The Power of Prime

The cluttered mind uncluttered

Sports: Building Confidence: Part II

Breaking the negativity habit in sports.

Negative thinking that hurts confidence can become a bad habit. Bad confidence habits are just like bad technical habits; the more you practice them, the more ingrained they become and the better you get at being negative. And that negativity is what will come out in competition. Also like a bad technical habit, negative thinking can be retrained with awareness, control, and repetition. The goal is to engage in enough positive-thinking practice that a new mental habit of positive thinking becomes embedded in your mind and replaces the negative thinking. There are several mental strategies you can use to help yourself get that much-needed positive practice.

Athlete's Litany

The Athlete's Litany is a group of statements used to teach positive thinking and increase confidence. The litany retrains the bad habit of negativity into a good skill of positive thinking. As with any kind of habit, the only way to correct negative thinking is to practice being positive over and over and over again. The litany is like a practice drill in which you're focusing on learning good technical skills. The litany provides the necessary repetition to instill positive thinking skills. Here's an example of a litany that I use with athletes:

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  • I love to train and compete.
  • I am committed to giving my best effort in everything I do.
  • I think and talk positively.
  • I give 100% focus and intensity when I practice and compete.
  • If I focus on performing my best rather than on winning or losing, I will succeed.

A comment I often get from athletes when they start using the litany is that they don't believe what they're saying. This is just like the practice drill in which you're trying to make a technical correction. In a sense, their muscles don't "believe" the new skill either. With sufficient repetition, though, the new skill is learned and their muscles come to "believe" it. The same holds true for the positive self-statements. By repeating the litany enough times, you will start believing it. Just like the improved technique, when you get into a competitive situation, the new skill of positive thinking will emerge and it will improve your performances.

The important thing about the Athlete's Litany is not only to say it, but to say it like you mean it. For example, I could say "I love to train and compete," but I may not sound very convincing. If I say it like I mean it, with energy and enthusiasm, then I'm more likely to start believing what I'm saying. Saying the litany with conviction also generates positive emotions and physical feelings that will reinforce its positive message.

A great thing about the Athlete's Litany is that you can personalize it to your needs. Create your own litany of positive self-statements that means something to you. Then, say the litany out loud every morning and every night. Also, say the litany before you train and compete.

Keywords

Another useful way to develop your confidence is to use keywords which remind you to be positive and confident. Make a list of words or phrases that make you feel positive and good, for example, believe, positive, strive, or yes I can. Then, write them on your equipment where they're visible during practice and competitions. Also, put keywords in noticeable places where you live such as in your bedroom, on your refrigerator door, or in your locker. When you look at a keyword, say it to yourself. Just like the Athlete's Litany, every time you see it, it will sink in further until you truly believe it.

Use Negative Thinking Positively

Even though I very much emphasize being positive at all times, the fact is, you can't always be. You don't always perform as well as you want and there is going to be some negative thinking. This awareness was brought home to me by a group of highly-ranked junior athletes I worked with not long ago. During a training camp, I was constantly emphasizing being positive and not being negative. One night at dinner, several of the athletes came up to me and said that sometimes things do just stink and you can't be positive. I realized that some negative thinking is normal when you don't perform well and some negative thinking is healthy. It means you care about performing poorly and want to do better. Negative thinking can be motivating as well because it's no fun to perform poorly and lose. I got to thinking about how athletes could use negative thinking in a positive way. I came up with an important distinction that will determine whether negative thinking helps or hurts how you perform.

There are two types of negative thinking: give-up negative thinking and fire-up negative thinking. Give-up negative thinking involves feelings of loss and despair and helplessness, for example, "It's over. I can't win this." You dwell on past mistakes and failures. It lowers your motivation and confidence, and it takes your focus away from performing your best. Your intensity also drops because basically you're surrendering and accepting defeat. There is never a place in sports for give-up negative thinking.

In contrast, fire-up negative thinking involves feelings of anger and energy, of being psyched up, for example, "I'm doing so badly. I hate performing this way" (said with anger and intensity). You look to doing better in the future because you hate performing poorly. Fire-up negative thinking increases your motivation to fight and turn things around. Your physical intensity goes up and you're bursting with energy. Your focus is on being aggressive and defeating your opponent.

Fire-up negative thinking can be a positive way to turn your performance around. if you're going to be negative, make sure you use fire-up negative thinking. But don't use it too much. Negative thinking and negative emotions require a lot of energy and that energy should be put in a more positive direction for your training and competitions. Also, it doesn't feel very good to be angry all of the time.

Confidence Challenge

The real test of confidence is how you respond when things are not going your way. I call this the Confidence Challenge. It's easy to stay confident when you're performing well, when the conditions are ideal, and when you're competing against someone whom you're better than. But an inevitable part of sports is that you'll have some down periods. What separates the best from the rest is that the best athletes are able to maintain their confidence when they're not at the top of their games. By staying confident, they continue to work hard rather than give up because they know that, in time, their performance will come around.

Most athletes when they perform poorly lose their confidence and get caught in the vicious cycle of low confidence and performance. Once they slip into that downward spiral, they rarely can get out of it. In contrast, athletes with real confidence maintain their confidence and seek out ways to return to their previous level. All athletes will go through periods where they don't perform well. The challenge is not getting caught in the vicious cycle and being able to get out of the down periods quickly.

The Confidence Challenge can be thought of as a skill that can be developed. Learning to respond positively to the Confidence Challenge comes from exposing yourself to demanding situations, difficult conditions, and tough opponents in training and competition and practicing positive responses.

There are several key aspects of mastering the Confidence Challenge. First, you need to develop the attitude that demanding situations are challenges to be sought out rather than threats to be avoided. When you're faced with a Confidence Challenge you must see it as an opportunity to become a better athlete. You also need to believe that experiencing challenges is a necessary part of becoming the best athlete you can be. You have to realize that, at first, these challenges are going to be uncomfortable because they are difficult and unfamiliar, but, in time, you will gain familiarity and comfort with them.

Here are some simple rules to follow to meet the Confidence Challenge:

  • Seek out every possible challenge in training and competition.
  • Be well-prepared to meet the challenges.
  • Stay positive and motivated in the face of the difficulties.
  • Focus on what you need to do to overcome the challenges.
  • Accept that you'll make mistakes and may not fully succeed immediately.
  • See challenges as experiences you can learn from to improve in the future. 
  • Never, ever give up!

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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