The Confidence Conundrum: Strategies that Really Work for Coaches

Confidence is vital to high-level performance.  When we have athletes who struggle with confidence, we want to help them as quickly as possible.  Telling an athlete who is struggling with their confidence that, “It’s all in your head.” can be very poor advice for several reasons.  Successful performance comes from a combination of factors.  Here are five typical problems along with possible solutions that coaches can use to help build the confidence in a struggling athlete:

1. Problem: Ignoring the Complexity of the Problem:
Confidence struggles happen from a combination of physical, psychological, and environmental factors.  To dismiss it as solely a mental issue may not address the root cause of the struggle.  Injuries, coaching styles, team relationships, and other external factors can often have significant impact on confidence levels.

Solution: Support Your Athlete:  Acknowledge that you genuinely have confidence in them.  Be unwavering in your support and encouragement.  Foster open communication.  Examine factors that might be the root causes for confidence struggles.  Provide a clear roadmap with short-term goals.  Celebrate each small success along the way.
2. Problem: Creating the Perception that the Athlete is Mentally Weak: Implying that the athlete’s confidence struggles are “all in their head” can cause them to conclude they are not mentally tough enough to overcome their challenges.

Solution: Highlight Successes:  Make an intentional effort to catch the athlete doing specific things right.  Give genuine affirmation whenever you can.  Work with the athlete to identify and address specific mental barriers affecting their confidence.  Partner with the athlete to provide tailored strategies for improving mental strength and resilience.


3. Problem: Underestimating the Physical Aspect: Successful athletic performance is closely tied to physical conditioning, skill development, and technique.  Confidence may suffer from lack of physical abilities or performance-related skills.  By telling them it’s all in their head unfairly dismisses these legitimate concerns.

Solution: Focus on Skill Development: Dedicate extra practice to improve their sense of competence in specific areas of their game.  As the athlete’s confidence improves in specific areas of struggle, their overall sense of confidence will also improve.


4. Problem: Neglecting the Impact of Pressure and Stress:
Competitive sports come with immense pressure and expectations, which can affect an athlete’s confidence. Ignoring these stressors can lead to increased performance anxiety, unproductive pressure, and external expectations. These are very real factors that athletes must contend with.

Solution: Mental Skills Training: Every coach should work to effectively teach useful mental training skills to their athletes.  Teaching athletes how to manage anxiety, maintain focus, visualize, and mentally reset for the “Next Play” are important mental skills that can build mental resilience and confidence.


5. Problem: Oversimplifying Solutions: Telling an athlete that it’s all in their head leaves them with a poor solution to a complex problem. Confidence issues come from multiple factors including physical conditioning, skill improvement, mental skills ability, and emotional pressure from external sources.  Each of these factors must be examined and taken seriously.

Solution: Clearly Acknowledge and Commit to Help:  By simply saying that it’s all in your head, you quickly convey the message that you really don’t want to take the time to help your athlete.  This kind of message will easily escalate into additional problems and issues. Take the time to help the athlete unpack what is really happening.

Remember that regaining confidence is a gradual process, and individual athletes may respond differently to various forms of support. Be consistent, present and supportive. Athletes need to know that their support system is reliable. Consistency in encouragement builds trust and contributes to a stable foundation for confidence. Tailor your approach based on the athlete's personality, needs, and preferences, and always maintain open communication to understand their concerns and aspirations.

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