Archive for December, 2011

Athletes and Confidence: The Uncle Nobody Talks About

Friday, December 30th, 2011


Confidence is a hot topic in a coach or athlete’s world and something we intimately associate with both our success and our stumbles in life.

ConfidenceOften our greatest moments are attributed to our unshakable confidence in the face of competition, our belief in ourselves and the focus in our preparation and performance. Our domination and drive is celebrated and we become the self-appointed poster child for success.

On the flip side, when we stumble, our confidence is the first to feel the emotional bruises and cop the full brunt of the blame. ‘I didn’t feel confident’ or ‘I wasn’t confident in my skills I had prepared’ – and even ‘I didn’t have the confidence in my coaches choices for the routine or play.’

So clearly our confidence is a vital aspect of our behaviour and therefore our performance. It is something to be managed just as pragmatically as our physical fitness, technical skill-set and diet.

However, some coaches and athletes treat the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde  ‘confidence’ like the uncle no one talks about, hiding it away – viewing the psychology of confidence as a taboo subject, thinking if they don’t mention the word ‘confidence’ then it won’t break, fall down or behave inappropriately!

The truth is confidence is not a fragile or embarrassing entity to be tip-toed around – it is a system.

Confidence is simply a replicable pattern of specific neurological triggers and chemical stimulants in our bodies. It is robust and predictable. Being aware of this allows us to harness it and maximise on it for our own ultimate good.

And for this reason it deserves our full attention and respect!

In my experience, performance confidence issues are merely a lack of, or a stalling of, the positive forward momentum of recognition process.

What I mean by this very long term is – our confidence and motivation (intimately linked) is fuelled by consistent, periodic injections of acknowledgment and recognition of success – it needs to be fed in order to survive.

Like eating healthy foods, the results are not instant but gradual and cumulative. Like all sustainability – little and often is the key ingredient here for behavioural endurance.

I liken this to the frog jumping across the pond from one bank to another. In order to succeed the frog must select the path and hop from one Lilly pad to the next. This frog is unlikely to succeed by bounding all the way across in one leap, and with a couple of failed attempts may perhaps give up and settle for one side of the bank, believing it cannot reach it’s objective.

Each and every time we succeed at something (our lilly pads) – no matter how small – we are neurologically rewarded for our effort. We are rewarded with generous doses of serotonin and dopamine – this unique concoction of naturally-derived happy drugs are supplied to us by our own bodies as recognition and reward for achievement. This makes the successful action pleasurable, memorable and sustainable.

Serotonin and Dopamine, like many other natural chemicals are highly stimulating and exceptionally addictive. Our brain likes this reward system we have created and wants more and more of it, so urges and nudges us forward to the next success and reward point – eagerly waiting for the next hit. This forms a natural foundation for forward momentum.

Whilst it is our subconscious brains that have the higher understanding of what we are actually capable of – it is our conscious filtration system that normally ‘plays it safe’ and pulls us back into a conservative line. It is our conscious mind that also focuses on the failures rather than the successes, turning our attention to what we have NOT achieved rather than what we have achieved.

We know we get what we focus on – so if we continuously focus on our lack of success then our perception will be that we continue to fail more frequently, stemming the flow of rewards and thus killing off our motivation to succeed – and thus actually succeeding more infrequently.

If I asked you to turn up for work every day for the next 5-10 years and give 100% but you would never be paid or recognised for your effort how long could you sustain your motivation? If we do not recognise and reward our internal successes then we too tune out and have no reason to excel.

This natural reward high feeds our confidence, and sometimes fools our conscious mind into thinking we could, and should, take on more and more challenging tasks to gain the higher reward.

Many top athletes speak of being caught up in the moment, feeling un-stoppable and almost superhuman when at their peak. The reward driven highs becoming ‘the norm’ and a constant flooding of neural stimulants keeps them there.

(This is also part of the reason why retiring athletes struggle to maintain the stimulation in their life after sport – but that is a whole other topic we will cover in another post!)

Where the wheels fall off this neurological and emotional system is if we STOP or lose this positive forward momentum of natural rewards.

If we stop acknowledging our successes, we begin to suffer withdrawal from our happier days – like a drug addict without the next fix this begins to reinforce our subconscious doubts over our ability to ever again ‘score’ or succeed and be rewarded. The next logical step eludes us as we lose direction, focus and perspective.

The longer this period of time where our reward cravings are not met the bigger the desire is to have that ‘hit’ and the more important that next success becomes. All this does is increase our anxiety levels and feeds the emotional monster who has been focused on our failures.

This emotional cloud distorts our skill-set, our cognitive clarity and our perception in our ability to succeed.

And so a perpetual cycle of perceived failure is born – we have all witnessed it and maybe even lived it.

Breaking this slippery downward cycle and restoring forward upward momentum is a systematic process – just as the creation of the focused problem was in the first place.

After all, our confidence is fuelled by our success, acknowledgment and our neural-reward! And as this feeds the motivation engine, the strategy is simple:

1. Start setting small achievable goals, acknowledging them along the way, outwardly celebrating them and focusing on the success of what you did achieve not what eluded you.

2. Reward yourself again and again – it gains traction in the motivation game, like stoking the fire of a steam engine the more fuel you put in the better the results that come out.

Rewards do not have to be tangible, so set aside those flat screen TVs for now and focus on internal recognition, acknowledging yourself for your achievements in your session, day, week, season objective.

Begin a performance journal to enable you to follow your journey of achievement and see the patterns of success you create and duly reward them.

Confidence really is just an emotional measure of success and once we understand and respect that it can only serve us in our grander objectives.