The Problem With “Confidence”

Confidence is at the back bone of high performance. This being said the labeling and diagnosing of athletes in need of help with confidence seems a bit short-sighted. Being quick to suggest an athlete needs more confidence runs the risk of both missing the heart of the matter and serving up insult.

  • The prep school lacrosse player that dresses with the varsity team, believes he can run with the starting line, but bumbles and stumbles a bit when given some spot starts against tough competition. In need of confidence… or skills to manage performance stress?
  • The equestrian competitor, full of passion and just beginning her competitive career, that struggles with “What if…” statements bouncing through her head on show day. In need of confidence… or short on experience and self-awareness?
  • The wrestler that is inconsistent on the mat despite loads of talent and a decade plus of experience. In need of confidence… or more optimal goal-orientation and focus?

All of the above athletes walked into my office having been “diagnosed” by a coach, parent, or self as having problems with confidence. A bit more precision (and accuracy) helps get at the heart of the matter and improve performance. Furthermore, have you ever seen a high-school, collegiate, or young professional athlete’s reaction when labeled with low-confidence? It’s often one of disbelief and disregard. It’s a bit insulting for striving athlete, one that often identifies him or herself with toughness, to be called low on confidence regardless of the statement’s veracity.

“Confidence” (or sports self-efficacy a term I like better) is a multi-faceted and multi-layered phenomenon. When using it as a label be wary of the limits of the term’s precision. Furthermore, when challenging a player’s confidence (whether with the best intentions or not) think about how confidence claims shape the dialogue with the athlete. Developing the mental game requires an open minded athlete and efficient approach to cognitive-behavioral growth. When considering “confidence,” step back and consider the best way forward.

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