by Dr. Jennifer Gapin

Assistant Professor, Kinesiology and Health Education at Southern Illinois University 

“It’s this wave that you ride, and the greatest athletes in the world either make their peaks and valleys a lot less noticeable or they’re really good at hiding them.” – Mia Hamm

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Being a confident athlete is easier said than done. Most people think that elite athletes are confident because they don’t doubt their abilities. Actually, the opposite is true. Interviews with professional athletes reveal that many have negative thoughts and doubts prior to performing. What separates the elite athlete is the ability to use mental skills to boost their confidence when they need to. It involves a constant internal struggle. Successful athletes are those that are able to maintain confidence despite the negative thoughts and doubts that enter their minds.

"Before the race, if I'm starting to spiral down some negative thought, I've trained my mind to recognize that immediately and be able to make the adjustment to stop thinking about that"

- Michael Johnson, US Olympian

Building confidence in players and the team begins with consistent coaching behaviors that demonstrate a positive attitude and support, regardless of winning or losing. As a coach there are a number of things you can do to boost confidence in your athletes.

Create Practice Situations that Align with Competitive Games

As a coach, preparation doesn’t just involve physical training and tactics. It involves putting your athletes through challenges and scenarios that are as close to competition as possible. This helps the athlete learn about strengths and weaknesses and feel prepared to adjust in competition when things don’t always go as expected. If your athletes enter competition knowing they have done everything to prepare for pressure situations, confidence will stick.

Create Highlight Reels

Watching videotapes of opponents can also be a great confidence booster. Most athletes feel more confident when they know about their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and can mentally prepare for those ahead of time. If opponent tapes are unavailable, try creating an individual highlight real for each athlete to watch before competition. This mechanism allows the athlete to see themselves succeeding and is great for boosting confidence before competition.

Focus on Controllables

It sounds cliché, but one of the toughest lessons for young athletes to learn is how to focus on controllables. Too often athletes choose to focus on things related to competition that are outside their control: weather, opponents, field conditions, etc. By helping them turn their energy on to what they have control over (training, mental and physical preparation, attitude, self-talk, etc.); they are able to regain their confidence and use their energy to their advantage.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Big Picture

Remind your athletes of the big picture when you are discussing individual progress. It’s the sum of the parts that make up the athlete, and while the athlete may be too focused on one weakness, they are missing all the little successes and improvements in other aspects of their game. If an athlete is focused too much on mistakes, have them look at it from a different perspective. What things are they doing to help their teammates? How is that player contributing to the overall success of the team?

Recognize and Reward Good Performance

Players gain confidence when coaches notice where they excel and tell them publicly. If there is a weakness that needs to be addressed, try using the sandwich approval. Start with praise, insert constructive criticism, and close with more praise.  Enjoying small successes make the criticism much easier to digest and to take action on.

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