“My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.” – Hank Aaron
Like Hank Aaron, confident athletes keep swinging, passing, shooting, or throwing no matter what. Michael Jordan said, “I never lost a game. I just ran out of time.” This feeling of confidence dictates the inner dialogue and thought that is critical to top performance.
Research in sports psychology yields a consistent and direct relationship between self-confidence and success in sports. Highly confident athletes’ minds are working for them, whereas less confident athletes’ minds are working against them. Thoughts drive emotions which drives their behaviors. Therefore, negative or insecure thoughts can cause an athlete to perform poorly.
While high levels of self-confidence occur naturally in some athletes, others need to learn and develop the skills necessary to improve self-confidence. Before an athlete can improve their self-confidence, they will need to develop an awareness of their self-talk. Self-talk often happens subconsciously and an athlete's performance can seemingly decline without reason as a result. One of the easiest methods to help the athlete develop this awareness is retrospection.
Retrospection can take place as part of a post-game evaluation, where the athlete thinks about key moments of their performance, both good and bad, and recalls what their self-talk was at those points. They can analyze whether it had a helpful or harmful impact, and use that analysis to inform the future. Retrospection can take place at any time after an event, however, the sooner the athlete does the exercise, the more accurate their recall. One thing to keep in mind: an athlete should not do this type of analysis during an event as there is a risk of the athlete not performing at all because of paralysis by analysis.
If having the athletes perform a post-game analysis is not possible, have them use imagery to recall specific events. Invoking imagery will help the athlete recall their self-talk during a specific event or moment of play. Another useful tool is to have the athlete keep a logbook of their self-talk throughout the day. This can help athletes that are not as adept with imagery or whose memories get muddled which reduces the effectiveness of retrospection. Once the athlete has gathered their self-talk findings, they can implement an action plan to change the self-talk from negative to positive, improving their self-confidence. Depending on the age of the athlete, a coach, mental performance specialist, or parent can help them move forward. The following actions can be used to assist athletes in developing confidence.
The common skill of using affirmations can be a good place to start. Affirmations are positive statements about the athlete and exhibit the following key characteristics:
- Affirm that the athlete already possesses the desired skill or trait
- Based on previous successful performance
For example, an athlete that has previously scored a winning goal might say “I play my best when the pressure is on and my teammates can count on me to come through and score." Keeping a list of an athlete's past successes can help facilitate statements or reminders that can be drawn upon when needed.
Thought stopping is another great skill to use once the athlete is aware of automatic negative self-talk. Like affirmations, thought-stopping can be used during a competitive event but must be planned outside of competition. After reviewing the list of negative self-talk statements and the preceding causal event, have the athlete write out counter-positive self-talk phrases and rehearse the statements regularly. When that situation happens again and the athlete starts down a negative path, they can tell themselves to “STOP” and then revert to the rehearsed statement.
Take this scenario for example: there is a pitching change in the middle of an at-bat. The batter starts to have a negative reaction which leads to doubt they will get a hit. They can tell themselves "STOP" and replace their insecure thought with the positive, prepared statement and regain the confidence needed to be a success.
From the previous example, let’s say that the batter still struck out (remember increasing confidence does not guarantee success), returns to the dugout concerned that they would have to face the same pitcher their next at-bat, and begins to lose confidence. Prior to the athlete returning to the field, a coach might offer them a different view of the situation for their next at-bat. More seasoned athletes can do this on their own with a keyword or phrase from the coach. A prime example of this was Babe Ruth: “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” Looking at it from that point of view makes strikes and even strikeouts an occurrence to get excited about (high self-confidence) and not dread (low self-confidence). Attempting to change a player’s innate outlook from pessimistic to optimistic will take time, consistent effort, and patience from the coach and player.
Sometimes, even the best efforts to improve a player’s confidence by introducing any of the previous skills runs into a wall. Meaning, what if the athlete still believes their negative thoughts? This could be due to a lack of maturity or an underlying issue that is leading to the athlete's irrational beliefs and thoughts. For example, a client, who is a young athlete (middle school age) who had a private training session with the local High School Varsity Basketball Coach, went 0-12 in free throws. The athlete was devastated even though the rest of the training went great. The athlete was so upset that they began to believe it was a secret tryout for the top team and that they would not make a team after that session.
This athlete’s thinking was problematic in two ways: first, they were catastrophizing the impact of the free throws had on the coach's opinion of their ability, and second, they believed they needed to be perfect in all aspects of their game. In this case, a coach, parent, or mental skills professional should counter by using facts and reason to refute the underlying beliefs that led to the negative thinking. This discussion would best take place after the athlete has regained their composure and is open to a discussion about their thinking and the event that lead to the downward spiral.
Success at any level of sport is directly related to an athlete’s self-confidence. Self-confidence is positively or negatively impacted by the player’s self-talk. For athletes struggling with positive self-talk, a coach, parent, or mental skills coach can help them develop skills and techniques to stop negative self-talk in its tracks.