Sports at any level is a game of confidence. When you have it, your skills shine. When confidence sinks, you don’t perform up to your capabilities. But confidence for many athletes is too fragile or fleeting in my opinion. Too many athletes allow their confidence to go up or down rapidly based upon immediate results and circumstances during competition. These athletes ride the confidence roller coaster. When they perform well, they feel good about their skills. When they perform poorly (or not up to expectations), their confidence can dip quickly.
I receive emails from athletes and parents everyday about how their confidence is shattered after just one bad play, shot or routine. If you (or your athletes) ride the confidence roller coaster, is that true confidence? Probably not.
I would argue that fragile self-confidence or letting results or circumstances dictate how confident you feel in the present moment IS NOT true confidence. Real self-confidence is stable, long-term, and lasting, even under adversity or poor results. True self-confidence is based on years and months of practice and competition. Is it fair to yourself as an athlete to throw away years of confidence-building when you mess up one play, race, or shot?
I don’t think so. But I’ve learned over the past 35 years as a mental coach that even the best athletes in the world, at times, can ride the confidence roller coaster… I’ve been watching the US Open Tennis this past week. I look at the mental game overtures of every match I see on TV. In Rafael Nadal’s first round of the US Open against Andrey Goluveb he didn’t play his usual style of tennis and seemed to struggle at times. Nadal was behind in both his second and third sets, but was able to rally at the end to win in straight sets.
After the match, Nadal talked about his confidence level: “Today I played nervous. That’s normal thing. You know, I lost a few matches this summer. Even if I had a fantastic season before, had tough loses in finals. But this summer I didn’t play a lot, so the confidence is not arriving fast. Especially if you don’t win a lot of matches in the last tournaments, even if I was practicing very well, for sure that’s not enough. Important thing is to have victories like I had tonight.”
Confidence may have helped him pull out the win, but a lack of quality practice and not winning often caused Nadal to question himself. That’s strange because he wins a lot and works very hard at his game. “The confidence is just because I didn’t practice enough, is just because when you have tough loses like the final of Wimbledon, your illusion goes down a little bit and you need to recuperate that after. I am playing with very high illusion here, high motivation. But, you know, I need time… So the mental part is tough and the physical part is tough too,” said Nadal.
So we know that confidence can vary for athletes and some of this is natural…. When you have momentum, you ride a massive wave of confidence and can feel superior to the opposition. However, when you struggle to play up to expectations, you can lose some confidence.
But to lose a massive amount of confidence — a level of 10 drops to a 4 — due to one mistake or blown play, is not healthy for athletes.
10 Strategies to Avoid Riding the Confidence Roller Coaster
- Remind yourself that confidence develops over several years of practice and competition and not just one event or one play. True confidence is stable and long term instead of fleeting. Take a long-term approach to your confidence instead of relying on only the last few plays or moments of the competition.
- Use mistakes and mishaps as an opportunity to improve your game instead of being self-critical of your performance, which hurts your confidence. When you are self-critical or judgmental of your performance, you suck the life out of your confidence.
- Remind yourself of the physical and mental skills you possess that make you a unique athlete and which provide a base of confidence no matter how you are performing any given day.
- Always look for opportunities to turn around your performance when not performing well or when down in a match. A lucky break, great play, or making a long putt can spark your game and give you the opening to harness momentum.
- Positive self-talk enhances confidence through the use of success driven statements about performance. Tell yourself that you are going to play well and succeed in your goals. Avoid engaging in negative self-talk after mistakes.
- Develop a confidence resume to remind yourself of your accomplishments. To do this, write down your accomplishments, successes, and abilities in your sport. Try to read this before games and practices to build confidence.
- Mentally rehearsing successful plays or points prior to competition reinforces success and confidence. Rehearse positive scenarios that can occur during a competition. Imagine yourself performing your best and believe that you can execute!
- Battle the doubt. Part of staying confident is battling your own internal doubt. No one is perfect and in times of adversity it’s tough not to have any doubts about winning. The first place to start it to identify any doubts you have had in the past and that are themes in your career such as “My team is not good enough to win.” The next step is to counter the doubt with statements that turns the situation around into an advantage such as: “I have the confidence that my team is better than any team we play.”
- Patience is a form of confidence. A patient player is a confident player. The challenge in football is to stay patient when thing are not going your way today. It’s easy to give in to internal doubt and criticism when you are not on top in your sport. But the better choice is to stay patient with results and wait for good things to happen. A patient football player says to himself that it might not be happening right now, but I know my play will take a turn for the better.
- I tell my students not to look in the rear view mirror. Do not focus on what is in the past that you cannot change. Refocus as fast as you can on the next point, play, or shot. You have to make the mistake OK in your own mind so you can focus on the next play, shot, or point and build confidence. Note: This article was based on The Confident Athlete CD program. Learn more about how to be proactive with your confidence.