Sports: Building Confidence: Part I

How strong is your confidence "muscle?"

Posted Sep 24, 2010

Let's begin by discussing how you can develop confidence. One mistake that athletes often make is they wait to do mental training until after they've lost confidence. Yet you don't wait to get hurt before you start doing physical training. You don't wait to develop a technical problem before you work on technique. You do them beforehand to prevent the problems. The same thing holds true for building confidence.

Walk the Walk

One thing I've noticed while working with world-class and professional athletes is that they carry themselves a certain way; they move and walk with confidence. A first step in developing confidence is to learn to "walk the walk." How you carry yourself, move, and walk affects what you think and how you feel. If your body is down, your thoughts and feelings will be negative. If your body is up, your thoughts and feelings will be positive. Walking the walk involves moving with your head high, chin up, eyes forward, shoulders back, arms swinging, and a bounce in your step. You look and move like a winner.

In contrast, not walking the walk involves your head, eyes, and shoulders down, feet dragging, and no energy in your step. You look and move like a loser. To give you a feeling of what this is like, try walking the walk and saying negative things about yourself. As you will see, it's difficult to do because your thoughts are inconsistent with what your body is signaling to you. Then try not walking the walk and saying positive things. Again, it's difficult because your thoughts conflict with what your body is doing.

When you walk the walk, not only are you telling yourself that you're confident, but you're also communicating confidence to your opponents. There's nothing more discouraging than to be ahead, but to see an opponent who is positive, fired up, and motivated to keep fighting. There is also nothing more invigorating than to see your opponent looking like they've already lost. By walking the walk, you're not only building your confidence, but you can also hurt your opponent's confidence.

Talk the Talk

You must also learn to "talk the talk." What you say to yourself affects what you think and how you feel. If your talk is negative, your thoughts and feelings will be negative. If your talk is positive, your thoughts and feelings will be positive. It's hard to think and feel negative when you're talking positively. Don't say, "I don't have a chance today." Say, "I'm going to try my hardest today." By talking the talk, you're also being your own best ally. You're showing yourself that your opponents may be against you, but you're on your side.

Conversely, not talking the talk includes "I'm going to perform terribly today" and "I don't have a chance." If you say these things to yourself, you're convincing yourself that you have little chance. With that attitude, you really have no chance because not only is your opponent planning on defeating you, but you're planning on losing to them as well. Even worse, if you talk negatively out loud during a competition, you're basically saying to your opponent that you've already lost.

Balance the Scales

When I work with athletes, I like to chart the number of positive and negative things they say or do during a competition. In most cases, the negatives far outnumber the positives. In an ideal world, I would love to eliminate all negatives and have athletes only express positives. But this is the real world and any athlete who cares about their sport is going to feel and express anger, frustration, and despair occasionally.

In dealing with this reality, you should learn to balance the scales. The immediate goal is to increase the positives. This means rewarding yourself when you perform well. If you beat yourself up over an error, why shouldn't you pat yourself on the back when you get it right. Pump your fist, slap your leg, say, "yes," when you perform well. It will psych you up and make you feel positive and excited.

Once you've balanced the scales by increasing your positives, your next goal is to tip the scales in the positive direction by reducing the negatives. Ask why you're so hard on yourself when you perform poorly. The best athletes in the world don't always perform their best. Why shouldn't it be okay for you to have down periods in your performances?

Also, become aware of your negativity and then do things that counter the negativity. For example, after you make a mistake, instead of dropping your head and saying, "I stink," try bouncing up and down, pumping your fist, and saying, "Come on!"

This step of tipping the scales toward positives is so important because of some recent research that found that negative experiences, such as negative self-talk, body language, and emotions carry more weight than positive experiences. In fact, it takes 12 positive experiences to equal one negative experience. What this means is that for every negative expression you make, whether saying something negative or screaming in frustration, you must express yourself positively 12 times to counteract that one negative expression.


As a well-known psychologist once said, "We become what we think of most of the time." If you're always thinking negatively, then you will likely fail. Another useful technique to reduce your negative thinking and develop your positive thinking is called thought-stopping. This strategy involves replacing your negative self-talk with positive self-talk. List the negative statements you commonly say to yourself when you're practicing and competing. Next, indicate where and in what situations you say the negative things. This will help you become aware of the situations in which you're most likely to be negative. Then, list positive statements with which you can replace them. For example, after a bad day, you might say "I had a horrible competition." Instead, replace that negative statement with something more positive such as "I'll work hard and do better in the next time." The thought-stopping sequence in training or competition goes as follows. When you start to think or say something negative; say "stop" or "positive," then replace it with a positive statement.

Final Thoughts

Remember that how you think, walk, and act are skills. If your scale is tipped heavily to the negative side, you have become very skilled at these negative expressions. Like changing any skill, to get rid of these bad ones, you have to identify better skills, make a commitment to changing them, and practice the positive skills until they're ingrained and automatic.

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