By Dr. Jim Taylor
Confidence may be the single most important mental factor because you may have all of the ability to be successful, but if you don’t believe you have that ability, you won’t use it to perform your best. Confidence is about believing you can be successful when it gets tough, perform your best when it counts, and achieve your competitive goals.
Preparation breeds confidence. Preparation is the foundation of confidence. If you believe that you have done everything you can to perform your best, you will have confidence in your ability to achieve your goals. This preparation includes the physical, technical, tactical, and mental parts of your sport.
Adversity ingrains confidence. Your biggest challenge is to maintain your belief in yourself when you’re faced with adversity. To more deeply ingrain confidence, you should expose yourself to all experiences that take you out of your comfort zone, for example, bad weather and poor training conditions.
Success validates confidence. When most athletes think of success, they think about having great results and reaching their competitive goals. But every day you train, you’re scoring little victories. With each of these small “wins,” your confidence steadily increases until you have the confidence to achieve a big “win.” After every training session, be sure to acknowledge the small victory—give yourself a pat on the back for your effort and remind yourself of the goal you are working toward—and allow them to accumulate.
All of the previous steps in building confidence would go for naught if you did not then experience competitive success. Success validates the confidence you have developed in your ability. It demonstrates that your belief in your ability is well-founded. Success further strengthens your confidence, making it more resilient in the face of adversity and poor performances. Success also rewards your efforts to build confidence, encouraging you to continue to work hard and continue in your sport.
Positive self-talk. Perhaps the most powerful mental tool for building confidence is positive self-talk. The first step is to become aware of how positive or negative your self-talk is. Often, athletes say things like, “I stink” or “There’s no way I can do this” without even realizing it. The problem is that your negativity will become ingrained and will come out in competition. Positive self-talk is a skill that develops with practice. Identify the negative things you often say to yourself and figure out something positive you can say in its place. Then, be aware of when you’re negative and immediately replace it with something positive.
When you’re in a big competition, it’s natural for your intensity to go up and for you to feel nervous. You have to take active steps to get your intensity back to a level that allows your body to perform its best. There are several simple techniques you can use to help you get your intensity under control.
Deep breathing. The most basic way to lower their intensity is to take control of their breathing by focusing on slow, deep breaths. Deep breathing ensures that you get enough oxygen so your body can function well; you will relax, feel better, and have a greater sense of control. This increased comfort will increase your confidence, calm you, and improve your focus. Deep breathing should be a big part of your pre-competitive preparations. If you take a few deep breaths, you ensure that your body is relaxed and comfortable, and you’re focused on something that will help your perform your best.
Slow pace of pre-competitive preparation. A common side effect of over-intensity is that you tend to do everything faster. You can rush before the start of the competition as if you want to get the race over with as soon as possible. So, to lower your intensity, give yourself more time before your start and slow your pace as you get ready.
Music is one of the most common tools athletes use to control their intensity before competitions. We all know that music has a profound physical and emotional impact on us. Music has the ability to make us happy, sad, inspired, and motivated. Music can also excite or relax us. Many world-class racers can be seen listening to music before they compete. Calming music relaxes you and makes you feel good physically and mentally.
The last technique is one of the strangest and most effective I’ve ever come across: Smile! As we grow up, we become conditioned to the positive effects of smiling. In other words, we learn that when we smile, it means we’re happy and life is good. Second, brain research has found is that when we smile, it releases brain chemicals called endorphins which have an actual physiologically relaxing effect. When you begin to feel nervous, simply smile and I promise you will feel more relaxed immediately.
Dr. Jim Taylor holds a Ph.D. in Psychology, is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, and blogs on politics, education, technology, popular culture, and sports for huffingtonpost.com, psychologytoday.com, seattlepi.com, and on his own blog at drjimtaylor.com.