by Artur Poczwardowski
You can do it if you just have a little confidence.
—D. L. Feltz, Understanding Motivation
This is Part IV 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.
Creating positive experiences
Creating positive experiences is a strategy for coaches. Their teaching and leadership style, communication skills, coaching philosophy, knowledge, and experience will ultimately affect (positively or negatively) their athletes’ self-confidence level. Within this strategy they can do the following:
1. Plan a competition calendar and select competitions while taking into account the importance, level of difficulty, and optimal number of performances in one season. If, for example, a tournament is to be filled out with many strong rivals and the preparation plans show that a given athlete or team will not peak during this contest, there is a high probability of failure. In this situation, when the coach does not give enough informational and emotional support, an accumulation of such failure experiences may fatally affect the athletes’ self-confidence. Alternatively, taking part in lower class competitions and succeeding there (again, with relevant explanation from the coach) may be of a high usefulness during the initial stages of building an athlete’s self-confidence.
2. Another method used by many coaches is simulation practice. This is a competition-like workout with officiating, invited spectators, videotaping, and all the trappings of real contests. It is a working implementation of mental plans (pre-competition, competition, and post-competition plans and routines) and their correction.
3. Praise (positive reinforcement) and constructive criticism. Praise should be given by a coach immediately after a well-performed task or behavior. On initial stages of learning this reinforcement should be frequent, and from time to time once the skill is mastered. The frequency of the praise will depend on the style of the coach, the characteristics of a given athlete, and the context. While praising an athlete (in a short positive comment) it is usually advisable to point out specific elements of a technique, tactic, or behavior. Even a very short and global: “Good job!” or “That’s it” may turn out to be very beneficial in enhancing an athlete’s or a team’s self-confidence. Use constructive criticism to refer only to a specific performance mistake or behavior. When it does not have any implications for the athlete as a person, he or she will treat it as a piece of information of technical content and self-esteem and self-confidence will not suffer from such a comment.
4. Within a workout, the coach needs to manipulate the difficulty and complexity of an exercise or drill based on sound teaching and coaching principles—among them the principle of beginning with simple tasks and then moving to more complex ones; and the principle of considering the preparation phase and psycho-physiological functioning of an athlete during a given workout session.
5. Setting goals in a way that an athlete or a team can accomplish them fairly quickly helps in developing and maintaining an athlete’s self-confidence. It is wiser to set performance goals than outcome goals because the result in the competition depends on more factors than just the performance itself (e.g., officiating, or the strength of the rivals).
As a final comment to the import of the coach’s influence, hear what Rainer Martens has to say: “Some athletes believe self-confidence gives them an immunity against making errors. It does not, but a healthy self-confidence gives an athlete a powerful weapon in dealing with errors. When athletes’ self-worth is not in doubt, they feel free to pursue the correction of these errors. They are not afraid to try. Coaches who chastise athletes for making errors are likely to deny athletes the use of this powerful weapon” (Martens, 1987, p. 152).
Planning for competition
Orlick (1986) believes that there is a direct relationship between self-confidence and consistency in high-level performance (note carefully, this is performance level, not the competition outcome). Consistency in performance positively affects self-confidence, which in turn facilitates an optimal mind set: emotions, thoughts, and concentration. Further, an optimal mind state facilitates good performance, which enhances self-confidence, and so the cycle continues. According to Orlick (1986), an optimal mind set (“the ideal mental state for competition,” p. 16) and self-confidence both may be reached through mental plans used: a) one to two days before the competition, b) during the competition day, c) in the last minutes prior to the event, d) during the performance, and e) after the competition is over.
Based on special strategies (e.g., relaxation and recalling the athlete’s best states, and filling out competition reflection questionnaires), an athlete selects specific behaviors, thoughts, and actions that work best during competition. These may be, for example, his or her best warm-up routine, breakfast menu, or self-talk just prior to the start in the event. In other words, while building mental plans, the athlete asks him- or herself the following questions: “What is it that is within my own control and that helped me perform consistently at my highest individual level? Which of these tools do I include in my competition plans?”
Later on—prior to and during competitions—the athletes who implement such plans will find it a lot easier to accomplish the ideal mental state that has helped them so many times in their past performance. In addition, implementing step-by-step these previously used plans gives an athlete a sense of control and belief that this time the good performance is going to happen again, which is important in any discussion on self-confidence.
Creating neuro-psychological experiences
What follows are some of the methods and techniques that can be used by a sports psychology consultant. The majority of these techniques refer to restoration and use of self-confidence during a competition. It is assumed that self-confidence was previously developed by the coach or a sports psychology consultant.
The purpose of these paragraphs is to show that applied sports psychology possesses a wide repertoire of interventions and programs that can and should be used by coaches and athletes for their own advantage.
1. Relaxation training and using of a deep relaxation state (which is an altered state of consciousness). This is a method of coping with stress and facilitating positive personality changes (e.g., lowering the anxiety). Many sports psychology consultants indicate that managing competition stress directly enhances self-confidence (e.g., Singer, 1986). In addition, relaxation skills form a basis for better use of visualization (imagining oneself to be very competent in a competition situation), ideomotor training (imagery-based technical and tactical training), autosuggestion (e.g., “I am very well prepared and I will do my best”), and conditioning of certain cognitive-emotional responses to given triggers (gestures, symbols, words). Conditioning and triggers are widely used (e.g., Nowicki, 1997) and basically support the effects of mental plans. In this situation, a given word or gesture serves the function of a trigger that initiates a desired psycho-physiological state of, for example, self-confidence, relaxation, and activation.
2. Self-confidence related self-awareness training (Weinberg, 1988). This technique requires an athlete to analyze the self-confidence dynamics that occur in some critical moments of his or her sport performance (e.g., penalty shot or losing a score). They ask themselves a question: “When thus-and-so happens, do I feel optimally self-confident?” As Taylor’s (1993) research findings indicate, different sports challenge athletes in a different way with respect to optimal levels of self-confidence. This is why it is so vital that a sports psychology consultant work very closely with both the athletes and their coach, so that the consultant comes to understand better the specificity of their sport.
The better this understanding on the part of the consultant, the more effective will be the psychological skills plans and their implementation.
3. Self-talk training. Based on the self-awareness training, an athlete will know exactly when he or she experiences lower levels of self-confidence. This is also a moment when a negative self-talk usually occurs and takes over the athlete’s mind. Thoughts such as “I will not do it” or “I can’t” are common. Consequently an athlete needs the skill of recognizing and stopping negative thoughts, and replacing them with positive ones (Nowicki, 1997).
4. Dissociation. The effects of self-talk training can be magnified by the skill of dissociation, which means removing from the mind or choosing not to attend to certain perceptions (e.g., fatigue or pain). One way of combining these two skills is as follows: first, dissociation (stopping perception of fatigue) and then positive self-talk (e.g., “Just a few reps more,” or “One at a time,” and “Now, now, now…”).
All the four discussed strategies need to be included in the training process according to the phases and goals of planned preparation. In addition every athlete is different, which is why the psychological preparation programs need to consider not only the specific sport context, but the athlete’s individuality as well. Both the coach and sports psychology consultant have to keep that in mind.
Martens, R. 1987. Coaches Guide to Sport Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Nowicki, D. 1997. Gold Medal Mental Workout for Combat Sports. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Co., Inc.
Orlick, T. 1986. Psyching for Sport: Mental training for athletes. Champaign, IL: Leisure Press.
Singer, R. N. 1986. Peak Performance… and More. Ithaca, NY: Mouvement Publications.
Taylor, J. 1993. Applying mental skills training to the specific needs of athletes and the particular demands of sport. In Proceedings of 8th World Congress of Sport Psychology, Lisbon.
Weinberg, S. W., and J. M. Williams. 1993. Integrating and implementing a psychological skills training program. In Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance, ed. J. M. Williams. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.
If you have any questions on training you can post them at Stadion’s Sports and Training Discussion Forum.