By Ken Reed

As an athlete, coach and sports fan, I’ve long been enamored with the subject of confidence in sports. More specifically, how you get it and maintain it. I’ve also been equally enamored with the phenomenon of choking in the sports arena.

Why do our minds sometimes sabotage our efforts to perform well by feeding us self-doubt and the fear of failure?

I completely empathize with athletes that are choking. I’ve been there and know that awful feeling. Similarly, I admire athletes who are performing in high pressure situations with a high level of confidence. I’ve felt that empowering feeling of self-belief too, albeit not as often as I would’ve liked, unfortunately.

Choking and confidence both lie in the realm of sports psychology. They are two sides of the same coin.

Choking is a universal phenomenon in athletics. Yes, at some point, even Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods choked. Their self-doubts and fear of failure overcame their positive memories of success, their muscles tightened up and that tightness negatively impacted their performance. They choked and failed in those moments.

The goal for all athletes, even the very best, is to choke less and play confidently more often. Figuring out how to do that consistently is the big challenge.

I think sports psychology is still very much in its embryonic stage. Compared to sports physiology and physical training in sports, sports psychology and mental training is miles behind. That said, it’s true there are a lot more sports psychology books and videos on the market today than there were 5-10 years ago. Be that as it may, have we really broken any new ground in helping athletes choke less and feel confident more often? I don’t think so.

“Confidence is built by being very selective in how you manage your memories (not dwelling on past failures), how you talk to yourself in the present, and how you think about your future,” says Nate Zinsser, director of the performance-psychology program at West Point and author of The Confident Mind.

Almost every sports psychologist touts positive thinking and visualization as key tools for building confidence. Sit quietly in a dark room, close your eyes and visualize yourself doing great things on the playing field, track or in the swimming pool. See yourself, or your team, winning and celebrating. Then walk out of the room filled with confidence! I don’t buy it.

Sure, thinking positively about your upcoming performance is better than thinking negatively, but I don’t think your mind is fooled by trying to manufacture positive thoughts about sports performance.

The reality is, our minds — more accurately, our ego-minds — are concerned with preventing us from looking like fools and embarrassing ourselves. The ego is screaming in our heads “Don’t fail or you’ll be seen as a loser and others will think less of you.” The ego wants to protect our public image — or at least, what we think, or hope, is our public image. Visualizing make-believe scenarios in which you compete at a high-level, don’t make any mistakes and win doesn’t do much to persuade the ego to not send messages of self-doubt. The ego understands reality. And those visualizations aren’t real. The messages of self-doubt lead to jolts of anxiety throughout our bodies and tight muscles, decreasing our chances of performing well.

Personally, I’ve come to believe that the key to confidence in sports (and maybe life as a whole) is being willing to fail, to screw-up and make mistakes. Basically, the magic tool for confidence is acceptance. Accepting the reality that we quite likely could mess up in our next sports competition and lose the game.

The willingness to fail is, ironically, the key to success. What comes with the willingness to fail is the self-belief that you can handle failure, that you can handle making mistakes during a competition. You will still prefer not to mess up and lose a competition but you accept — and realize — that if you do you can handle it. Knowing that you can handle whatever happens is where true confidence comes from.

It seems counterintuitive but being willing to mess up is the best attitude to take. Most fear in sports comes from being unwilling to fail, or make a mistake. The more you resist losing, failure, or making an error, the tighter you become. The natural tendency is to try and avoid being embarrassed. However, if you say to yourself, “I prefer not to fail or make a mistake but if I do, I do, I can handle it” you’re going to play in a more relaxed and confident state and have the advantage over the athlete who’s telling him or herself “I can’t screwup. We have to win this game. If I mess up, or we lose, that would be terrible.” That athlete’s going to be as tight as a drum.

Next time you enter a sports competition, definitely give your best effort but be willing to fail, to make mistakes and to lose. And also know that you can handle whatever the outcome is. And if you do fail, focus on learning and growing from it.

I think that’s a lot better approach than visualizing amazing performances in which you never make mistakes and you never lose. That’s not real.

The most confident athletes accept the reality of sports. Unconditionally. And they know they can handle it.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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