“I need to believe.”
There was an edge to her voice that concerned me. This athlete was bound for the Olympic Trials. Her personal best was second to only one other in the race. Yet, she felt tormented by doubt. We looked at the facts: her race results were the most impressive they’d ever been. She was strong due to training for a marathon earlier that year. She was faster in her speed work than ever before. She’d been adhering to strict rest and nutrition guidelines. On paper she had never been more prepared. Yet, she pleaded with a desperate energy, “I need to believe.”
Overwhelmingly, when I ask athletes “who do you want to be?” when competing, their response is “confident.” Dictionaries define confidence as “having strong belief, full assurance, sure of oneself.” Confidence is certainty.
Certainly, research attests that reports of feeling confident have been shown to contribute to quality performance. Successful athletes often appear to emanate confidence, exhibiting relaxed smiles, dynamic poses, and cool expressions.
WHAT EXACTLY IS CONFIDENCE?
The vast majority of athletes who tell me that they wish to be confident are speaking of it’s emotional interpretation. They want to feel confident. Basically, they wish for the calmness that comes with certainty. Sometimes we’re graced with this sort of peace. We step to a start line secure in ourselves, and feel assured that the outcome will be fulfilling.
You will notice the many times I used the word “feel” in the preceding paragraph. There are few resources less reliable than feelings. Our emotional experience is subject to an incredibly wide range of influences: sleep, diet, past life events, hormonal cycles, social stimuli and more combine and combust to comprise our emotional climate. Careful reflection and planning can increase the chances that we will experience an optimal emotional elixir prior to important performances, but to rely on this is akin to relying on the weather. We have all raced in the rain despite a sunny forecast.
The first point to clarify is that the emotion of confidence does not carry inherent within it greater abilities. Rather, confidence makes it easier for the mind to focus in an optimal way. Confidence is calm and pleasant – free from threat. In this state the mind is free to place one hundred percent attention on the task at hand1. We fool ourselves into thinking that the emotion of confidence is what we are seeking, when it is the focus confidence allows which enables our best.
I cannot stress enough the importance of having our attention on the task at hand when we wish to perform well. Science suggests that our brains are capable of processing one hundred and twenty bits of information in any given moment2. When we are confident (free of threat) this mental capacity is open all task relevant stimuli in the environment: the runner ahead or behind you, the footing, your effort, your race plan, any and all possibilities that serve your performance.
Competition is a minefield of distraction. It can be a place where athletes perceive that the hours, days, and years of training are justified, or identity is defined. Both threat and opportunity abound. During competition in particular athletes walk the finest of lines between the two. One breath of stress or fear can sound mental alarm bells, prompting an instinctive search for danger to the body or belonging. Danger is a shape-shifter, taking on innumerable forms. It can look like a competitor, a hill, a time, a ranking, an injury, or a loved one you mustn’t disappoint. An athlete’s sense of self can feel at risk. Attention placed on any of these perceived threats is withdrawn from the task at hand. Additionally, physiological and psychological responses to the threat response can compromise performance.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO PRODUCE RELIABLE CONFIDENCE?
I believe we can influence both the emotion of confidence, and the focus it enables with four strategies: we can strengthen our ability to direct and sustain attention; we can reflect on why we are prepared for the challenge at hand; we can broaden our definition of success; we can open our minds to the purpose and nature of sport.
When we realize that one hundred percent focus on the task at hand is what contributes to performance we can take steps to strengthen our powers of attention. Focus is trainable. Begin by envisioning who you would like to be as an athlete, and search your best performances for words that describe you during these events. Ask yourself, what do I need to be focused on (the morning of a race, while warming up, immediately prior to the start, and throughout the race) in order to “be” that person I want to be, or who I have already been at my best? Write down your responses.
Then, in advance of your next workout or race, commit to remaining focused in the direction you have chosen. Maintaining your new focus might be extremely difficult. It’s possible that your mind is in the habit of wandering in unhelpful directions. Hold on to your new focus with conviction. The act of doing so will begin new thought habits, which will become easier with time. In order to strengthen an optimal focus you must practice it while training. You must not relinquish your new focus when maintaining it is difficult. Doing so delays the development and reliability of your new focus, and maintains the strength of your old one. Regularly review the effectiveness of your choice of focus and revise as needed. Sometimes several different focal points are experimented with before the best one is found.
I also strongly recommend mindfulness meditation for the purpose of strengthening one’s attention. Although outside the scope of this article, the benefits of this practice are expansive.
You might recall that the athlete I introduced to you at the beginning of this article was not assured by reviewing how well prepared she was. However, some athletes are greatly comforted by this form of reflection. The exercise is simple: look back over the months (perhaps years) during which you have been preparing for the race in question. Ask yourself, why am I ready? Perhaps you have diligently completed all the workouts that your coach gave you; or, you have had numerous successful races prior to this one; or, despite injury you cross-trained effectively and therefore should be fit. The options from which to draw in order to convince yourself you are ready are limitless. The habit of keeping a training journal can support this form of reflection.
BROADEN YOUR DEFINITION OF SUCCESS
When I ask athletes to describe who they want to be, or who they have been at their best they frequently ask, “in or outside of sport?” I leave it up to them: “whatever brings out the best in you when your best is hard to come by,” I respond. However, when it comes to broadening your definition of success, I suggest that you begin by asking yourself who you want to be in terms that transcend sport. By doing so, your opportunities for overall progress as a human being expand. For example, perhaps you are someone for whom gratitude is an essential value. Regardless of how fast you run on a given day you can practice gratitude for the opportunity to train. Or, maybe you’re someone for whom a competitive spirit is integral. Whether you’re having a great race or a poor one you can usually find someone near you with which to be competitive. As I’m about to elucidate, sport is inherently unpredictable. Basing our personal success on results and race times narrows our options by which to be successful. Conversely, broadening our definition of success to include qualities of character, or aspects of performance aside from speed make success feel more certain – thus cultivating the emotion of confidence.
THE NATURE OF SPORT
Athletes are complicated creatures. When asked, many of us claim to take part in sport because of its inherent challenge, and the opportunity to stretch our abilities. We claim to seek competition for the same reason. Challenge and competition, in order to fully fulfill their definitions these concepts themselves must include uncertainty. Anything that involves zero risk of failure cannot be called a challenge, or a true competition. Therefore, when we choose to partake in sport we sign up for uncertainty. The emotion of confidence is the feeling of being sure of an outcome. As such (when narrowly defined as certainty of an outcome in a competitive arena), true confidence is impossible, and antithetical to the nature of sport. If we can accept that a part of us craves the risky and uncertain, which is precisely what sport is designed to bring, perhaps we would not seek confidence so desperately.
I hope that this article has clarified the elusive emotion that is confidence. I wish for you the discovery of optimal directions for your attention, and the resolve to practice them. I hope that reflection on your preparedness comforts you prior to meaningful challenges. Finally, may you embrace sport for its true, uncertain nature, and with an openness to many definitions of success.
Rotella, B. (2007). Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect. Simon and Sheuster.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow. New York: Harper & Row.
Special thanks to Shannon Thompson for contributing this guest post.
About the author: Shannon Thompson is a Mental Performance Consultant based out of Hypo2 Sport High Performance Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. Shannon holds a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, her primary clientele are elite endurance athletes, and student athletes from numerous sports at Northern Arizona University. Shannon is also a researcher, focusing specifically on understanding and helping athletes to optimize the moments of highest exertion in training and competition. She is also a competitive runner on the road and trail.
Recommended Additional Reading: The Flow State: The Science of Running in “The Zone”
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