The topic of confidence has been explored and studied for a very long time. So long in fact, that it has become a common assumption among coaches, parents, and athletes that having this psychological state is necessary for successful performance. Frequently you will here broadcasters talk about how an athlete IS confident when she is doing well, or note that an athlete LACKS confidence if she appears to be under-performing or makes mistakes. A  quick scan of social media posts by coaches (in various realms) will reveal a plethora of quotes and quips that imply having confidence is important and that such professionals can elevate yours. But is confidence really necessary?

I won’t argue that feeling confident isn’t a positive experience. Who doesn’t’ want to feel that way as they approach an important game? But the reality is that feeling confident is a distraction to what you are trying to do right now. This is because confidence requires a comparison to past successes, or future expectations. By reflecting on past performance, you run the risk of missing important cues that need to be responded to now. Instead of recognizing the subtle movement of an opponent, you are looking for a familiar movement that you successfully countered in a past match up. Or conversely, you may become over-confident of your ability to execute with accuracy, and then find yourself tardy or unable to react to unanticipated actions of your opponent. 

Another problem presented by a quest for confidence is the implicit lack of confidence you are already experiencing, and a belief that you must “find it” to avoid disaster. Technically, this becomes a quick path to negative thinking such as worry, doubt, and fear. As a critical moment in the game arrives, an athlete who is instructed to “be confident!” by a coach has actually been reaffirmed (or has had the doubt implanted) that he isn’t yet confident and may not be ready to act appropriately. An athlete who declares that she “needs to be more confident” has actually admitted that she is more worried about failure than being aware of the talents and skills she has worked on. Truthfully, belief or disbelief in one’s skills doesn’t alter them, nor the work you put into developing them. The state of mind only influences the fluidity of using them. And the reason is because she has convinced herself that confidence is necessary, and is now using up mental activity to process the thinking instead of reacting. To me, this is like a circular argument that spirals down.

A third problem with athletes feeling they need confidence is that it is anecdotal. Essentially, athletes typically only report on confidence after they perform. And when this happens, it is always a binary breakdown of the experience in reference to the outcome, a have-don’t have belief. For example, a pitcher may declare after a strong outing that she was feeling “really confident” before the game started. Or conversely, she may state that she was over-confident after a poor one. Similarly, a quarterback who has had two bad games in a row may report that he isn’t feeling confident going into the next game. This because he is measuring what has gone wrong to what is about to happen, and isn’t simplifying the fact that he executed improperly. When compared to being in a state of flow, this means the athlete isn’t responding to results of play as feedback, but is instead attaching results to his own identity

Admittedly, lapses in confidence are real and do bring on a heightened state of anxiety. The athlete becomes distracted in focus, doubts his abilities, and becomes reliant on a state of being. With the problems a dependency in confidence can bring, perhaps we are giving it more credibility than is necessary. Possibly, athletes would be better off working on developing a challenge mindset. This requires grounding yourself in the reality of “now”, while attempting to grow your skill set.

Seeking challenge requires that an athlete has “present focus”. This is technically referred to as task-focus, and is defined by having clear awareness of what the situation is. Being in such a state also means the athlete has discriminatory analysis of all the “noise” around him. Although aware of all of the sights, sounds, and movement around him, he is able to hone in on only those relevant to what he is doing now. And the mental skill of discriminating among stimuli can be enhanced by knowing and reacting with the strengths and skills he has developed for this situation. Thus, a crosscountry runner can be fully aware of the temperature, ascents and descents of the course, and the efforts of the other runners. But being present means she is able to “filter” her attention to specific nuances of the hill she is on, or the foot pattern of a competitor she is setting up to pass.

The benefit of having a challenge mindset also employs the value of being intent on success. This eliminates the pressure of expectation (positive or negative), and instead helps the athlete give attention to executing with a purpose – to be successful. Rather than having a hesitant strike of the ball while shooting on goal, a forward instead gives his attention to striking the ball hard. This increases the chance of scoring as the body follows the point of execution with accurate movement patterns, and channels higher energy into the action. The result can then be interpreted as information that helps repeat or improve the next opportunity.

Taking on a challenge mindset can also help an athlete with motivation. By being intent on reaching a higher level of performance, the pressure to accomplish specific results fades. Instead, the athlete seeks out difficulty as a means of testing herself to see how much she has improved. Rather than worrying if she can swim fast enough to beat her regional rival, she focuses on the quality of her turns and the rhythm of her stroke. She becomes aware of the feel of water on her body, and responds with adjustments that help her swim to the best of her capability. As I frequently tell my athletes, keep your focus on what you are doing and let the results take care of themselves. 

Mind you, confidence is not irrelevant. But rather than believing it to be a necessary component of performing well, an athlete would be better served to recognize it as a piece of how he is analyzing how he performs. A better approach would be to work on developing a challenge mindset that focuses on being realistic about her skills, and working to respond to the best of her ability as the game or an opponent presents unique demands. Doing so will reduce the amount of pressure being felt, and instead increase focus and improve her general state of well-being in competition. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.

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