"Confidence is simply that spiritual space where you feel free to focus on only those things you can control.” - Jerry Lynch, The Way of a Champion
When I was a younger athlete, I believed that my accomplishments would lead to confidence. That if I did this or accomplished that, I’d walk around with confidence all the time. I remember looking at college athletes, and later, Olympic athletes and thinking, “Wow, they must never doubt themselves or get nervous in a game. They must not mess up during a play they’ve done correctly 1,000 times in practice.” I assumed that if you were ‘that good’ or had accomplished ‘that much’ you were past having to struggle with confidence.
But it’s not that way at all.
What I’ve learned from playing with and against some of the best players in the world, and also from being around multiple high-level athletes from several Olympic sports, is that your confidence will always be tested. There will never be a point when you’ll ‘arrive’ and have it all figured out. One of the beautiful things about sports is that you’re constantly going through ups and downs of a season or a game, and every day you have opportunities to choose how to respond to all types of situations, good or bad.
I’ve learned that when you train your brain in a way that helps you cultivate confidence, the challenges you face become really fun, and your successful experiences become even richer. The cool part is that your brain is a muscle and you can train it like any other muscle in your body – If you want to build confidence, you can do it with intention, repetition, and with a relentless approach, because change is never easy.
In the end, confidence isn’t something that happens to us, it’s something we choose to invest in.
Here are a few ways that have helped me train myself to play with more confidence.
As Ariana Kukors said in the Finding Mastery podcast, “I’m not a swimmer. I’m a person that swims.”
When you’ve experienced success in athletics, it’s common to feel that how well you’re performing in your sport defines who you are. I don’t believe this is true. You are not defined by success or failure; winning doesn’t make you a better person and losing certainly doesn’t make you any less of a person. Who you are is defined by what you value, what you stand for, and how you choose to react, whether you’re enjoying success or enduring failure.
Clarifying who you are as a person and an athlete will strengthen your ability to stay grounded when the pressure to perform in your sport feels overwhelming.
Try this: Take a few minutes to articulate what makes you you. List the things you value, write down what you stand for, and keep that list handy so you can change it and refer back to it periodically.
The more I choose to act in line with my values and what I stand for, the stronger my conviction that I can do what I set out to do. For example, I highly value courage. Every time I get nervous about a situation or have anxiety over something I can’t control, I try to take a few minutes to ground myself and look at what possible ways I can constructively react to the circumstance. It’s easy to run away from tough situations or make excuses to react poorly, but if I value courage then I will face the situation head-on.
Even if it’s a small trial, the more I choose to act in line with my values, the more convicted I become in who I am, and thus my confidence grows.
Choose who you want to become, and work every day to live into that choice.
As athletes, we have to be prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally to compete at our highest level. Study tape, talk with your coaches, and figure out where you need to put your energy that day, that week, and that season to help your team. Once you have a plan, dive in.
And while the work itself is important, it’s also important that before, during, and after you do that work to improve—whether it’s through a workout, tutoring a technical skill, or visualizing—you take a few minutes to give credit to yourself.
Take time to realize and process that your hard work will help you be the best you can be when it’s game time. Make simple statements to yourself like “I’ll be ready”, or “I got this.” Having this self-talk will go a long way in preparing your mind for competition, and what gives these statements life and substance is all the preparation that goes into them. Affirmations are self-direction, not self-deception. Try this: Do the physical work, but also get your mind right for success by offering affirmations to yourself on a daily basis.
It’s easy to sometimes feel as if you’re not just playing poorly, but that you’re also ‘the worst setter in the world’ or ‘the worst free throw shooter in the world’ or ‘the worst’ something in the world. On top of that, it’s easy to think that if you were only stronger and more confident you wouldn’t worry about what your coach thought or become distracted by what your teammates think of you after making a mistake. Getting down on yourself will only compound the confidence problem.
I find it helpful to research an athlete I admire by reading a book about them or watching a YouTube interview to learn about them outside the “perfect”, confident athlete they outwardly present.
In doing so, I’m quickly reminded that anybody who’s ever been successful has gone through hard times. Sometimes really hard times. But the reason these athletes have continued to succeed is not because they’re immune to failure altogether, it’s because of the way they positively respond to that failure.
If you’re reading this article, you’re already making an effort to be the best you can be. You’re already working to learn, grow, and (as I like to say) fight the good fight. Now if you act on this article, you’ll be even farther along.
Try this: When you’re in the dumps, research someone you look up to and remind yourself that it’s normal to experience struggles. Take a few deep breaths, make a plan, and keep charging.
Get your mind right by embracing the inevitable ups and downs of a match. You are setting yourself up for a confidence meltdown if you let every little bump and bruise get to you. Recognize that you’re in control of your response and that responding well is the real key to building confidence, improving, and moving forward.
One of my favorite things coach Karch Kiraly (USA Volleyball Head Coach) taught me is that it’s helpful to look at a game as an experience rather than as a performance. He also says that expectations are the killer of happiness. I’ve found that to be very true. No matter who we’re playing, if we embrace the game as an experience rather than allowing the mental pressure of a performance to overwhelm us, we end up enjoying the game more, and performing closer to our greatest potential.
The idea of wanting to soak up every possible feeling from a game is a powerful mindset; it helps you to stay present and level-headed during the highs and the lows. Just using the word “experience” in place of “performance” brings a lightness to the game, and alleviates the additional pressure.
Confidence is a mindset, it’s not a destination. When you’re finishing up a tough week, or leaving a disappointing game, or generally not feeling confident in yourself, remember that every athlete that’s ever been great has been there before. How you experience these challenges is up to you. And the more you train yourself to respond in line with your values, the richer your experience will be.
Be intentional about who you want to be, be relentless in fighting the good fight, and when things get tough, take a breath and keep charging.