by Artur Poczwardowski
You can do it if you just have a little confidence.
—D. L. Feltz, Understanding Motivation
This is Part II of a four-part article that explains what self-confidence is, what can happen if you are over-confident or not confident enough, and how to develop, maintain, and in the case of an athlete who lost self-confidence, how to restore it to an optimal level.
The author, Artur Poczwardowski, is a sports psychology consultant. He graduated from Gdansk University (M.Sc. in psychology) and from AWF–University School of Physical Education (M.Sc. in coaching). He competed on a national level (in Poland) in judo. Currently he is a professor at University of Denver, teaching and conducting research in sports psychology.
You can reach him by e-mail at apoczwarATduDOTedu to arrange consultations on preparing mental training programs, implementing these programs, monitoring, and adjusting them.
How much confidence you need
In the first part of this article, I mentioned the following phrase: “an optimal level of self-confidence.” While performing you can be overconfident—having “false confidence”—or not confident enough, or optimally self-confident. In this latter state you have just the right level of self-confidence.
Consider three scenarios that describe the relationship between different levels of self-confidence and performance. The fact that high performance level may not guarantee a win will be addressed later.
1. Being overconfident (“false confidence” or being “cocky”). Athletes with false confidence overestimate their abilities, thinking that they are better than they really are: “No one can beat me.” In this situation, an athlete does not treat his or her opponents seriously enough, which frequently results in insufficient warm-up, lack of a strong tactical plan for the match or fight, and so on. Such an approach makes him or her risk a failure.
2. Too little self-confidence or none at all—in this situation, an athlete pictures him- or herself as someone who fails. Worries and self-doubts fill the mind, resulting in a lack of the mental energy that is needed to concentrate. “Motivation? What for? I will not succeed….” Worrying does not go along with having fun. Thus, this mind set exhausts the athlete: “What? Competitions? I can’t wait until it’s over….” The result is poor performance and failure.
There is another scenario for athletes who have too little confidence. Some try to cover up their feelings of doubt by behaving in a way that expresses a great deal of confidence. These athletes in effect say, “I mustn’t let anyone know that I’m nervous.” In this situation, an athlete may simply avoid any trial of his or her true abilities. The individual may fake an injury, for example, or train in a slipshod fashion and then blame the loss on that: “I lost, but in fact I did not train hard.”
3. Optimal self-confidence—in this situation an athlete sets realistic goals based on abilities, skill level, and a completed preparation program. Because the individual believes that he or she will reach the goal, the athlete practices and trains systematically and is well motivated for the competition season: “I know that I have completed my preparation program, I feel good, I’ll do my best and I am capable of succeeding. I can’t wait till the competition.”
The self-confidence level of such an athlete is resistant to fluctuations in sports form, small failures once in a while, or successes of major opponents. This in turn, enables him or her to continue pursuing excellence. It also results in a true commitment to constantly increasing training intensity and volume. More importantly, the ultimate outcome of that process is the athlete’s excellence during contests. In this scenario, if the competition schedule is not overloaded, the athlete will develop an attitude toward competing that may be called “a success hunger.”
At this point, it seems necessary to discuss the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy. Understanding this phenomenon allows predictions about an athlete’s performance based on both the coach’s and athlete’s expectations.
Here is how it works. A coach, based on his or her observations, forms an expectation for each athlete that predicts the level of this athlete’s performance. Moreover, the coach starts to behave toward this athlete based on these expectations. For example: “He will be no good. I can devote more time to the others. I won’t take her to a training camp. He won’t need an analysis of his diet,” and so on; or, “Well, this one has real talent. She is worthy of my commitment and extra work—I’ll stay with her for some thirty minutes and we’ll work on more advanced skills.”
It is not difficult to imagine that an athlete categorized as no hope for a great career likely will not get from the coach the best possible preparation in terms of time, attention, or amount of instruction. As a result, this athlete will not progress quickly. Consequently, he or she probably will not make the first team or succeed in competition in individual sports. Even if this neglected athlete happens to perform well, the coach (again, based on his or her strong assumptions and expectations) will tend to think in this way: “Well, she got lucky today,” or, “He had his best day during the match.” All in all, after a while the performance and skill level of this athlete will conform to the coach’s expectations. This behavioral conformity reinforces the coach’s original expectations, and the process continues.
Naturally, not all athletes are susceptible to a self-fulfilling prophecy. This phenomenon, however, occurs often enough for many sports psychology books to discuss it extensively (e.g., Martens, 1987; Singer, 1986; Weinberg, 1988).
The mechanism of the self-fulfilling prophesy explains the sharp edge to this rhetorical question: How strong and mentally independent does an athlete have to be to believe in him- or herself when his or her own coach does not have belief in him or her? Believing in someone is conveyed unintentionally in almost every interaction—in gestures, words, body posture, and so on. If you happen to be a coach keep this fact in mind when you start a practice session.
Naturally, the athletes themselves have expectations about the upcoming performance. The coach’s influence has an incredible power in shaping these expectations. As R.N. Singer put it in this short explanation of the self-fulfilling prophecy: “What we think about ourselves is very much related to how well we might expect to do, and in fact will do in a situation.”
1. Martens, R. 1987. Coaches guide to sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
2. Singer, R. N. 1986. Peak Performance… and More. Ithaca NY: Mouvement Publications.
3. Weinberg, S. W. 1988.The mental advantage. Champaign, IL: Leisure Press.
If you have any questions on training you can post them at Stadion’s Sports and Training Discussion Forum.