One of the most fundamental mental toughness skills athletes must possess to perform at high levels is self-confidence. Most athletes are highly confident when things are going well for them. That’s easy. But mentally tough athletes have the ability to maintain confidence, even when things are not going well. This skill is much more difficult to learn.
Earlier this spring, I was working on confidence with a group of female middle school and high school athletes from several different sports. As part of our discussion, I asked these young ladies to think about 2 or 3 things they don’t do very well or need to work on.
Every single athlete started writing immediately. I was surprised, and a bit alarmed, at the long list most of these young athletes generated in only a couple minutes. Then I reversed the task and asked them to think about 2 or 3 things they are good at and do really well. This was much more challenging. A few looked completely bewildered and really struggled to think of anything.
What I learned from this activity is that these young female athletes were obviously spending way more time thinking about all the things they don’t do well than they were spending thinking about what they are good at. No wonder their confidence plummets so easily during competition. Focusing all our thoughts on what we don’t do well does not help us become confident athletes.
If you follow men’s basketball, KU sophomore Malik Newman had a pretty average regular season in 2017, considering his talent level. But he was incredible during the Big 12 Conference Tournament and NCAA post-season. When reporters asked about this surge in performance, Malik explained just how important confidence is in peak performance, “Confidence is at an all-time high right now, and I’m just out there having fun. ... That (confidence) just comes from my teammates talking with me, Coach Self meeting with me, me having just little talks with myself. I think everything is going down the right road right now.”
In athletics, confidence can go up or down quickly, usually directly dependent upon how well as athlete is playing. But there are ways parents and coaches can help athletes develop self-confidence. With practice and additional some additional mental skills, athletes can learn how to sustain confidence, even when facing adversity.
Here are three simple ways youth coaches and parents can help young athletes develop and sustain confidence.
1. Create Good Lists
As the female athletes in my recent mental skills clinic demonstrated, athletes are often quick to point out and dwell on what they don’t do well. On one hand, this seems normal because sport skill development is about continuous improvement. As coaches, we tend to be improvement and deficiency focused. On the other hand, however, athletes need to know what they do well to sustain confidence.
To help young athletes develop self-confidence, have them identify and write down 5 things they are good at in their sport and 5 things they are good at outside of sport. Ask them to review both lists each night before bed. Because memories are consolidated at night during sleep, reviewing these lists before bed will help these “good lists” be embedded in memory, thus enhancing the probability of remembering these strengths and being able to call upon these memories when things aren’t going perfectly, either in sports or life.
2. Use Cell Phone Video Positively
The ease with which we can take out our cell phone and easily record video has resulted in an almost irresistible urge to video everything our athletes do. However, self-confidence is often eroded when this video is used for frame-by-frame critique after every game or practice.
I have seen continual video critiquing result in athletes who are constantly worried about making a mistake during competition (and having to relive it over and over again later) rather than being confident in their abilities and ready to make the a play. Instead of constantly showing your young athlete what she doesn’t do well, use video to show her what she does really well. Even better, create a highlight video that shows your athlete doing several skills well. Viewing these images will improve confidence and help her visualize what success looks like. Why do you think college teams use awesome pre-game highlight videos before introducing the starting line-up?
I am not suggesting that video should never be used constructively with young athletes. As a coach, I use video periodically when I work on physical skills with elementary and middle school athletes, but only to specifically help an athlete actually see exactly what she is doing physically or mechanically and explain why I want her to do it differently. However, if I video a young athlete doing something incorrectly, I try to make sure I also video her doing it correctly before we are finished so she can see the difference and improvement.
3. Help Athletes Understand Mistakes Are Part of Sport
Last but not least, help athletes understand that mistakes are part of playing sports. Young athletes, especially, often completely lose their confidence after they make a mistake. This lack of confidence can quickly lead to what I call the tornado of destruction.
We’ve all seen the tornado of destruction in youth sports. It happens when one mistake quickly becomes two or three or when a mistake in one aspect of the game affects all other aspects of an athlete’s game, as well.
To regain confidence and be mentally tough, athletes must understand that mistakes are part of the game and learn to forget and move on quickly. Being able to quickly remember things an athlete does well and focus attention on those positive memories is an important first step.
Confidence is a core mental toughness skill and critical component of success in sports and life. To learn how In the ZONE Training can help your athlete improve self-confidence and other mental toughness skills or to register for a Mental Skills Clinic go to www.inthezonetraining.org
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