How to Build Confidence as a Young Athlete, by James Leath
First of all, let’s decide something right now. You are not competing with anyone else, ever again. Starting now, your primary strategy is to make everyone else around you play at your level. You won’t make excuses; you’ll cause others to make them. You won’t play down to an opponent’s level; it’s up to them to play at yours. You won’t stop until the final whistle blows; you’ll go all out until the time runs out. If you can commit to that mentality, in practice and in competition, please keep reading.
I want to talk to you about building confidence. The definition of Confidence is the feeling you have when you prepare to win. Confidence is knowing you are prepared to compete to the best of your ability. Confidence means if anyone is going to beat you, they will be in for the fight of their life.
Confidence is not arrogance. Arrogance is an exaggerated belief in one’s ability to perform. Don’t be arrogant. In the movies, the arrogant guy always has a short career because his mouth and lack of preparation writes a check his body can’t cash. Like the fourth firecracker in a 4th of July finale, he was loud and bright for a moment but… what was his name again?
How do you build confidence? One word: Daily. When you show up to practice early, when you do drills all out, and when you stay after to do a little extra, your skills improve. With improvement comes better performance. When you perform well, you become more confident and take more risks. When you take risks, some of them fail, but some of them succeed. This cycle continues, all the while building up your confidence bank and increasing the belief in yourself that you are improving. I call it a bank because you get to spend that confidence on the unlucky sap across from you who did not prepare as well as you did.
The Olympics have a saying, “Not every four years, every day.” Confidence is the byproduct of constant intentional improvement. There is no such thing as a perfect practice, but you can give a perfect effort. A few days of perfect effort (eating healthy, resting adequately, and spending energy wisely) will give you a sense of confidence that will affect how much you trust yourself on the court, field, track, mat, or in the pool.
Like I said before, when you have confidence, you take risks. Do not be afraid of taking risks. In fact, fear is the number one way to deplete confidence in yourself or an opponent. When you are fearful, there is no room in your brain for confidence. Confidence is the absence of fear. Fear is removed by committing to and following through with proper preparation.
In After Earth (2013), Will Smith’s character says this about fear:
“Fear is not real.
The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future.
It is a product of our imagination causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity.
Now do not misunderstand me. Danger is very real.
But fear is a choice. We are all telling ourselves a story.”
A former coach of mine used to say, “Fear stands for Future Events Already Realized.” A confident athlete lives in this moment, right now. When a pitcher is asked to throw a fastball in the lower left corner, it doesn’t matter if it’s at practice, in a preseason game, or in the final inning of the championship game. The mechanics are exactly the same. Nothing has changed except who is watching. A confident pitcher will take that situation and throw that strike perfectly. What happens next is unknown – you can deal with that when it happens. Besides, you prepared for it in practice, right?
Confidence comes from taking responsibility for the only three things you can control as an athlete: your preparation, your effort, and your attitude. That’s it. Outside of those three things you do not have much say. Confidence is a frame of mind that comes from proper preparation and through the use of some simple tools. I am happy to share these tools with any young athlete who cares to learn. Fortunately for you, many young athletes believe they know it all, so if you decide to step up your game and use these tools you will have the mental edge. Professional athletes use these types of tools to build unshakable confidence and find immeasurable enjoyment in their sport.
- Goals: Set Process Goals.
An outcome goal measures what happens at the end. Once you get to an outcome goal there is nothing left to do. An outcome goal is built on process goals. A process goal is a goal that you can work on every day. It’s measurable and if it’s not working out or improving your game as much as you had hoped, you can modify the goal. For a basketball player it would be something like, “Stay after practice and don’t go home until I hit 7 out of 10 free throws.” Maybe you are a softball player and your goal at the batting cage is to, “Hit three balls to the left and three balls to the right in 10 pitches.” Write these goals down, talk to your coach about it, and ask for feedback.
- Rituals: Create a Mistake Recovery Ritual.
You will make mistakes. All athletes make mistakes. If you never make a mistake you are not trying hard enough. The difference between the good athletes and the great ones is the amount of time it takes them to get over that mistake. The great ones exude confidence and take risks and some of those risks end up in failure. Create a mistake recovery ritual. A baseball player I work with makes a mistake on the field and literally holds his hand out, flushes a make-believe toilet, and then moves on. This is silly, yes, but it always puts a smile on his face, and the mistake is gone and he has moved on. I know a basketball player who, after he misses a shot he pretends to wash his hands of the missed shot, if the other team makes the rebound (one of his process goals is to always follow the shot to get the rebound so he can shoot again). Do this physical recovery ritual in practice and let it help you keep your confidence high in competition. You have to practice it or you won’t remember it in the game.
- Create a confidence journal.
There is an old story about two monks walking along a river, one old and one young. One of their sacred vows included never touching a woman. An old woman appears and requests assistance to cross the river. To the surprise of the young monk, the old monk smiles, picks her up, and carries her across the river. He sets her down, nods his head, and then continues his journey. After a few miles the young monk cannot hold his tongue any longer. “You carried that woman and we are not suppose to touch women,” said the young monk. “Yes, my son. That is true,” the old monk responded. “I carried that woman, then put her down. You, however, have carried her this whole time.” The point of the story is that when we make a mistake we must not dwell on that mistake. Our brains want to remember what we did wrong because it wants to protect us. However, this means we forget about what we did right.
Get a small journal (I use the moleskin cashier journals) and after every practice write down three things you did good, or a positive moment you want to remember. I call it a confidence journal because it reminds you of the work you have put in and when you get to that competition you can pull it out and “prime the pump” of confidence. You did the work, you are ready for this moment, and it is okay that you may need to be reminded.
Confidence does not happen without being intentional about your improvement. Use these strategies and other mental toughness tools to build up your confidence to perform at your best ability. Remember the commitment you made at the beginning of this article, “You are not competing with anyone else, ever again. Starting now your primary strategy is to make everyone else around you play at your level. You won’t make excuses; you’ll cause others to make them. You won’t play down to an opponent’s level, it’s up to them to play at yours. You won’t stop until the final whistle blows, you’ll go all out until the time runs out.” Now it’s your turn…GO!
James Leath is a mental toughness coach with over 20 years experience coaching young athletes. He writes a weekly note to athletes, coaches and parents on subjects that pertain to sport psychology, youth sports, and personal development. He is currently finishing his masters of Performance Psychology and lives in San Luis Obispo, CA. You can sign-up for his weekly note here, find him on twitter at @jamesleath or visit his website jamesleath.com.