Athletes' Choices Can Help or Hinder the Development of Confidence

Foreward by Dr. Stephen Walker – Editor:

“Confidence is a factor that can influence an athlete’s performance in remarkable ways.  It can cause the cocky to make tactical and strategic errors.  The lack of it can mess with the performance of  talented athletes because they fail to channel their focus in the most effective manner – or worse – they give less than their best in the effort….because it won’t matter anyway.  This article reviews some of the geminal work on the topic by Vernacchia, McGuire & Cook in their book Coaching Mental Excellence (1996.)  There are many choices each athlete must make from the very beginning of their season throughout each and every competition.  These choices can make a pivotal difference in who succeeds and who doesn’t.  Thanks, Conrad for your excellent review and treatment of this subject.”

by Conrad Woolsey, PhD

Possibly the greatest gift we could ever give someone is teaching them the power of choice and how to develop internal confidence. The first step for an athlete to develop internal confidence is to understand what it means to be a true success and the choices that go along with it.

Choose to Build Internal Confidence

Possibly the greatest gift we could ever give someone is teaching them the power of choice and how to develop internal confidence. The first step for an athlete to develop internal confidence is to understand what it means to be a true success and the choices that go along with developing the C’s to success (McGuire, 2009). Once athletes understand that they are in control of the choices they make, we can teach them how to choose to develop internal confidence.

The formula for athletic success used in the book Coaching Mental Excellence is “SUCCESS = Ability x Preparation x Effort x Will” (Vernacchia, McGuire, & Cook, 1996, p. 18). Ability is our genetics or natural born talent and cannot be changed. However, what we can do is develop our natural abilities into our capabilities through our preparation. Preparation for success is working as smart as we can, and includes what we do in practice, our planning and training strategies, our mental and physical routines, our nutrition, and all of the other factors that go into developing our capabilities. Effort for success is “hustle” or giving our best effort in each and every situation. Will for success is continuing to give your best effort even when things are not going your way and to choose to dig down deep to give just a little bit more when the game is on the line (Vernacchia et al., 1996, pp. 18-22). In short, true success comes from preparing to the best of our abilities by working as smart as we can, giving our best effort in each and every situation, and having the will to choose to dig down deep to give more ‘when the going gets tough.’ Regardless of the outcome, when an athlete follows the formula for success, they should feel good and be proud of themself. As coaches, we should do the same and make sure that our athletes feel this way.

The C’s to success all begin with making a CHOICE, and what we choose to think about makes a big difference in our performance effectiveness. It is crucial that we know what the choices are, and how we can clearly teach these choices to athletes. Some of the choices in the C’s to success are Confidence, Concentration, Composure, and Commitment (Vernacchia, 2003). When athletes realize these choices are under their control, they will consistently perform better and be on a path towards developing internal confidence.

In the sport world, a common motivational technique used is the “outside-in” approach, in which confidence is based on performance effectiveness and evaluations of others. Often unintentionally, what coaches are doing by using this approach is controlling confidence rather than building it (Vernacchia, 2003, pp. 182-183). This technique is effective because athletes feel that no matter how well they perform they are not quite good enough, and that they are only as good as their last or next performance (Vernacchia, 2003, p. 183). In this approach, the coach emphasizes comparative self-worth and uses guilt or the fear of failure to motivate his or her athletes. While this approach works and can work well, it is not recommended because it sets athletes up to feel bad about themselves and to fail in pressure situations. If an athlete performs poorly, they can’t wait to redeem themselves, and if they perform well, they are relieved but apprehensive about future performances (Vernacchia, 2003).

An athlete’s self-esteem and self-worth are intimately related to their self-confidence. When athletes feel good about themselves, they are more likely to perform well, especially when the pressure is on. An essential key to developing an unbreakable self-confidence is to cultivate an “inside-out” approach to confidence. This begins by teaching athletes to feel good about who they are and how they do things and ends with them feeling good about themselves regardless of outcomes (Vernacchia, 2003). This does not mean that athletes are not disappointed with ineffective performances. However, “athletes retain their feelings of competence and look forward to performing again, since future performances are seen as self-enhancing rather than self-threatening” (Vernacchia, 2003, p. 183). As a result, athletes have a lot more fun competing and perform better in pressure situations because their fear of failure has been eliminated or reduced. It allows athletes to be more successful by helping them concentrate on “the task at hand” or what they want to have happen (Vernacchia, 2003).

Conversely, in the “outside-in” approach to confidence, athletes are constantly reminded of the consequences for negative outcomes and they waste time and energy worrying about factors that are out of their control. The more time athletes spend concentrating on positive thoughts and factors that they can control the more confident and successful they will be. What we concentrate on makes a big difference in our performance effectiveness. To improve concentration in the performance environment, teach athletes to use mental routines and to have a clear and present focus on the task at hand.

Many athletes have an “outside-in” orientation and base their confidence largely on external sources that are inconsistent or out of their control. When athletes are asked what they base their confidence on, many will cite external factors such as: having recent success, a good week of practice, having a great warm-up, liked their lane assignment, liked the site of competition, the weather was in their favor, played well here the year before, or they received a positive comment from their coach. All of these factors are external sources of confidence, in which the athlete has little or no control.

If one’s confidence is based on internal factors, it is possible for an individual to feel confident despite any unfavorable external factors. Therefore, the question is, how can we help athletes develop internal self-confidence? There are five main components to developing internal confidence: Belief in Method, Positive Self-Talk, Positive Visualization, Trust, and Mapmaking (Vernacchia et al., 1996, p. 74). The central theme to each of these elements is the athletes’ will to choose.

You must believe in your method

The first choice athletes must make on the path towards developing internal confidence is to believe in their method. In athletics, there is usually more than one correct or effective way to do things. There are several different techniques, training programs, and strategies that will lead to success, and with all of the good choices available, “it becomes clear that the critical choice is not the method chosen, but believing in the method chosen” (Vernacchia et al., 1996, p. 75). Therefore, an athlete must first understand and believe that his or her technique and training is the best method for him or her. Today, with easy access to all of the information about technique and training, the days of blind allegiance are over. As the coach, we must take the time to educate athletes as to why the method chosen is the best one for them, and to emphasize the importance of believing in one’s method.

You must control your self-talk

The second choice that will enhance an athlete’s confidence and performance effectiveness is to decision to control self-talk. In our mind, we can only think one thought at any specific moment, and what we decide to think about is under our control. Therefore, in order to increase confidence and performance effectiveness, athletes need to choose positive self-talk. Positive self-talk is being our own best friend. It’s reminding ourselves of our strengths, great past performances, and the things that make us successful. We may not be able to stop all of the negative thoughts from creeping into our minds, but we can decide to replace negative thoughts with positive ones that will help our performance and increase our confidence. Every action is first preceded by thought, and what we choose to think about makes a big difference in how well we perform.

You must be able to see what you want to happen

Choosing to visualize success is the third choice that an athlete must make. Positive visualization is seeing what you want to have happen, before it happens. “It has been said that we cannot become what we cannot see ourselves becoming.”  We have also heard the saying, ‘What you see, is what you get.’ Both are truisms” (Vernacchia et al., 1996, p. 76). What we see in our “mind’s eye” has a big impact on our motor responses and performance effectiveness. Positive visualization is energizing and presets the mind and body for a successful performance. When we are thinking and seeing the right thoughts, good things are more likely to happen. Positive visualization fills an athlete up with confidence and allows them to show up for any competition expecting success.

You must trust the process

The fourth choice that an athlete must make is trust. Trust is the opposite of doubt, worry, and fear.  In order to be confident, athletes must choose to trust their ability, preparation, and strategies that they have spent time practicing and visualizing. Genuine trust can not be faked; it comes with consistent preparation and practice. In order to increase trust, athletes should use mental and physical routines on a regular basis. An example of a mental routine that will increase an athlete’s confidence and concentration is the “See it, Feel it, Trust it” mental routine (Vernacchia et al., 1996; Vernacchia, 2003, p. 154). While using this routine before each race or attempt, athletes should see what they want to have happen, remember the feel of a great performance, and choose to trust that they are ready to deliver their best. When athletes learn to trust their set routines, they will be successful regardless of outcomes because deep down they will know that were thinking the right thoughts. Our performance may not always be what we wanted, but if we were “thinking right,” then we have been successful (McGuire, 2009). Lack of trust locks an athletes potential inside. When athletes fall into a “slump” talent is generally present, but trust is lacking (Vernacchia et al., 1996, p. 77). Trust is a choice, and in order for an athlete to be successful one must choose to trust her or his preparation and let the performance happen. “Flow” which is possibly the greatest experience one can have in sport, is the ultimate example of trust (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Choosing trust is a mindset, and is not dependent on circumstances or situations (McGuire, 2009).

You must set clear goals

The fifth choice that an athlete must make is the decision to set clear goals. These goals should “begin with the end in mind” and act as a map or “blueprint,” in which goal setting for goal attainment is the focus (Vernacchia et al., 1996, p. 78). Just setting goals does not accomplish goals. Choosing a specific blueprint helps athletes to be committed to achieving their goals. When setting goals for goal attainment, goals should be “S.M.A.R.T.” with the smart acronym standing for specific, measurable, action oriented, realistic, and timely (McGuire, 2009; Vernacchia et al., 1996). Athletes should write out clear goals that are measurable, take action to complete, are reasonable, and have a specific timeline for completion. Athletes should keep sight of their goals on a daily basis. Having a clear blueprint to follow increases an athlete’s confidence by helping him or her monitor their progress.  Some additional guidelines for effective goal setting are:

(1) Set goals which focus on the process rather than the outcome

(2) Long term goals should be supported by both intermediate and short term goals

(3) Goals should emphasize improvement of one’s performance

(4) Don’t try to do too much too soon

(5) Keep goals flexible

(6) Keep in mind the performance paradox of sport – the better we get the harder it is to improve

(7) Leave goals open-ended – I will jump 7 feet or better in the high jump

(8) Have your athletes set goals outside of sport – teach them to become a whole person. (Vernacchia et al., 1996, pp. 79-80; Cook, 1996; Gould, 2001; Vernacchia, 2003, pp. 91-93).

When teaching athletes goals – have them “ink ‘em and think ‘em, view ‘em and do ‘em, believe ‘em and achieve ‘em” (Vernacchia, 2003, p. 91).
When athletes understand the formula for success and the choices that go along with it, good things happen. As the one who is called coach, it is crucial that we give athletes opportunities for success and help them build internal confidence. The five main components to help athletes build internal confidence were: Belief in Method, Positive Self-Talk, Positive Visualization, Trust, and Mapmaking. The central theme to all of these elements is the athletes’ will to choose. When athletes choose to invest in each of these components they will have earned an unbreakable confidence.

Cook, D. L. (1996). The composition of confidence. In R. A. Vernacchia, R. T. McGuire, & D. L. Cook, Coaching mental excellence: “It does matter whether you win or lose…” (pp. 81-89). Portola Valley, CA: Warde Publishers.

Gould, D. (2001). Goal setting for peak performance. In J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance, (4th ed., pp. 190-205). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co.

Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

McGuire, R. (2009). Thinking right in sport. Track and Field Coaches Association.

Vernacchia, R. A., McGuire, R. T., & Cook, D. L. (1996). Coaching mental excellence: “It does matter whether you win or lose…” Portola Valley, CA: Warde Publishers.

Vernacchia, R. A. (2003). Inner Strength: The mental dynamics of athletic performance, Pala Alto, CA: Warde Publishers.

One thought on “Athletes' Choices Can Help or Hinder the Development of Confidence

  • January 9, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    This article is exactly what I needed to help improve my athletes confidence. I always thought that confidence was part of a performance. I never viewed it as an internal control. Great Job Phd Woolsey.


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