Dear Podium: I’ve raced at a world class level for a number of years and had significant success. My best performance on the world stage was an 8th place in the Olympic Games and I was just coming off an injury. My problem is that in spite of this level of success, I sometimes feel such a lack of confidence that it really interferes with my performance. It has been so bad there were even a few times when I wondered if I even belonged on the track. How can I better condition myself mentally so that I don’t beat myself before the start?
– Wanting More Confidence
Dear Wanting More Confidence:
Yours is not an uncommon problem. In discussions I’ve had with elite athletes, I’m always amazed at the number who struggle with confidence problems. Most casual observers are under the false impression that elite athletes rarely struggle with confidence; however in my opinion, it is quite the opposite.
There are a few different things you can do to begin building your confidence to the level you would like…..
….One of the most successful methods for building confidence is to focus on previous achievements. Clearly, you have competed and been successful at the highest level so be sure to remind yourself of that success. I find the use of key words to be very helpful so, for example, you might say “Olympics” or the name of an event or venue where you had success. Often, a simple reminder of previous success can go a long way towards building confidence.
Along the same lines I have worked with several athletes who use confidence CDs or DVDs to increase their positive thinking. The CDs might contain confidence-building music or various phrases such as “you can do it” or “you’ve prepared yourself and are going to run well.” The DVDs can contain clips of great performances that, when watched, build your confidence. All of these are methods for training yourself to build confidence.
While all of these methods work, the most successful method I have found for building confidence is to simply use positive self-talk. One of the most amazing things about humans is that our bodies move in the direction of our thoughts. If we think positively and confidently, we will act accordingly. So, even if it seems a bit forced at first, try coming up with a few positive sayings that you can say to yourself prior to practice and competition. You might accompany these with some positive imagery as well. Over time you will find yourself believing those positive thoughts more and acting and performing more confidently.
Another way to approach this issue is to think about your success in the Olympics. My guess is that, because of your injury, you thought very little about expectations and focused more on a few simple aspects of your performance. This usually leads to success. The irony of sport is that the more we focus on expectations and how badly we want to perform well, the more we struggle. However, when we can simply focus on the process of performing well and the things we must do to be successful, we tend to perform well. It’s not just “wanting” to win but thinking about “how” to win that is important. If you can identify 2-4 important components of your performance and direct your focus on those, you should find that you have less time to worry about your confidence. For example, if you are focusing on a specific aspect of your running form, you are less likely to have negative thoughts about your confidence. Again, when you were injured I bet you had a much more intense focus on your performance and didn’t have time to think about confidence. So, try to come up with a few focus cues regarding your performance. An example might be “long stride” or “stay upright.”
So, if we put this all together, before any performance you might think to yourself, “I can do this” and then “long stride” and “stay upright.” You build confidence with positive self-talk and then move your focus to important process aspects of your performance. With practice I think you’ll find yourself a more confident and successful performer.
Noah B. Gentner, Ph.D.
Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences
321 Center for Health Sciences
Ithaca, NY 14850
ngentner (at) ithaca.edu