This is an excerpt from Mental Training for Ultrarunning by Addie J. Bracy & Addie J. Bracy.
Confidence is one of the most discussed topics in sport psychology, and every athlete wants to know where they can find more of it. Just like any other skill, building confidence and self-belief takes time and effort. And, just like any other skill, it’s something that you can get better at.
Confidence is consistently found to be one of the key predictors of successful performance. If you choose not to dedicate the energy to building self-belief that you can rely on, you’re handicapping yourself before you ever step on the starting line. Fostering self-belief means betting on yourself and approaching a race thinking, “I’m putting all my chips on me.” To do that, you need to gain a better understanding of where you gain confidence and what negatively affects your levels of confidence.
The goal of that exercise was to get you thinking about your previous relationship with confidence and how it has affected performance, positively or negatively, before diving deeper into the research on this topic. Authentic and careful reflection should provide insight into your personal relationship with confidence.
It’s likely not a surprise that good performances almost always correlate with high levels of confidence, while poor performances tend to be associated with low levels of confidence. There are exceptions and examples of athletes who performed well despite not feeling good about their chances of success. However, for the most part, confidence is one of the most accurate predictors of performance.
A research study (Hays et al. 2009) was performed on a sample of world-class performers to uncover the role that confidence plays at the highest level. The study included 14 athletes (7 female, 7 male), each of whom had either medaled in a World Championship, World Cup, or Olympic Games or held a world record in their sport. In other words, they were the best of the best. Each athlete was interviewed and asked questions similar to the ones that you just completed in the last exercise. The goal was to uncover trends and themes in the areas of cognition, affect, and behavior.
The study found a strong correlation between high levels of confidence and effective mental processing such as thinking and problem-solving, or cognition. The athletes were better at concentrating and maintaining focus when they were confident, particularly when the stakes were high. As you might guess, lower levels of confidence typically resulted in more distractions and more mistakes.
The study also found that the athletes experienced more positive affect (feelings, emotions, moods) and derived more enjoyment from competitions when they were confident. One of the interesting parts of this aspect of the study was that the athletes didn’t necessarily say they felt less nervous or anxious when they were confident, they just interpreted those feelings differently. Viewing the performance through a lens of self-belief caused them to perceive precompetition nerves as being a sign of anticipation and excitement rather than a sign of inadequate preparation.
Lastly, athletes with higher levels of confidence engage in more productive behaviors and tend to execute skills and competition strategies more successfully. When you think back to a poor performance you experienced when confidence was low, it was probably riddled with mistakes and poor decision-making. Lack of confidence is a disadvantage you impose on yourself that stands in the way of performing the way you have prepared to, sometimes resulting in even the simplest errors.
I doubt any of these findings are surprising, but they do serve to illustrate that even the best performers in the world are sometimes plagued by the detrimental effects of low confidence. Now that you’ve seen the powerful impact of this mental skill, you’re probably ready to move on to the part where I tell you how to make your confidence bulletproof.