(In dedication to Bob Baker – a transcendent role model)

As with previous entries, this one starts with experiences I have had as a coach and consultant over the last 30 years.  Every season, regardless of sport, I would have an athlete who was struggling.  More than just than just being in a “funk”, the athlete begins to look like he is afraid to be out there.  He would look tight and less fluid, would have a stressed look on his face, and/or become withdrawn with coaches and teammates.  As a consultant, I now often have clients who show up complaining that they are so stressed and worried about making mistakes that they can’t get the body to work so as to perform simple skills, and are contemplating leaving a sport they have loved since early childhood.  And without fail, in each instance, and in every year, all I hear from teammates, coaches, and parents is “He just needs to be more confident!”  In my head, my first response is “No Sh*t.”  And the reality is, self-confidence can be as fickle a friend as Ole-Mo (i.e. momentum).  So I thought, let’s talk about something that seems so obvious, but can have so many undercurrents.

To begin with, athletes need to develop a sense of control over what they are trying to learn or execute.  One of the first things I recommend is to get back to playing.  This doesn’t mean competing, but simply “goofing off” while doing the sport activity you want to be better at.  Allow the skills to develop through creativity and a focus on having some fun.  This also means taking the pressure off.  Get off the stage, out of the spotlight, and just have some fun.  Pick up games, alternative games in practice or with a buddy help you remember why you like the sport, and open the door for skills to develop naturally.  Think of the kid-games we played that were all about skills; HORSE, Pickle, wrestling with dad in the living room.  These were fun times, with people we care about, in situations that were about laughing while we GOT BETTER!

In a structured environment (i.e. practice), play can include implementing games built upon the larger game.  Team sports lend themselves well to things like 3-on-3’s where there is a small goal to attain that requires execution of a particular skill or play.  Individual sports lend themselves to challenges for accuracy and distance, which embed the use of specific skills.  Having coaches put themselves into these games also provides athletes with a good role-model who demonstrates how to focus on the use of specific skills in challenging settings (or how to lose graciously and try again for the adroit coach), while having fun and building camaraderie.

A key factor in building athlete confidence is the coaching style they are exposed to.  One of the most important things a coach can do is focus on the way she communicates.  Although I just noted the importance of having open play, I do realize there needs to be a period of serious focus to develop skills and knowledge.  This is where communication from the coach needs to have essential elements.  For starters, give clear instructions about how to execute a skill, with feedback rather than criticism.  Address what efforts were positive, and clearly identify how to correct mistakes.  Avoid statements that indicate an athlete’s value.  Coaches also need to be aware of the athlete’s age and abilities.  This helps you to give accurate expectations and feedback.

Thus, along with communication, coaches should be mindful of situations in which they ask an athlete to perform.  Being able to articulate what success will look like for an individual gives her confidence by knowing what to try to do.  This also empowers her to be self-evaluative, rather than waiting for coaches to decide if she is good or bad at something. After execution of skills, an athlete’s age also becomes relevant for the type of feedback.  Younger athletes respond better to acknowledgment of effort, while older athletes respond better to direct information about execution elements.  Again, they way you present this can either hurt or foster confidence.  The bottom line here, COMMUNICATE ABOUT THE ELEMENTS OF MOVEMENT NOT THE VALUE OF THE PERSON.

For youth athletes, parents are as important a factor in self-confidence as anything else.  Most of our early sense of self rests in how we are talked to by our parents, especially with regard to what is said about things we have done.  A key mistake is to tell a child he is “good” or “bad” because of the outcome of a play.  This sets a child up for heartbreak in a future mistake, or a sense that he is not good enough to try again.  Instead, PRAISE THE EFFORT TO TRY.  This communicates that success comes only when you attempt to be so.  Once your child buys into being aggressive to try, then add follow-up questions that challenges him to think about how he may do it the same or different when the situation happens again. This teaches a child to not only think positively, but to be reflective and plan for future success.

There is also the reality of failure.  Parents can be a serious asset (or deterrent) to a child building confidence when disappointment happens.  Be willing to share times you were successful, even when you were afraid you might make a mistake.  This helps your child know that being afraid is part of trying hard.  Similarly, share the times you botched a play, but decided to get back up and try again.  This communicates a personal value of resilience, helping your child have faith in herself that bad things happen and she can recover through her own efforts.

As I noted at the start, self-confidence is fickle.  It is easy to do something when confidence is high.  But when it fails us, it can feel impossible to regain our confidence.  Getting back to having fun and letting our talents take over (or build) helps us remember why we became interested in dedicating ourselves to a sport in the first place.  Coaches can influence confidence with purposeful styles of communication, and mindful exposure of athletes to stressful situations that require skillful execution.  Finally, parents can promote greater confidence with mindful conversations that let a child build a strong sense of self that is tough enough to embrace the challenges (and setbacks) of sport.  Hopefully this entry has provided you with insight on how to develop greater confidence.  Should you find yourself wanting specific guidance in this area, why wait?  Make the call, bring in an expert.

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