Article #3 - Confidence in Sports Part 1


Confidence in Sports (part 1):  How to develop confidence


“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re likely to prove yourself correct.”

Many experienced coaches and motivational speakers have used some variation of the statement above to emphasize that the way in which one thinks can dramatically affect the way that one performs.  Haven’t we all experienced this to be true!  When we are brimming with confidence and allow ourselves to trust in our abilities, our performance tends to be among our best.  And conversely, when we doubt our abilities and begin to think, “This just isn’t my day,” our performance falls flat and leaves us feeling deflated and bruised.

It’s clearly no secret that how, and what one thinks, affects how well that person is likely to perform, in any type of competitive or achievement situation.  Virtually everybody accepts this idea and recognizes it to be a fact.  There is nothing stunning about this concept whatsoever.

But what is stunning, is that the vast, vast, majority of athletes (and other people as well) fail to realize that we virtually always get to choose how and what we think!  If you come to accept this idea, and embrace it fully, you will find that your level of confidence will be totally in your control.  Imagine the types of performances you’ll be able to consistently produce when your confidence starts out strong and remains at that level.  And that level of confidence will remain high, even if your performance doesn’t meet up with your desired outcomes.  While it might be true that “You can’t win them all,” this new way of always taking the responsibility for  choosing how and what you think will help you to increase your winning percentages and your proportion of exceptional performances in your chosen field.

I want you to conceptualize this idea of always choosing how and what you think as being no different than going to a restaurant with an extensive menu, and selecting an entree from among the various choices.  What would you choose to eat when you can have almost any item you can imagine?  For me, I might select a medium rare filet mignon, with a side of béarnaise sauce.  Or perhaps a nice New York strip with a cabernet peppercorn sauce.  My mouth is watering as I write this, imagining the hearty flavor of these two favorite dishes. I love the taste, the texture, the juiciness of properly cooked, high quality beef!

So, what would you choose to eat, if you could select from a menu that contained virtually every type of food?  Something that pleases your tastes, I’m sure.  And although our selections may be hugely different, I think it’s safe to say that whatever you choose, you’d expect that you too were going to be served a delicious, thoroughly satisfying meal.

However, there would also be several items I’d likely find on the menu that I would be sure not to order.  For example, I know I wouldn’t order squid, or oysters.  I’ve never had a good experience with either of these foods, despite the fact that other people absolutely crave such dishes.  And there is no way I would order steamed spinach!  I had a bad experience with spinach when I was a kid, and I’ve never gotten over it!  I’m sure you could definitely identify some entrees you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot fork, for your own personal reasons.  When we get to make a choice about what we’re going to eat, we’re going to make a selection that is pleasing and appealing to us.

Choosing how and what to think while out on the golf course, or in any competition or achievement situation, is really is no different than being in a restaurant, and having a wide variety of menu items from which to choose.  Certain ways of thinking will lead to pleasant, enjoyable, and more than likely successful experiences.  Other ways of thinking will likely lead to discomfort, possible disgust, and no doubt, poor performances.

Let’s first discuss how this concept of choosing how and what you think can help you to develop confidence.  In my sport psychology seminars I often ask the audience which statement they think is most true: “Success causes confidence,” or “Confidence causes success.”  Most people recognize that both statements are generally true, and I agree.  For example, when an athlete wins their first tournament, regardless of at which level of competition the win occurred (i.e. junior, high school, collegiate, professional), there is typically a large increase in confidence.  How many times have you heard an athlete or commentator on T.V. talk about the boost in confidence that comes after a first win, ones’ initial victory?  So, yes, success breeds confidence.

However, many athletes who have never won at a major competitive level, still exhibit great confidence in their abilities.  They believe they have what it takes to perform at an exceptional level, even though they have not yet achieved such a level of competitive success!  In essence, these athletes developed confidence by simply choosing to fully believe in their own potential!  And for people who think this way, then go on to succeed, it is clearly a case of confidence causing success.

Mohammed Ali and Tiger Woods come to mind in this respect.  The man who is regarded by many to have been the world’s all time best boxer was famous for unashamedly stating, “I am the greatest!  I am the greatest!”  And although Ali indeed became the greatest boxer of all time, he began shouting his slogan, “I am the greatest!” long before he won any major matches!  He chose to believe in his abilities, well before he had fully proven his own potential.  His belief in his own abilities led him to become a world champion!

And What about Tiger Woods?  As a youth he decided he would break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories.  That was his goal, his belief, his dedication, even though he had not yet played in a single professional event.  He made up his mind he would surpass Nicklaus’ record, he chose to maintain this confident belief, and he is on target for completing this once unconceivable accomplishment.  Whether or not he eventually breaks Nicklaus’ record, Tiger’s belief in his own ability has led him to become the most dominant player in the current field of professional golf.

These examples underline the importance of developing healthy, confident beliefs in ones’ abilities, even before those abilities have been fully proven.  Mohammed Ali did it, Tiger Woods did it, and so have many other exceptionally successful athletes.

So, what do you need to do to develop such a healthy, productive, and confident mindset?

Mental game coach Patrick Cohn, Ph.D., suggests one way of boosting initial confidence is to create a “confidence resume.”  First of all, you want to take a close look at the best parts of your game, your strengths that you possess right now.   Make a list of them, and write out your strengths in as much detail as you can, using the most positive and powerful descriptions that you can think of.  Include any specific accomplishments of which you are particularly proud.  Try to identify the best shots you’ve hit with each club.  Think about some of the ways you’ve dealt with obstacles like a tree or bush being in the way of the shot you needed to hit.  In your resume you also want include any instances in which you recovered from a poor start, or were able to overcome rude, or distracting behavior from fellow competitors, or observers during your match.  Statements about how hard you are willing to work and how dedicated you are to improving should also be included.

When I work with athletes on developing confidence, I give them a list of over 20 items to consider in their confidence resume.  I have them discuss each item, and then select the five responses that seem most powerful to them in terms of their own confidence.  These five items become the “core” of their confidence resume, which they then “flesh out” using their responses to the other items, along with anything else they can think of that will help to boost their personal level of confidence.  I have my clients review their resumes before every round of golf, and certainly before any competitions.

If you are a relative beginner to golf, (or any sport which has captured your interest, your desire, your heart), it might sound like your confidence resume would be way too small to be of any benefit.  Not so!  If you are a beginner, items that you would still want to include would be your best score to date (whether it’s 100 or 140), the longest putts you’ve sank, your best tee shots on long holes, your best approaches to the green, best sand shots, greatest number of pars in a round, etc.  No matter where you are in your sports career, you always have accomplishments, personal little victories.  And it is these initial accomplishments that will lead you to bigger and better things in the future, as long as you choose to frequently remind yourself of what you have accomplished!

Another important part of choosing how and what you think, however, is to make sure that you in no way minimize the importance of your accomplishments, no matter how small they might seem.  The first time you play a round of golf without a triple bogey, for example, really is an accomplishment.  It means you’ve achieved something you had never achieved before.  Don’t fall into the trap of minimizing your accomplishment by comparing your performance to that of “a really good golfer.”  All golfers, even the “really good” ones, were once struggling to achieve the same things you are working on now.  So celebrate each little accomplishment, congratulate yourself for making strides in the right direction.  Be proud of your achievements and recognize that each small step will lead you to become a consistently better and more skilled athlete.  A huge part of confidence is the belief you maintain in your current abilities, and in your potential for improvement.

So, make the decision today to begin the process of writing out reasons that you have to be confident.  List your various accomplishments in the most powerful and positive terms you can think of.  Include statements about how hard you work and how dedicated you are to improving.   Review this list regularly, and add to it as your skill level improves.  Make the commitment to always take full responsibility for what and how you think.  Make the choice to always believe in yourself and your ability to improve.  When you are out there, practicing, playing, and competing, think about the choices you’d make in a fine restaurant, to ensure you would have a wonderful, enjoyable, and fully satisfying meal.   By consistently making good choices from your “thought menu,” you’re likely to find a high level of success waiting right there for you.

You’ll find that with the proper choices, you really can have your cake, and eat it too!


Kevin J. Roby, Ph.D., MGCP,   Las Vegas Sport Psychology  (702) 395-2170