Sports psychology: self-confidence in sport – make your ego work for you!

Self-confidence is not solely in the hands of fate, you are the person responsible for determining how confident you feel in a sporting encounter

Article at a glance:

  • Self-confidence in sport is defined;
  • Six key elements contributing to self-confidence in sport are outlined;
  • Practical exercises to boost self-confidence are given.
confident woman

When athletes feel confident, they are more readily able to turn sporting potential into superior performance. Conversely, when they feel unsure of themselves, the slightest setback or smallest hurdle can have an inordinate effect on their performance. Costas Karageorghis explores the nature of self-confidence and presents a theory underlying the causes of self-confidence in sport. He also reviews recent research and provides some powerful techniques that you can apply to enhance your own confidence or that of athletes in your charge

What is self-confidence?

“I don’t think it’s bragging to say I’m something special.”
Muhammad Ali

For many athletes, an explanation of the concept of self-confidence is hardly necessary as they know intuitively what it is. Indeed, self-confidence is so palpable in some athletes you can almost reach out and touch it. Their confidence is reflected in everything they say and do, in what they wear and how they look.

Self-confidence is commonly defined as the sureness of feeling that you are equal to the task at hand. This sureness is characterised by absolute belief in ability. You may well know someone whose self-belief has this unshakeable quality, whose ego resists even the biggest setbacks. In such people, confidence is as resilient as a squash ball: the harder the blow, the quicker they bounce back. Nonetheless, although confidence is a desirable characteristic, arrogance – or a sureness of feeling not well founded in one’s ability – is undesirable. If self-confidence is perhaps the ‘guardian angel of sports performers’ then arrogance is their nemesis.

Confidence is related to personality and those who exude self-confidence across a range of contexts, say at work, socially and in their sport, are said to be high in trait confidence. However, confidence can also be very specific – to a particular situation or with reference to a set of circumstances – in which case it is known as state confidence or self-efficacy.

‘When you perform any skill successfully, you will generate confidence and be willing to attempt something slightly more difficult’

For example, a professional football player may give off vibes suggesting they are high in trait confidence; however, when they are faced with the prospect of saving their team in a penalty shoot-out at a major championship, their state confidence can plummet and this has the potential to wreak havoc on their performance. This is precisely what happened to David Beckham when England faced Portugal in the quarter finals of the European Football Championships in June 2004. In the throws of a nail-biting penalty shoot-out, he lost focus and hoofed the ball over the crossbar.

Theoretical approaches to sport confidence

There are two main theoretical approaches to sport confidence; one is Robin Vealey’s model of sport confidence(1) and the other is Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy theory(2). Owing to its prevalence in the sport psychology literature and the empirical support it has attracted, I am going to focus solely on the latter. Bandura’s theory was amended by Deborah Feltz(3) to form a sport-specific version while I have adapted it even further to suit the applied nature of this article (see figure 1 below).

The six sources of self-confidence

The confidence an individual feels during a particular activity or situation is generally derived from one or more of the following six elements, which are presented in figure 1 in order of their relative importance:

Figure 1: Model of self-confidence (adapted with permission from Feltz, 1984)

  • Performance accomplishments are the strongest contributor to sport confidence. When you perform any skill successfully, you will generate confidence and be willing to attempt something slightly more difficult. Skill learning should be organised into a series of tasks that progress gradually and allow you to master each step before progressing on to the next. Personal success breeds confidence, while repeated personal failure diminishes it.
  • Being involved with the success of others can also significantly bolster your confidence, especially if you believe that the performer you are involved with (eg a team-mate) closely matches your own qualities or abilities. In effect, it evokes the reaction: ‘if they can do it, I can do it’.
  • Verbal persuasion is a means of attempting to change the attitudes and behaviour of those around us, and this includes changing their self-confidence. In sport, coaches often try to boost confidence by convincing athletes that the challenge ahead is within their capabilities: ‘I know you’re a great player so keep your head up and play hard!’ An athlete might reinforce this by repeating the message over and over to him or herself as a form of self-persuasion. A tip here is to avoid stating what you want in the negative; so, rather than ‘I really don’t want to come off second best’ try ‘I really want to win this one’. Accordingly, your mind will not need to consider what is not required in order to arrive at what is.
  • Imagery experiences have to do with athletes recreating multi-sensory images of successful performance in their mind. Through creating such mental representations, mastery of a particular task or set of circumstances is far more likely. What you see is what you get (see PP 238)!
  • Physiological states can reduce feelings of confidence through phenomena such as muscular tension, palpitations and butterflies in the stomach. The bodily sensations associated with competition need to be perceived as being facilitative to performance and this can be achieved through the application of appropriate stress management interventions such as the ‘five breath technique’ and ‘thought-stopping’ (see PP 243).
  • Emotional states is the final source of self-confidence and relates to how you control the emotions associated with competition, such as excitement and anxiety. Very often, the importance of the occasion creates self-doubt, which is why it is essential to control your thoughts and emotions. Learning imagery and concentration skills such as those described in ‘the spotlight of excellence’ (Exercise 2) will help.
“This is a fantastic day for me and my family, this is historic. I have been ready for the win for quite some time, it was just a matter of where and when.” Lewis Hamilton (after his maiden Formula One Grand Prix victory in Montreal)

Research into self-confidence

It is patent to the vast majority of athletes that self-confidence enhances performance. A large number of studies have shown that higher levels of self-confidence are associated with superior performance. In one recent review, the average correlation reported between self-confidence and performance across 24 studies was 0.54, which indicates a moderately strong relationship(4). Even under strict laboratory conditions, it has been demonstrated many times over that when confidence is manipulated either up or down, there is a significant effect on sports performance(5,6,7).

Very recently, research has shown that social support, such as that which comes from a coach or team-mates, can buffer the effects of competitive stress on self-confidence(8). Social support also has a direct effect in enhancing athletes’ self-confidence. Further, exposing athletes to mental training programmes from an early age is likely to have a very positive effect on their levels of self-confidence, which may carry into their adult sporting careers(9).

In terms of specific self-confidence interventions, it appears that motivational self-talk has a more positive effect on self-confidence than instructional self-talk(10). That is, self-talk related to inspiring the athlete such as ‘Come on, you can do it!’ or ‘I am just so up for this one’ rather than self-talk relating to key foci such as ‘keep your eye on the ball’. Another study examined the impact of hypnosis, technique refinement and self-modelling (through a videotape) on the self-confidence of a cricket bowler(11). As expected, results indicated significant long-term improvement in self-efficacy and bowling performance following intervention.

How being involved with the success of others can boost confidence

A good example of this phenomenon came at the 2004 Athens Olympics when Kelly Holmes outstripped expectations to win two gold medals in the 800 and 1,500 metres. Immediately after Holmes’s second gold medal, the Great Britain 4 x 100-metre relay team composed of Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell, Malcolm Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis took to the track for a final in which they were the rank outsiders. Previously famed only for dropping the baton, the Brits romped home a whisker ahead of a formidable USA quartet to secure the third of the team’s golds. Significantly, each of the American sprinters had won individual medals in either the 100 or 200-metre events at the Athens Games. The British sprinters attributed their extraordinary success to the mental boost they had received from seeing their team-mate Holmes winning her second unexpected gold.

In a further recent study, it was shown that high self-confidence could reduce the intensity or strength of anxiety symptoms, and influence whether they were interpreted as facilitative or debilitative to performance(12). Essentially, self-confident athletes interpreted their anxiety symptoms as being part and parcel of the competitive experience. In a related study, it was shown that both the intensity and interpretation of self-confidence were strong predictors of golf putting performance(13).

Five exercises that will boost your self-confidence

Exercise 1: Confident situations and situations of doubt

To achieve a greater sense of stability in your confidence, it is necessary to know exactly what causes it to fluctuate. Divide a clean page into two columns. Label the first column ‘High-confidence situations’ and the second ‘Low-confidence situations’.

In the first column, list all of the situations or circumstances in your sport in which you feel completely confident. In the second column, list the situations or circumstances that sometimes cause your confidence to diminish. Clearly identifying the situations that make you feel uneasy is the first step towards building greater self-confidence. We will come back to these lists in some of the remaining exercises, but for now, it should have just served to increase your awareness of areas that can be improved.

Exercise 2: The spotlight of excellence

This visualisation exercise recreates the mental state associated with past performance success and will help you in bridging the gap between your ability and confidence:

  • Imagine a huge spotlight beaming down on the floor one metre in front of you. The light beam is about a metre in diameter.
  • Now think back to a time in your sporting career when you were performing at the very peak of your ability – perhaps using he first column from Exercise 1 to guide you. Each movement you made brought about a successful outcome and everything just seemed to flow without much conscious effort.
  • In a dissociated state (ie looking at yourself from the outside) examine each of your five senses. See yourself inside the circle and excelling. Imagine exactly what the ‘you’ inside the circle is seeing, hearing, feeling, and smelling. Notice the ‘taste of success’ in your mouth.
  • Now step into the spotlight and become fully associated so that you are experiencing events through your own eyes and in real time. Again, notice what you are seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting.
  • Notice exactly what this feels like so that you can reproduce it at will whenever your confidence is waning.

Exercise 3: Positive self-talk

Positive self-talk will affirm to you that you possess the skills, abilities, positive attitudes and beliefs that are the building blocks of success. The statements you choose need to be vivid, should roll off the tongue, and be practiced well in advance of competition. Most of all, they must be totally believable. You should use these particularly in the low-confidence situations that you identified in the second column of Exercise 1. Here are some examples to help you in composing your own:

Boxer
‘I have fists of steel’
Basketball player (for free throws)
‘It's just me and the basket’
Defensive linesman in American football
‘No one's gonna get through’
Hammer thrower
‘I'm the king of the slingers’
Judo player
‘I'm as strong as an ox’
Ski-jumper
‘My timing is always spot on’
Sprinter
‘Go on the B of the bang’
Striker in soccer
‘I'll slot in every chance’

Make your own list of four or five positive self-statements and read them to yourself every night before you go to bed and every morning as you wake up. Through repeated use, they will become embedded in your subconscious and have a profound influence on your sporting performance.

Exercise 4: Exploiting weaknesses in your opponent

Your opponent will harbour doubts and fears that they will try hard to hide from you. Like any human being, they are susceptible to anxiety, fatigue and indecision. If you spend time thinking about your opponents, focus upon which weaknesses and frailties you might most easily exploit. Here are some specific guidelines to help you:

  • Study video footage of your opponents and analyse what most often causes things to go wrong for them. It may be that they cannot perform under certain conditions – such as Paula Radcliffe in the heat and humidity of the Athens Olympics – or a particular part of their game has a distinct weakness. For example, British tennis player Greg Rudeski was known to have a weak backhand that opponents would often seek to exploit;
  • If you play an individual sport that requires precision skills such as snooker or golf, make a point of congratulating your opponent when they have a lucky stroke but say nothing when they are genuinely skilful;
  • In team sports, identify players who are easily wound-up and find out what triggers them to see red. Italian defender Marco Materazzi used this technique, albeit in a rather controversial manner, in the final of the 2006 Football World Cup. Materazzi allegedly uttered an insulting personal remark to French captain Zinedine Zidane who reacted badly. Zidane violently head-butted Materazzi and was immediately sent off as a result. Italy went on to win the match;
  • Some opponents will get highly perturbed by what they perceive to be unfair refereeing decisions. Make a point of being friendly and respectful towards match officials and, in doing so, at a subconscious level at least, they are more likely to adjudicate in your favour in any 50-50 call;
  • When your opponent is having a good run of form, use tactics that slow the match down in order to break their flow. American tennis star John McEnroe was the undisputed master of this; his on-court rants even earned him the epithet ‘SuperBrat’!

NB – you will notice that some of these techniques are entirely ethical and ‘sportsmanlike’ while others push the boundaries of fair play.

‘Your opponent will harbour doubts and fears that they will try hard to hide from you, but like any human being, they are susceptible to anxiety, fatigue and indecision’

Exercise 5: Using the power of sound

Music has unique properties, among which is its ability to inspire, motivate and boost one’s confidence(14). There are many tunes with inspirational lyrics or strong extra-musical associations that you can use to increase your confidence before competition. Good examples include I Believe I Can Fly by R Kelly (62bpm), The Best by Tina Turner (104bpm) and Gold by Spandau Ballet (143bpm). You may like to try playing some tracks on your mp3 player as part of a pre-event routine. I suggest that if you want to feel confident and keep your physiological arousal low, select tracks with a slow tempo (ie below 110bpm). Conversely, if you want to psych-up, go for a higher tempo (ie over 110bpm), and build-up to a tempo of over 130bpm just before competing.

“I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.” Muhammad Ali

Summary

This article should have convinced you that self-confidence is not solely in the hands of fate. Even when Lady Luck isn’t shining, you are the person responsible for determining how confident you feel in a sporting encounter. Ideas for promoting confidence range from the simple principles of understanding what causes confidence to wane, to the techniques of visualisation and positive self-talk. You have also learned how to adopt a ‘can-do’ attitude, exploit weaknesses in your opponents and use inspirational music to raise your game. The legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi once quipped, ‘Confidence is contagious …but so is a lack of confidence.’

Dr Costas Karageorghis is a reader in sport psychology at Brunel University, west London where he also manages the athletics club. He has published extensively in the field of sport and exercise psychology and has been a BASES accredited sport psychologist for 11 years

References

  1. Handbook of Sport Psychology (2nd ed) 2001; 550-565
  2. Psych Review 1977; 84:191-215
  3. Cognitive Sport Psychology 1984; 191-198
  4. Sport Psychology: Theory, Applications, and Issues (2nd ed) 2004; 344-387
  5. J Psych 1972; 81:69-72
  6. Cog Therapy Res 1979; 3:205-211
  7. J Sport Psych 1979; 1:320-331
  8. J Sports Sci 2007; 25:1057-1065
  9. J App Sport Psych 2004; 16:118-137
  10. Hellenic J Psych 2006; 3:164-175
  11. The Sport Psych 2006; 20:94-111
  12. Res Q Exerc Sport 2006; 77:263-270
  13. Anxiety Stress Coping; in press
  14. Proceedings of the 2007 European Congress of Sport Psychology, Halkidiki, Greece; in press

 

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