Confidence is a Cornerstone of Mental Toughness

By Bob Harmison, Ph.D.

“When you have confidence, you can have a lot of fun. And when you have a lot of fun, you can do amazing things.” – Joe Namath

Joe Namath, Confidence and Mental ToughnessPrior to Super Bowl III, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath made one of the boldest statements in the history of sports when he guaranteed victory against the powerful and heavily favored Baltimore Colts. Namath and the Jets made good on his claim, however, and defeated the Colts in what many consider to be one of the greatest upsets of all time. Broadway Joe (as Namath was called) certainly wasn’t short on believing in his ability to achieve his goals – and neither should your athletes.

Former NBA great Michael Jordan once said that you have to expect things of yourself before you can do them. What MJ is really talking about is confidence, or an overall belief in one’s ability to be successful in sport.

Your athletes’ performance ultimately will be determined by how they think, feel, and act during a competition. Their level of confidence plays a very important role in how they think, feel, and act. More specifically, research in sport psychology suggests that confident athletes:

  • Think more productively
  • Feel more positive emotions and less negative emotions
  • Act in ways that lead to greater achievement

To illustrate, let’s take a closer look at William, a very confident pitcher for his high school baseball team.

During a game, William is more likely to think productive thoughts, such as saying to himself “I can get this batter out,” or imagining the ball going right to the catcher’s mitt, or staying focused on executing his proper technique. These thoughts are considered productive because they are helpful to William in producing the end result of a good performance.

In addition, William is likely to feel less nervous or worried about his performance because he believes he is in control. He may also feel more optimistic about his chances for success and look forward to the challenge of pitching against his opponent.

Lastly, William is likely to act with more intensity and direction in practice by working hard, putting in the required time in his drill work, showing up early and staying late for practice, etc. These behaviors are the likely result of William’s belief in his ability to deliver the desired results during competition.

Achieving success is the most powerful source of confidence from which athletes can draw. However, since you cannot guarantee success for your athletes, they will need to rely upon other sources of confidence as well.

To boost your athletes’ confidence during times when they aren’t experiencing much success in competition:

  1. Provide quality training and instruction to allow your athletes to learn and master the necessary technical and tactical skills to be successful.
  2. When providing feedback to your athletes, inform them about how they are moving toward their goals and focus them on aspects of their performance that they can control (e.g., their effort).
  3. Focus your athletes on their strengths and what is going well for them as they get closer and closer to the start of their competition.
  4. Develop your athletes’ abilities to set goals, use visualization, control their self-talk, and manage their physiological arousal levels so that they can self-regulate their confidence levels.
  5. Create a positive social environment around your athletes so they feel supported and encouraged by their coaches, their teammates, and other support staff.