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Published on April 5, 2021

Confidence in sport

Confidence Part 1

The textbook definition of self-confidence is ‘the strength of belief in one’s ability to perform a task.’ My mentor Dr Cohn’s definition of self-confidence is, ‘how strongly you believe in your ability to execute a physical skill or to perform a task.’ Confidence is derived from a baseline of past performances, practice, and preparation. Confidence is so important because you may have all the ability in the world to perform well, but if you don't believe you have that ability, then you won't perform up to that ability.

A rugby player who is just starting out has little or no confidence in his ability to pass the ball with speed and accuracy. With practice, he becomes competent in passing the ball. With the development of competency, or skill mastery, confidence grows. Athletes also derive confidence simply from the belief that they are physically talented and suited for a certain type of sport.

Another distinction worth mentioning is the difference between ‘practice’ self-confidence, which comes from working hard to develop skills in practice, and ‘competitive’ self-confidence. Athletes do not always transfer their practice self-confidence to the competitive arena; therefore, they lack competitive self-confidence. This form of confidence is critical to success in competition. It may seem odd that an athlete can gain overwhelming self-confidence through practice, and yet be unable to maintain that confidence in competition.

Sources of Self-Confidence

Each person derives confidence from different things but essentially, athletes gain confidence from three major sources:
1. Practice
2. Past performance
3. Possessing a winning attitude and outlook

Practice: When I was 10 years old, we had a smart cricket coach, Mr. Lee, at Parkview Primary in Johannesburg. He reasoned that as bowling is not that accurate at a junior level, if we were well drilled in punishing loose balls bowled down the leg side, we would score many additional runs. At break times at school we did ‘throw-downs’ with tennis balls on the tennis courts to rehearse the shots again and again. We were confident to hit the tennis balls as they couldn’t hurt you in the same way that the hard cricket ball did. We practiced the shots again and again and the execution of the shot became engrained in our subconscious and in our muscle memory. Golfer Samuel Snead says, “Practice puts brains in your muscles.” Before long the hard work at practice was being rewarded - with us scoring a lot of runs from leg-side shots in matches. Repetition and focused practice are a major source of confidence.

Performance: In that same season, I scored my first 50 in a match. The leg side shots contributed in a major way to me scoring more runs. I was finding myself able to clear the boundary over the school fence for six. A lid on my game had been lifted, I now knew that I was able to score 50’s and hit an array of leg-side shots. A good performance has the potential to shatter a mental barrier and lift your game to another level. According to legend, experts said for years that the human body was simply not capable of running a 4-minute mile. It wasn’t just dangerous; it was impossible. Further legends hold that people had tried for over a thousand years to break the barrier, even tying bulls behind them to increase the incentive to do the impossible. In the 1940’s, the mile record was pushed to 4:01, where it stood for nine years, as runners struggled with the idea that, just maybe, the experts had it right. Perhaps the human body had reached its limit. On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier, running the distance in 3:59.4. As part of his training, he relentlessly visualized the achievement to create a sense of certainty in his mind and body. Barely a year after Bannister’s accomplishment, someone else ran a mile in under 4 minutes. Then some more runners did. Now, it’s almost routine. Even strong high-schoolers today run 4-minute miles. Michael Atherton, the cricket commentator on Skype Sports, was formerly the captain of the English cricket team. He was a Test opening batsman, who regularly took on the most hostile fast bowlers in the world. He would take a DVD recording of some of his most remarkable innings on tour with him - and he would watch them again and again to build his confidence and remind himself of his potential.

A winning attitude and outlook: One of the greatest assets you need to cultivate and build as an athlete is a winning attitude and outlook. Can you recall a time when it was your gritty or positive attitude that lifted your performance to another level? I have often noticed that players who are physically smaller than others have developed a spunky attitude which causes them to stand out above the rest. I have had the privilege of working with a lot of players from the Springbok Rugby team and have seen them in training situations on multiple occasions. The small scrumhalves often stand out in terms of determination and guts. Temba Buvuma also has this grit. This South African player is only 5 foot 2 inches tall, yet he is excelling. Because he is short, he has had to adapt his play in terms of his reach; and he has become a master at playing an intimidating short-pitched ball. He has adapted his craft and is holding his own as a batter in the highest form of the game.

I mention these sources of confidence because you absolutely must tap into what makes your personal ‘confidence clock’ tick. Most athletes will tell you that confidence comes from past success, from playing well, or from positive experiences in their sport. As athletes develop competence through successful experience, confidence grows.

Other sources from which athletes derive confidence include:
• Great coaching
• Being part of a strong team
• A positive support group
• Practice and repetition
• Performing well in practice
• Having a supportive “team” of professionals
• Top equipment (bats, racquets, boots….)
• Effective strength training
• Fitness
• Diet
• Mental preparation
• Feeling prepared
• Familiarity with the conditions
• Doing the right things off the field, course, track or court

Personal Check-in and Application
1. Rate your confidence on a scale of 1 – 10
2. Are you practicing under pressure, simulating match conditions as much as possible?
3. What past performances can you re-run as a video in your mind before a match or race?

Article written by Iain Shippey - Performance Coach at Thincsport
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