by Artur Poczwardowski
You can do it if you just have a little confidence.
—D. L. Feltz, Understanding Motivation
This is Part III 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.
Self-confidence and performance
In summary, neither too high or too low a level of self-confidence bodes well for a high performance level. If self-confidence was measured by a questionnaire, the level predicting a satisfying performance would be of a medium value (and would be different for each individual). Thus, the described relationship between self-confidence and performance has an inverted U shape. A review of studies on self-confidence and performance was provided by Feltz (1992).
Optimal self-confidence has been shown to have numerous positive consequences. According to Weinberg (1988) it arouses positive emotions during the learning process and competition and facilitates concentration (there are no self-doubt statements or worries, for example). The appropriate level of self-confidence enables an athlete to set challenging goals, increases persistence and effort, and facilitates risk taking—essential in confusing the opponent, or using a new technical or tactical element.
Miller (1982) found that an increase in self-confidence brings with it an improvement in the athlete-coach communication and working relationship, an increased productivity in practice sessions and tournament preparation, and an increase in the athlete’s enthusiasm. In addition, improved self-confidence adds to an athlete’s sense of fun while practicing and competing.
Self-confidence affects an athlete’s perception of stress, and consequently determines the intensity of psycho-physiological response to stressors (described by Tache and Selye in their model of coping with stress in Poczwardowski, 1991, p. 21). In addition, self-confidence affects anxiety level prior to competitions—the higher the self-confidence level, the fewer stimuli are interpreted as threatening and the lower the anxiety level (Martens in Krawczynski, 1991). The lower the anxiety level, the more mental energy is saved for realistic assessment of a given situation, decision making, and correcting tactics.
The realization that self-confidence fluctuates affects any consideration of building it up. Self-confidence undergoes long-term changes related to different phases of the training process. Fatigue, diet, competition results, and the coach’s expectations are other long-term changes that affect it. Short-term changes including menstrual cycle, small failures during practice sessions, mood swings, tiredness, errors during the performance, or negative self-talk during competitions, also affect self-confidence. In the face of these short-term changes, an athlete needs skills of restoring self-confidence at any given moment prior to or during a performance.
The self-confidence issue in sport is of a fairly high complexity. Every practitioner knows, however, that in order to deal with this problem, it has to be simplified without losing any of its major characteristics. Here are some practical strategies to develop, maintain, and restore an optimal self-confidence level that facilitates successful performance of athletic tasks.
Recalling the best performance
This strategy aims at looking at yourself as a person in the positive light of your accomplishments, skills, and strengths. During structured exercises, recall the successful events that prove your worth and competence. This recalling can be enhanced by going back to scrapbooks containing photos or newspaper articles, to videos, or to your trophy collection. Another way of doing it is to write your performer resume or tell somebody your career highlights. Why not organize a meeting with some students in a elementary school, for example, or with some athletes of a small community recreation center?).
During exercises such as these, athletes answer the question: “What am I good at as a person?—Cooking? Driving? Making friends?” Then they extend their consideration to a view of themselves as a performer in their sport. For example, a judo athlete might say: “I am good at fighting in tachi-waza (standing position), left side, leg techniques; I have good endurance and tactical sense, effective anticipation of my opponents’ moves and attacks; recently I have started to feel better in ne-waza (ground work); I did very well during our physiological tests on strength and speed.”
These exercises have a much stronger effect if the comments about your competence are provided by your teammates, and especially, your coaches. In this situation, the exercises have the same format and require completing a sentence that begins: “In my opinion your strengths as a person and a performer are…. Follow-up sentence stems might be: “The evidence for it is….” “Do you remember the tournament two years ago when you…. You did great that time. I remember you….” The same approach can be used while working with a team: “As a team we are good at….”
Support any statement with strong evidence and make sure that such a session does not change into a cheap pep talk and mutual adoration.
A variation of these exercises is recalling individually—without teammates—your best states in a similar format of storytelling and writing them out in a journal (Orlick 1986). Also, recalling best states can be done in deep relaxation while at the same time you use previously developed imagery skills.
Another idea within the same strategy is to produce a motivational video with a “Rocky”-like scenario (i.e., training sessions, private life, and your competition or performance successes mixed with favorite music). Sometimes you can use ready-made recordings of other players’ or teams’ performances that you consider outstanding. Here, you are using the phenomenon of vicarious experiences.
Use these strategies in the development phase (end of the off-season period) and the maintenance phase (end of the preparation period) for working on self-confidence. The motivational video has its best effect when used in the period directly prior to a major competition (i.e., 1-2 weeks prior to it).
1. Feltz, D. L. 1992. Understanding motivation in sport: A self-efficacy perspective. In Motivation in Sport and Exercise, ed. G. C. Roberts, pp. 93-105. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
2. Weinberg, S. W. 1988. The mental advantage. Champaign, IL: Leisure Press.
3. Miller, K. 1982. Confidence training program. In Mental Training for Coaches and Athletes, ed. Orlick, T., J. T. Partington, and J. H. Salmela, pp. 107-108. Ottawa: The Coaching Association of Canada.
4. Poczwardowski, A. 1991. Wybrane zmienne psychologiczne zawodnikow judo reprezentujacych rozny poziom sportowy [Selected psychological factors of various skill level judo athletes]. Unpublished Master’s Theses. Gdansk: Gdansk University.
5. Krawczynski, M. 1991. Rainera Martensa model leku wspolzawodnictwa sportowego [R. Marten’s Model of Competitive Anxiety]. In W kregu psychofizykalnych zagadnien profilaktyki i terapii w sporcie, ed. W. Tlokinski, pp. 63-68. Gdansk: AWF.
6. Orlick, T. 1986. Psyching for Sport: Mental Training for Athletes. Champaign, IL: Leisure Press. pp. 87-94.
If you have any questions on training you can post them at Stadion’s Sports and Training Discussion Forum.