Where To Find More Confidence

Your athletes could probably do with a little more confidence. Defined as “one’s belief in their own abilities”, this article explores where it comes from and how to foster more of it. We all know that confidence is important. Here’s how Braden Currie, one of New Zealand’s best multisport athletes, sees it:

I’m a big believer in confidence. I think that no matter what you do in life, you’ve got to believe in your ability to do it. I tend to race with confidence. I don’t sit back and wonder what would happen if I go easy at the start, or cruise out of transition and work my way into it. I’ll always try and push it from the start and try and take it to the next level.

Braden Currie

The thing is, because confidence can’t be quantified, it often gets left up to chance. But like every other competency in sport, confidence can be developed. So, let’s dig in. 

The Story Inside Your Head

The story we tell ourselves inside our head determines confidence. If our inner dialogue is negative, for instance, “I’m not good enough to compete”, “last time I tried this, I failed”, or “what will my dad think if I get this wrong?”, then it’s unlikely we’ll engage. This is because the perceived consequences of failure outweigh the potential benefits of success. To the people around us, this is seen as a lack of confidence. But if our inner dialogue about that same action is positive, we’re much more likely engage with energy and excitement, thus appearing confident.

Here’s an excerpt from my conversation with Dr Camilla Knight, Associate Professor in Sports Psychology at Swansea University, on the Athlete Development Show:

“We know that perceptions of competence are related to motivation. If a young athlete starts to drop in perceived competence, we see them potentially withdrawing effort, not wanting to engage anymore, not putting in as much time, not looking like they’re enjoying it. And also, just avoiding challenges, maybe choosing the easier task because then they can be successful, as opposed to putting themselves in those more challenging situations.”

Because the stories we tell ourselves are so powerful at influencing action, it’s critical we think about how they are scripted. For instance, what role to the people around play? Here’s Braden again:

“My parents weren’t the kind of people that pushed me to be over-confident. They didn’t know that sport could be a life. They didn’t really encourage me to go out there and perform to a high level in sport or push me and tell me that I was amazing, and tell me that I was incredible at sport and give me that feeling of confidence. I had to kind of learn it myself. I guess to this day that it’s just self-belief, that I’ve put the work in and I can race with the best of them.”

What’s more, confidence is intricately linked to perceived competence. That is, confidence arises when a young person expects to do something successfully. Crucially, perceived competence is affected by the age and developmental stage of the child. Here’s more from my conversation with Dr Camilla Knight:

“At 10, 11, 12 years of age, [kids] are becoming more aware of normative comparisons. So, [they’re] looking at people around them and understanding, okay, maybe I’m not as good as I thought, I can see that other people are better than me. And we know that at this point, perceptions of competence start to level out…they get a little more realistic around that age. As the peer comparisons continue, and we start to break ourselves down into component parts where we can judge our confidence in more specific areas, there’s the potential that adolescents aren’t receiving the best feedback, and seeing themselves as able. That’s where we see competence really start to drop off. It’s recognising that critical moment when they see themselves in relation to peers and the potential impact that can have.”

Children younger than about 10 years of age tend to reference their abilities from the significant adults in their lives. So, what a coach says or doesn’t say about their performance, or how a parent show love and encouragement (or lack thereof), has a major impact on self-belief, and therefore, confidence. However, once an athlete begins adolescence, and their peers become a much more important reference for their abilities, the environments she spends time in outside the family unit is the major source of confidence.

A Sense of Agency

Confidence also grows from a sense of agency. When an athlete has choice over their actions, they’re more likely to tackle difficult challenges, which has a positive affect on their inner voice. Here’s Dr Knight on the importance of ownership for youth athletes during adolescence:

“It’s very much about working with athletes to get them back looking at themselves, and identifying what they’re good at, and identifying the little steps that they would like to take. It’s about giving them some ownership, giving them some autonomy for the activities, letting them choose, but then giving them the encouragement. The more the athlete gets to guide things themselves, the more they’re going to want to engage.”

What’s important is that the result of the challenge doesn’t necessarily matter. An athlete can fail but still take confidence from that fact that it was their decision to engage with it. It’s the difference between feeling controlled by the challenge and using it to indicate progress. However, this only works when we value a patient process. Confidence is developed by building self-belief over time, not by trying to fast-track an outcome.

While patience is essential to developing confidence, so is positive encouragement. Left to their own accord, young athletes can get comfortable in their environments. Confidence come and goes. It’s why great parents and coaches provide a range of new and interesting challenges for kids to engage with in a effort to keep fuelling the confidence fire. Here’s an excerpt from a conversation I had with a 15-year-old tennis player about his coach:

“He’s a great coach because he cares. I love how he changes training to suit our needs and what we feel like doing on the day. But he expects a lot from us and always makes us work hard.”

Noting down success

The accumulation of success changes our inner voice. Building mini-accomplishment on top of mini-accomplishment provides a young athlete with the evidence they need to be positive. For instance, if an athlete can do one more repetition than they did the day before, or when they attempt an exercise for the first time. Perhaps they arrive on time after habitually showing up late, or cooperate with a teammate instead of prioritising themselves to achieve something great. Capturing these positive behaviours in a journal, or in a photo diary, can be very beneficial.  

“Giving [the young athlete] opportunities to see themselves succeed is important. Sometimes it’s about putting the situation together that you know they’ll be successful in, then making it slightly harder. One of the best sources of confidence is success, so you want to give those opportunities.”

Dr Camilla Knight

Leveraging small wins requires two essential ingredients. First, we must provide the opportunity for a small win to occur in the first place. A learning environment set up for athletes to both master the old, while trying the new, provides rich opportunities for small wins. Here’s more from Braden Currie:

“I’m a big believer that a kid will find their own path, and I want to give my kids every opportunity to do that. I think for kids it’s about developing skills and having fun with sport, and being all-round good at them, having so many different sports to choose from. And I think they’ll find their place and find confidence from that.”

Second, we must catch our athletes winning. Research shows that positively reinforcing the things an athlete does well, while paying less attention to their weaknesses, increases confidence. Here’s an excerpt from my conversation with Nathan Wallis, famed neuroscience educator, on the Athlete Development Show.

“Spend 10 times the energy on the thing that they did right because that’s what is going to reproduce that behaviour in the future. And focusing 10 times the energy on what was just done wrong is giving the brain 10 times the information on how not to do it.”

Nathan Wallis

The wrap

This is how to help  a young athlete develop confidence:

  1. During childhood, provide them many different opportunities to help them find out what they like and do well.
  2. Encourage what they do well (particularly effort) without giving them a false sense of reality.
  3. Recognise the critical moment when they see themselves in relation to peers and the potential impact it may have.
  4. Help identify the little steps they need to take to get better. Then, give them some ownership over the process.
  5. Provide interesting problems for them to solve, individualising them as much as possible.
  6. Catch them winning.
  7. Reward what they do well and forget about what they don’t.

If your child is struggling with confidence or facing a difficult challenge in their sport that is holding them back from being the best they can be, I’d love to help. Message me here.

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