Confidence is a word that is used quite frequently in sport. It’s heard all the time from every perspective- the athletes themselves, coaches, parents and even the commentators on TV. But what exactly is confidence and how can be trained or enhanced?
There are two types of self-confidence relevant to sport; physical confidence and self-regulatory confidence. Physical confidence deals with the physical aspect of the sport and is likely what is being referred to when a comment is made on an athlete’s “confidence level”. Physical confidence includes skill execution, physical fitness, and the ability to learn new skills. On the other hand, self-regulatory confidence involves of the mental side and includes cognitive management, emotional management and resilience.
Physical confidence is needed first and foremost. If an athlete doesn’t trust in his or her ability to successfully execute the necessary skills, it simply won’t happen. All athletes are constantly training their physical confidence through practice, while most don’t pay much, if any, attention to the development of their self-regulatory confidence. An athlete’s level of self-regulatory confidence is completely dependent on the strength of his or her mental skills, which are developed through mental training, and is one of the many good reasons why all athletes should include a regular mental training component to their training regime. When physical confidence is combined with self-regulatory confidence, a level of world class unwavered confidence can be created and the likelihood of a successful performance greatly increases.
These two types of confidence relate differently to an athlete’s performance. Physical confidence is predictive of performance immediately following an intense training period. When an athlete goes through the grind of preparing for the competitive season, the tougher this grind, the more successful the initial performance will be. This isn’t to say that to ensure success athletes must push themselves beyond their limits to make the grind harder. The intense training period must not only be intense, but must also entail consistent successful execution of the necessary skills. The more often athletes are successful during an intense practice, the more confident they will be in their ability to perform in competition. This is the obvious side of confidence that everyone knows about; perform your skills in practice when things are gruelling, and you will trust that you can perform them in competition. You will be confident in your ability.
In contrast, self-regulatory confidence is a strong predictor of performance later in the season in higher pressure games or competitions. Self-regulatory confidence is when an athlete believes he or she has full control over his or her abilities to focus, manage emotions and cope with obstacles and distractions. This type of confidence is critical in buffering the negative effects of nervousness and anxiety on an athlete’s performance. An athlete with a higher level of self-regulatory confidence has a stronger mental skill set, and is therefore better at managing emotions, controlling focus, and blocking out distractions. These athletes can tolerate a higher level of arousal before experiencing decrements in performance, and so can handle greater amounts of stress, nerves, fear, etc. before their performance will suffer.
In addition, athletes who feel in control of their emotions and focus have better coping abilities and respond in pressurized situations with increased effort, persistence and performance. For athletes who doubt their ability to cope, anxiety becomes debilitating because they withdraw effort based on their belief that they cannot control themselves or their environments. Athletes must believe they can control all aspects of their mental state in order to perform well, despite how strong their physical skill set is. Entering a competition setting with a strong skill set is great, but if the athlete does not believe he or she has control of the emotions, thoughts, focus and distractions that come with competition, it will be much harder to execute those physical skills.
So having a good amount of physical confidence is only half of the equation. An athlete can absolutely experience success relying only on physical confidence. But why enter competition with only half of the equation? By adding a sense of self-regulatory confidence, an athlete is fully equipped with both halves and so the likelihood for success doubles.
So to answer the original question; yes, confidence can be trained. And to maximize the level of confidence, it must be trained both on the playing field during practices, and off with some mental training!
Horn, T. S. (2008) Advances In Sport Psychology (pp. 80-83). Oxford, Ohio: Human Kinetics.