Confidence In Sport: How To Get It When You Feel Like You Don’t Have It

confidence in sport baseball

Professional athletes list self confidence as the single most important element in successful competition and consistent high level performance. Professional athletes believe that confidence is in fact, more important than talent or hard work.  

Confidence is not just important in athletics.  It’s important in our daily lives because life itself is oftentimes about competition.  It feels as if we ALL compete and seemingly ALL the time.  We compete against human opponents, against deadlines, against sales quotas, budgets, the clock, etc., etc., etc.  We even compete against ourselves.  (More about that later). 

At best confidence seems fleeting.  Maddeningly so.  Here one moment and gone the next.  It can  be as slippery and hard to grab and hold onto as the proverbial “greased pig”.  It can run through your mind like water through your hands.  Perhaps worst of all; it oftentimes feels as if it is “cyclical”; coming and going (perhaps “crashing” would be a better term) like waves beating against the rocks (which is probably a good metaphor for our sometimes impenetrable minds).  These emotional extremes are gigantic; huge; emotional roller coasters.  Lack of confidence has destroyed careers and forced athletes out of their sports.  One moment an athlete or an individual can “feel” like a world beater; superman; like the line in the country western song which says we feel, “ten feet tall and bullet proof”.  Seconds later that same athlete can feel like the “bum of the week”; doubting himself or herself; sometimes even to the point of despair and paralysis; unable to perform or even move; with barely enough energy to crawl into a fetal position on a chair with his/her head in their hands.

Oh, if there were only a pill, right?  A confidence pill.  Holy mackerel.  If I thought I could conjure up such a thing I would be in my laboratory right now working night and day.  Doctor Confidence and his “Feel Good About Your Game Pill”.  I am sure we are talking not just millions or billions but trillions of dollars of revenue from such a medication and invention.  Who would NOT buy a confidence pill to pop in an emergency.

Yes, it appears to be that important.

However, can  an athlete ACQUIRE confidence?  Can an athlete pull confidence out of his/her equipment bag like a new bat or a pair of cleats or our mythical and imaginary pill? 

I believe that an athlete CAN in fact  produce confidence when it is lacking.

First and foremost; unless you are a real true beginner in your sport, let’s be honest about the fact that you have ALREADY experienced confidence in your sport.  You would simply not be wherever you are in your personal development and mastery of the sport unless you had already MASTERED elements of the skill and progressed.  Perhaps there is a situation that you are reacting to that is generating the problems with your confidence. Perhaps you are facing a level of competition or hit a plateau and struggling with developing your skill to the “next” level.  Perhaps you are dealing with external stress that is affecting your game.  All of those issues can be dealt with successfully but they don’t alter the fact that you DO possess confidence.  Your confidence is NOT lost.  You may have misplaced it; like when you don’t remember where the car keys are but it is NOT lost.

Now … don’t you feel better already?

Secondarily (and this is of EXTREME importance); it is imperative to acknowledge the FACT that confidence is NOT necessary to either (a – compete or (b – win.

It’s not.

Athletes and people who compete in all manner of arenas do so successfully ALL THE TIME without confidence. 

Confidence is not requisite for success.  Think for a moment and acknowledge how many times you have read about athletes who have performed in spite of injuries. 

An athlete says to him or herself, “I’m not feeling on top of my game. My (fill in the blank) is hurting but I’m going to play anyway.  In fact literally ALL professional athletes will attest to the fact that they NEVER feel completely whole physically.  Never.  There is ALWAYS something annoying that is bothering them.  (This is why there are trainers on sports teams).  The athletes simply choose to compete anyway.  I mean … they HAVE to.  They’re getting paid, aren’t they?  Don’t tell me you’ve never felt a bit “left of center” and still gotten up and gone to work or school.  You have.  If we didn’t make that choice we would all spend our lives in bed watching television.

Curt Shilling’s “bloody sock” ankle injury in game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship series is a famous example of such a mentality when, with a severe ankle injury Schilling pitched the Boston Red Sox to victory

An athlete can do the same with his mental game.  I don’t feel confident and/but I’m going to compete at the best of my abilities ANYWAY. 

Here are some other ways to produce self confidence when it may be misplaced.

1.TAKE ANY AND ALL EMOTION OUT OF THE EQUATION; especially fear or apprehension and BE OBJECTIVE.  If  you can’t be objective… GET SOMEONE WHO CAN.

Ask a professional to give an honest and objective evaluation of the “mechanics” of your physical game.  Oftentimes when and if a performer is not at the top of his/her game there is a mechanical reason.  A “skills instructor or coach can provide a third party viewpoint; an objective opinion; an opinion not influenced by emotion of any kind.  Just the facts.

If there is a mechanical reason for a problem; allow yourself to be “informed” rather than “influenced” by your emotion or perhaps more importantly by the “perception” of failure.  A mechanical issue can be adjusted.  Moreover a mechanical issue is usually relatively small.  A baseball player or golfer may, for example, pull his/her head off the ball slightly at contact, causing a “mis-hit”; an problem which can be fixed.

Finally and equally important remember that it IS after all a “competition”; somebody wins and somebody else loses.  Nobody wins all the time; every time. The greatest hitter in the history of baseball was Babe Ruth.  In addition to the home runs he was also a strikeout king.  Didn’t bother him a bit.  He would go back into the dugout, have a hot dog or a scoop of ice cream (True), make an adjustment, go back up to the plate for his next at bat and hit.

Remember when you lose it’s just on that day … not forever.  Again; it is something which can be fixed.

REALIZE THAT CONFIDENCE IS A FUNCTION OF CORRECT REPETITION; BOTH PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY.

There is a great deal of “been there, done that” in high performance.  In clinics I always offer the example of tying shoelaces; a fairly complex knot but one which we all do automatically and without thinking by the time we are four or five years old simply because we do it every single day. 

There is in fact a growing school of thought in athletics and other areas of endeavor and achievement that there is no such thing as a “natural”.  Tiger Woods has been quoted as saying that he practices 8 and even up to 16 hours a day.  Jimmy Hendrix was so obsessed with mastering the guitar that he had been seen to be wearing his guitar strapped over his shoulder while he was frying eggs for breakfast and would go out to restaurants with it in hand.  Hitting a baseball is considered by many experts to be the hardest thing to do in all of sports and yet former all star second baseman and big league manager Jim Lefebvre has said that if you teach a youngster how to swing correctly and have him swing 200 times a day he will definitely become a professional ballplayer.  It is the 10,000 repetitions concept; i.e. that “mastery” requires repetition. A LOT of repetitions. The lesson?  Do something enough times and not only do you master the skill but more importantly it becomes “automatic”; “reactionary”.  Most importantly the skill becomes “trustworthy”.  Strange description of a skill set? Not at all.  You hear athletes speak of “trusting” their abilities.  It is NOT “belief”. Belief has a connotation of “hope”.  Trust is the KNOWLEDGE of one’s ability to perform.  You KNOW you can do it.  Repetition can build that trust; that confidence.

 ENHANCE YOUR PERFORMANCE

In addition to the correct execution of a specific skill; that execution can be “enhanced”.  Athletes enhance their performance through strength and conditioning / speed and agility work which gives them an “edge”.  Business men and women; students take courses, gain information, seek counsel; all in an effort to IMPROVE themselves and gain an edge.

Small differences can have huge benefits.  Enhancing speed by as small a margin as .1 to .2 of a second can have an enormous impact on a football player’s game.   For baseball; improving speed with a more explosive first step out of a box can produce 4 – 6 base hits that would have been outs even over the course of a 24 game high school season; a difference of perhaps as many as .50 points on a batting average which may translate to a player being able to start or move up to a higher level.

One year Hall of Fame player CRAIG BIGGIO had 38 infield hits.  That translates to 76 points on his batting average in a big league season; the difference between making the all star game and being sent down or cut or not having your contract renewed.

WATCH CORRECT PERFORMANCES BY OTHER PERFORMERS

Visualization can and should be very literal.  Use your eyes.  As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching”.  There was a recent study of baseball players where it was shown that the athletes who watch the game master skills quicker than those who do not.

It makes more than perfect sense.  One of of our most powerful; one of our first and primal skills as human beings is “mimicry”.  As youngsters, as children and especially as human “animals” we “mimic” our parents and others around us.  It is how we master many of our primary skills; walking, talking, gesturing for example  Why would that skill of mimicry not CONTINUE to work as we become older; as we become performers.  Most importantly this form of “visualization” enables us to “assimilate” behavior or performance.  Big word.  Important word.  What does the word “assimilate” mean?   The dictionary has several definitions; (a – to take in information; to absorb and integrate (b – to diges tand (c – to cause to RESEMBLE.  Wouldn’t you like to RESEMBLE your favorite players and performers?

Perhaps Yogi should have said, “You can assimilate and integrate a lot just by watching.”

WATCH AND NOTE EMOTIONAL PERFORMANCES AS WELL AS PHYSICAL

I recall watching a star Major League player fly out in a crucial situation in the final game of the world series.  I believe it was Kenny Lofton.  I was shocked that he did not (a – scream and throw himself on the ground in despair and begin to have convulsions.  He ran off the field.  It was a revelation; an epiphany.  He was “in control”; win lose or draw.  He was in control of his body and his emotions. 

 Very cool.  I came to realize that this emotional state is what made him such a good player.

MIMIC

My youngest son, at one point in his life, was very enamored with the POWER RANGERS.  I recall one evening where we had three other couples over for dinner and suddenly he appeared (I believe he was about four at the time) completely decked out in his Power Ranger outfit and in front of six strange adults went through the entire martial arts routine of his favorite ranger.

It was great.  There were no flies on him at all.  He WAS  a power ranger; absolutely.

What’s the lesson?  When the feeling is not there, ACT like it is.  Often the feelings will follow (more on that later too)

 CREATE POSITIVE ACTION COMMANDS; BOTH VERBAL AND WRITTEN

My teaching experience has taught me how repetition works.  I am not sure why or how.  I do know that as human beings we do nothing without a thought behind it.  Even our “unconscious” or “subconscious” mind; even though it works very differently than our conscious mind still controls the “systems” of our body; our respiratory system, digestive system, circulatory system, etc. are all controlled by thought.  I have witnessed time and time again examples of how the “declaration” of an action command has an effect on performance. 

I ran a small and subtle experiment a few years ago.  As an instructor I am VERY verbal with students.  I repeat commands for correct mechanical function over and over and over again.  There is absolutely no way that, if a student gets to a certain level with me he has not heard the EXACT SAME verbal command literally hundreds of times; more likely thousands of times.

I started experimenting with my students’ ability to retain information by running a little “fill in the blanks” question and answer session spaced throughout the lessons.  I would say, for example, “Okay, as you step you are to land on the … (fill in the blank; in this case the answer was … “the ball of your foot.”)   Even though students had heard this literally hundreds of time, not one could remember.  I was amazed and so began having them declare the action command out loud themselves.  In this case, “ … as you step you land on the ball of your foot.”

Two things occurred immediately.  Number one: within a few repetitions they remembered the action command.  Secondarily, and more importantly their BODIES responded to the action command with correct execution of the requested skill.

Amazing.

Secondarily I began to give “homework” to my students in the form of WRITING those same action commands.  The attendant results were even more impressive.  It was if by the act of writing the command they were literally drafting an agreement; a contract if you will for their body to fulfill that command. 

Hall of Famer Pete Rose used, “See the ball. Hit the ball.”  My own command when I hit in baseball was, “Attack the inside half of the all.” 

Give your body a short, verbal action command and watch it respond.  It accomplishes several times simultaneously; (a – it gives your body something very specific to do and (b – it excludes all other thought from the playing field; especially negative chatter.  You give your body something to do and it CAN’T do anything else; like think of reasons why it can’t perform.

 Try it. 

GET A TRAINING PARTNER

This is a great way to stay “on course” with your confidence.  If you can afford to spend a LOT of time with your “skills” coach who will keep you on track, that’s great.  That is not always available either “time wise” or financially.  This is a great second or back up plan; a teammate who understands your game and what you are trying to accomplish and can re-direct your energy when you have a problem with correct mechanical execution which, as you have noted, is the ONLY way you can function correctly.  This is not, by the way,  necessarily a “nurturer”; like your mom or someone who will bring you cookies when you skin your knee or get a  a boo boo but is also  not a critic who is motivated by negativisim or their own agenda.  You need to choose someone who is a REALIST and will keep you on track with proper skill execution and self talk.

GET REAL AND UNDERSTAND THAT PERFORMANCE IS A “PROCESS”

Oftentimes confidence is destroyed when we focus on the CONSEQUENCES of our actions rather than the EXECUTION of the skill and our opportunities to adjust and improve.  Athletes and people in all forms of competition inevitably perform better when they are relaxed; when they have spent the necessary time to (one of my favorite words): “habituate” the correct execution of their skill or game so that they can “trust” themselves to play and perform correctly.  This is where true confidence lies.  Once that skill has been executed to the best of our ability on that given day; in that given game … then we need to “let it go” and move on to the next day; the next game by realizing that it is ALL a “process;”  a process incidentally which never ends because there are always new days more games; more opportunities to IMPROVE our confidence and GET BETTER.

The best thing any player can say at the end of a competition is, “I played my best … TODAY.”  That is a goal that is ALWAYS achievable; attainable; a goal which should always inspire confidence.

The process works when we work the process.

“If you are struggling with a performance issue that just isn’t responding to more instruction and hard work, then call me now and let’s fix it. I’ve got a systematic process that takes care of any interference you have to your ultimate performance potential that you have seen short bursts of … and want to see it show up in competition consistently! Call me or email me right now while you’re thinking of it!”

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