at me incredulously.
The reason I can’t guarantee they will always have the feeling of confidence is because of our mind - the mind is a superb reason giving machine. As soon as we want to do something that’s important to us, it so easily cranks out reason after reason for why we shouldn’t do this, why we can’t do it, and why we shouldn’t have to do it.
Just try for yourself.
Take your pen and paper and write down a challenging goal that you would so love to achieve – maybe an Olympic dream, playing for a premiership team, being selected for the performance squad. Pick a goal you really want to achieve, but don’t feel confident that you are capable of doing. Be really specific. Highlight the exact date, even time and day, when you’ll achieve this goal. Set out the detail about the actions you’ll take with your arms, legs and voice to achieve this goal, your dream goal.
Then say it out loud into the ether.
And as you do, notice what your mind is telling you.
Did the reason-giving machine crank in? Churning out all the reasons not to do it?
Now up the stakes. Let’s give the reason giving machine something to fuel it. Take your piece of paper with your aspirational goal. And walk out of the room or find a phone, and share it, out loud, with someone important to you.
What reasons does your mind, the reason-giving machine now crank out, telling you that you can’t possibly think you can do this? Do you feel confident when you hear this?
Obstacles, judgements, comparisons and predictions
The reason-giving mind will lay out all the reasons why you shouldn’t go for this goal. Your mind might give you:
The obstacles – like you’ve not done enough training, you don’t have the right physiology, there are too many people ahead of you.
The self-judgements – such as you should have done better already, you always mess up trials so why would you be selected.
The comparisons – you are not as good as Sabina, Faheed will easily beat you to the space in the team, you are way off your PB at the moment.
The predictions – there’s no way you’ll be selected, you’ll never get the qualifying time, you’ll make a fool of yourself, you are not talented enough.
Do you lack the skills or experience?
Of course, sometimes the reason giving mind has a point. There are situations where you should listen to the reason-giving mind. Check first whether the reasons it is giving are really a simple lack of experience or skill. Ask first:
Lack of experience
Do you have any experience of the thing you are trying to do?
How many times have you done this before?
Lack of skill
Do you have the skill to do this?
Have much have you practiced this to become fluent in it?
If a lack of skill or experience is the real problem you are not confident, then set yourself some goals and get going on a plan to develop missing experience or practice the new skill.
Quietening the reason-giving mind
If not, then get started with your goal. Don’t let the reason giving mind get in the way of taking the first actions towards your goal. Take these three steps:
Notice it – This is always the first step and is often enough to enable you to unhook from those reasons. If you pause for a second and notice what your mind is doing, it opens up a little space between you and your thoughts; often enough for them to lose some of their influence over you.
Name it - E.g. “Here’s the I can’t do it story”, “I’m having the thought that I can’t do it”. It can be very effective to do this with a sense of humour, e.g. smile and say, “Aha, just got hooked again.”
Neutralise it - Take your thought and put it in a new context, where you can see the thought for exactly what it is – just words and pictures. E.g. hearing the thought in a silly voice, seeing it on a t-shirt, as buses going down the street or as words on a computer screen.
And remember, the action of confidence comes first. The feeling comes later.