How to build sport confidence: 3 practical & effective ways for developing athletes

Jul 29 / Professor Joanne Butt PhD
When elite athletes are matched physically, technically, and tactically it's often the strength of their mental game that separates the winners from the runners-up. Undoubtedly, one of the key building-blocks of a strong mental game is confidence. The word confidence comes from the latin Fidere meaning 'to trust'. So essentially, it’s about the level of trust and inner belief you have in your ability to be successful. In sport, when you're feeling confident to compete, you trust yourself to perform to your best. You know that training and preparation is over and now it's time to execute what you have been training to do. From research in talent development and sport psychology we know that confidence is considered essential for optimal development and performance [1]. However, we also know that it can be fragile and easily broken depending on the athletes' experiences. In this micro-post we're going to cover three practical and effective ways you can build and maintain your sport confidence as a developing athlete. These strategies are the same ones we regularly use in in our consultancy work with elite athletes. OK, let’s get into it with #1!

#1 Level-up your self-talk 

Your thoughts are a key component of the confidence process. The good news is that the way you think is within your control so with a little training you can make them work for you rather than against you. One way to accomplish this to focus on your self-talk. Self-talk is essentially the 'inner conversation' you have in your mind. If your self-talk is negative, it can undermine your performance. On the other hand, if its positive, it can help support your performance. With a little training it’s possible to catch negative thoughts and replace them with more positive, productive ones. The technique we use to help elite athletes do this is called reframing.  

Essentially, reframing involves picking out the negative thoughts you have and asking how you can change that into something much more positive. For example, for a track athlete who’s thinking “This headwind is crazy!”; this could be quickly caught and reframed to "It’s the same for everyone in the race. Focus on your start”. Alternatively, for a forward in football who’s thinking “I’m not getting the right service”, this could be reframed to “Focus on making the right runs”. In many ways, reframing is not so much about boosting confidence but more about protecting it. Over time, the positive shift in your thinking will help to keep your confidence stable rather than let it slip away when you need it most. 

#2 Harness your super strength

Another way you can build confidence is to identify your super strength and integrate it into your training and competition. Our research [2] with elite athletes has shown this is an effective way to build confidence and enhance performance. Essentially, your super strength is the main asset you express most naturally as an athlete. It's the one thing that you have that gives you the competitive edge, the one thing that separates you from other athletes you compete with. This could be your speed, vision, movement or a technical asset (e.g., finishing, putting, backhand). When working with elite athletes we guide them through 4 key steps that help them identify their super strength and then think about ways they can build it into their training and competition plan. You can get started on this yourself by reflecting on your own super strength and thinking of ways you can apply it to your game. 
One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation. 
Arthur ashe I 3x grand slam winner

#3 Engage in mental preparation

When we ask elite athletes how they managed a peak performance, they often tell us that they felt mentally prepared and had left no stone unturned in getting ready to compete. We know from our research with world-class performers [3] that feeling physically and mentally prepared for competition is one of the most important and stable sources of confidence. While most young athletes know the importance of preparing physically and how to do it, knowing how to prepare mentally tends to be less clear.

As an important source of confidence, it's crucial for developing athletes to explore ways to engage in mental preparation. One way you can achieve this is to run through a quick mental checklist ahead of competition. Essentially, this is about getting your game face on. In this checklist, you would run through your roles, responsibilities, and ‘what if?’ planning so that you’re crystal clear on what is expected of you and how you will react if things don’t go to plan. You remind yourself to focus on what is within your control and take comfort in the knowledge that the hard work is done and its now about going out there, embracing the occasion and doing what you’ve trained for. Why not have a go at creating your own checklist as a way to help mentally prepare next time you compete. Creating some mental and emotional space to do this ahead of a competition should make you feel more assured and help to control any pre-comp jitters.

Taking it forward 

These tried and tested practical strategies can be applied to your game straight away to level-up your confidence. However, if you’re keen to take it a step further, we work through these strategies in more depth in our Confidence 101 eTraining workshop.

Confidence is just one of the 20 mental strengths our research has identified as the building-blocks that support optimal development and performance. If you’d like to learn more about these strengths and identify your own unique strengths profile, you can sign up for our FREE 30-min discovery workshop.

Key references

1. Mills, A., Butt, J., Maynard, I., & Harwood. C. (2012). Identifying factors perceived to influence the development of elite English football academy players. Journal of Sport Sciences, 30, 1593-1604

2. Ludlam, K., Butt, J., Maynard, I.W, Lindsay, P., & Bawden, M. (2016). A strengths-based consultancy approach in elite sport: Exploring super strengths. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 28, 216-233.

3. Hays, K., Maynard, I., Thomas, O., & Bawden, M. (2007). Sources and types of confidence identified by World Class sport performers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19, 434–456.

Professor Joanne Butt, PhD

Professor of Sport Psychology,
Liverpool John Moores University, UK
About the author
Joanne currently works as a Professor of Sport Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. Joanne completed her MSc and PhD at Miami University and is a chartered sport and exercise psychologist with the British Psychological Society (BPS). With over 20 years teaching and applied experience, Joanne has delivered sport and performance psychology support to a wide-range of elite athletes and teams across a variety of levels including Team GB Olympians and English Institute of Sport (EIS) developing athletes. 
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