3 Do's & 2 don'ts to increase your athletes' confidence

"My athletes lack confidence in the important moments of a game or tournament, can you change that?" might be the most commonly asked question to any mental performance trainer and I totally understand that. A lack of confidence can reduce a star player into a mobile roadblock on the court or render months of hard training completely useless in less than a second. Athletes that don't feel confident are more likely to suffer from anxiety and it can even lead to a loss of self-image. It is therefore really important for both the performance and well-being of the athlete to have confident views on certain sporting situations. A coach can play a significant role in developing confidence in athletes in several ways. First of all, by providing the right situation and information to allow confidence to grow and second, by giving support to the athlete and be a counter to the internal: "you can't do this" voice. In this article, I will give you, the coach, 3 do's and 2 don'ts that will help you develop confidence in your athletes. However, in order for these points to make sense, we need to look at the sport specific definition of confidence because it will provide several important and interesting points. I will be referring to this a few times so try to keep it in the back of your mind:

"A person’s perceived capability to accomplish a certain level of performance" (Bandura, 1977, 1997)

Do 1: Give relevant experience

The first and most important thing every coach should do in order to develop confidence is to provide athletes with relevant experience. Research shows over and over that the best source of confidence is previous experiences, there really isn't anything that can rival it. An athlete that has been in a certain situation before is likely going to feel more confident when they are in the same situation again. Rafael Nadal, the second most successful tennis player ever, put the important of experience for confidence like this:

"Confidence is the most important thing in this sport, and the confidence from winning Wimbledon would make it easier to win the Olympics, too.

It shows that experience is not only important for confidence in the same situation but it translates to different situations as well. As a coach, you can provide relevant experiences in several ways. The most important one, is to create a training environment that resembles competition situations. A great thing that I like to do with my team is to play out scenarios, by putting scores on the board, that resemble game situation we encounter a lot, or (my favourite) game situations we have failed at before. The challenge is to win the scenario and we will keep going until a positive result has been achieved. The power of this is twofold, obviously it helps create positive experience which increase confidence. On top of that, the next time we are in a tight spot in a game I can say: "we have prepared for this. You know what to do!" I have noticed a big change in the way athletes react in those situation because they feel more confident in those situations.


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Don't 1: Approach confidence as one whole characteristic

A common mistake regarding confidence is that it is one complete characteristic, you either have it or you don't and when you lose it, it is gone completely and across all skills and situations. However, if we look at the sport definition of confidence, you can see that it talks about reaching a certain level of performance and this is situation specific. An athlete might feel very confident to take a game winning free-throw, but not to take a game winning 3-point shot. In another case, an athlete might feel confident to perform the first serve of a match at their home court, but not on the road. The danger of not acknowledging the situational character of confidence is that failure or low confidence in one part could influence the overall confidence.

Take this example: a soccer goalie has been struggling with their goal kick in the first half of a game, and this is starting to make him feel unconfident about his performance. As a coach, if you approach confidence as a whole characteristic, you might help this athlete by saying things like: "try not to think about it" or "just let it go", most likely resulting in a further drop in performance in not only the goal kick, but all parts of a goalie's performance. On the other hand, if you approach confidence as a situation specific thing, you might say things like: "the goal kick is only one part of you game" or "you can still do well if you do all the other things well", most likely resulting in a stable performance.

Do 2: Create a confident identity

A second source of confidence that research recognizes is so called vicarious experiences, or seeing people who are similar to you succeed at what you are trying to do. This can be applied in many ways such as watching videos and talking to peers. One application in particular can be useful for coaches is creating a confident team identity. Have you ever noticed that certain teams have a reputation for being confident over long periods of time, even when the individual members of the team have been replaced? A good example of this are the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. There is certain type of confidence that comes from wearing that famous black jersey. Especially the Haka (shown above) which seems to give athletes the strength and power of everyone who ever whore that jersey. If you are able to create an identity like that in your team, you increase the confidence of your athletes. A few ways of doing this are watching previous teams' games, having a set team cheer and showing past performances and trophies but ultimately, it will be up to the coach to find the exact way to create the identity.


Don't 2: Tell someone to just be confident

This might seem obvious but it happens way more than you might think. Remember that confidence a person's perception about themselves. It doesn't matter whether the lack of confidence (or an abundance for that matter) is rational or not. If the athlete feels it, it is real. Now, I trust that no coach would actually say "just be more confident" but the same message can be communicated in less obvious ways. Things like "don't worry about it" or "you will be fine" have an implication build into them that you belief the feeling is not warranted but whether it actually is or not doesn't matter as long as the athlete feels it.

Do 3: Give verbal and non-verbal persuasion

The final way that coaches can influence confidence is through verbal and non-verbal persuasion. What this means is that there are things a coach can say or do that can help athletes feel more confident. The bottom line is simple here, a coach should always show that he or she beliefs the athletes can do what is being asked of them. This might seem easy but it can be a lot harder than you think. When working on this as a coach you should do two things: add positive words and behaviour and avoid negative words and behaviour. The first one is a lot easier than the second. To add positive behaviour means that you say things like: "you/we can do this" or like I mentioned before "you/we have prepared for this". This can be paired with non-verbal behaviour like a shoulder back and head up hight stance.

Avoiding negative behaviour is a lot harder. What I mean with this is best illustrated through a story a colleague told me once. He talked about a time he was attending a youth (13 year-old's) national championship. During a semi-final match a team was up a few points and in with a real shout of winning. A timeout was called and this coach proceeds to tell his team: "Don't panic! We are almost in the final!" The players faces changed, they hadn't realized this was a stressful situation before this. After the timeout, the team proceeds to miss their serve and ultimately lose the match.

When you are coaching, you can never say or show anything that would suggest you do not have confidence in your athletes. Like I mentioned. before, this can be really difficult. My suggestion is to record yourself coaching (both audio and video). This allows you to see and hear what you do and determine what behaviour shows confidence, and what behaviour doesn't. I have done this myself before and it taught me a lot about my own coaching.


If you follow these five tips, you as a coach can help increase the confidence of your athletes. It will not guarantee better performance and some athletes will always have doubts about certain s