From the Field: Confidence and Competition

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Dear Podium: I’ve got a young athlete I’ve been working with who trains beautifully but just can’t put it together during competition. I believe it is a confidence issue. How can I better coach him so that he doesn’t beat himself before the gun goes off?
– Confidence Coach

Dear Confidence Coach:

First, great coaching job. Your open minded approach to training will most definitely benefit your young athlete. Now, on to the issue at hand. There can be many reasons that a young athlete may train better than he competes, and confidence level can certainly play a large role. Confidence grows with experience and, as a young athlete, his experiences so far are probably very limited. Additionally, adolescents and young adults don’t process experiences the same way that adults do, so even though he may have done things before, he may need help learning from them. Moreover, although physical training can be made to mimic competition, they are not the same thing. The connection between toughing out a hard workout and the mental toughness necessary for a grueling race are not necessarily an easy or obvious jump for everyone.

As a coach, there are many things you can do to help your athlete gain confidence and become a better racer…..

The first step is to increase awareness. If your athlete is going to be more confident and race better, he needs to feel well prepared. Look for ways to design training that is similar to the demands of racing. Don’t try to throw all race elements into every training session, but pick one or two things that an athlete can think about or practice in each ride. For example, in a group ride, the athlete might practice moving around in a pack in addition to having a challenging group ride or he might practice different line choices while doing sprint work into or out of corners. Be sure to review these training accomplishments with your athlete on a regular basis and not just before competition. You will help enhance your athlete’s confidence by helping him see the connection between his accomplishments in training and how they relate to competitive challenges. Make sure you are honest and sincere when talking about what an athlete can do, false praise will only undermine your credibility.

Remember, when dealing with younger athletes, you are dealing with both a developing body and a developing mind. Young adults are learning how to hone processing and reasoning skills. Engage them in the process of how to think about training, how to think about racing and how training relates to competition. Everyone develops at a different pace and learns in different ways, so it is important to know your athlete well. A new or younger athlete will not be aware of all of the things they need to know. They are learning. As a coach, you can play a valuable role in the development of a junior athlete’s ‘race mind.’ Strive to understand your athlete’s level and teach from there. Above all, be patient, the process of learning how to monitor all the important elements will take conscious awareness, time and practice.

Finally, bring your athlete into the discussion. Rather than just tell him what to think, what to do or what he has accomplished, give him a chance to analyze or plan first. Let your athlete speak first, then praise and build on what he has said. Asking your athlete to talk about what is needed in a race and how he can train like he wants to compete is a great way to demonstrate your confidence in him, which will in turn help him feel more confident about himself.

Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., CC AAASP
Mountains, Marathons & More
Assistant Professor – Athletic Coaching Education
WVU – School of Physical Education
USA Cycling Coaching Education Committee Advisory Board Member
301-697-1142

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