BUILDING BETTER ATHLETES THROUGH INCREASED SELF-CONFIDENCE
ANDY GILLHAM, PHD, CC-AASP, CSCS
Each number represents a different lift. The “1” could be a barbell back squat, the
“2” a barbell front squat, and the “3” a barbell jump squat. The triangle borders represent the limit of an athlete’s skill level. The closer the number is to the center of the triangle, the more confidence the athlete has to properly execute the lift. As athletes increase their capacity to execute more lifts, their triangle grows to include more numbers and previously learned ones move closer to the center. With the basic premise of all training programs being the need to provide some level of unique stimuli to prompt training adaptations, the triangle and number analogy serves as
a visual to reinforce athlete performance goals and subsequent improvements. Each athlete’s triangle will look a bit different, especially across contexts and competitive levels, but using this type of visual can aid coaching in a number of ways.
FIGURE 1. TRIANGLE—VISUAL APPROACH FOR DETERMINING SELF-CONFIDENCE (figure 1-photo attached)
Planning and designing training programs for a new group of athletes (e.g., a new recruiting class or a new coaching job)
can be problematic without a base level of understanding of
the athletes’ current skill levels. Providing a numbered list of exercises and having the athletes fill in their own triangle with the numbers of the exercises placed within, or outside, the triangle borders is a way for the coaching staff to get substantive information quickly. If there are interns or new staff at the facility, the same task can help the senior staff identify what tasks are suitable for which individuals. These same visual triangles completed by athletes can be used in discussions between strength and conditioning staff and sport coach staff as a way to quickly describe the skill level of the athletes. Moving beyond the initial data collection stage, this visual approach can be added to a post-season testing protocol leading to multiple benefits. One benefit is that the strength and conditioning staff receives quick feedback from the athletes about how much they have progressed. That feedback can be used to make adjustments for the following season, document the work accomplished by the strength and conditioning staff during the season, and serve as a take-away for the athletes about their improvements.
Self-confidence is consistently viewed as one of the most important mental skills (9). Having a take-away reminder of growth, improvement, and progress is crucial to an athlete’s self-confidence. Moreover, self-confidence and anxiety are inversely related meaning that overly anxious athletes can
be helped by improving self-confidence, not just by reducing anxiety (3). Recent research has shown that athletes report predominantly positive thoughts and feelings when they achieve peak performances (1). This is similar to long-standing research on athletes experiencing flow that shows a total absorption on the task, thus limiting time for negative, distracting, or critical thoughts that prompt feelings of anxiousness (8).
BUILDING ATHLETE SELF-CONFIDENCE
A common question amongst strength and conditioning coaches is how to improve athlete self-confidence and self-efficacy. The distinguishing facet between self-confidence and self-efficacy is one of scale. Self-confidence is typically viewed on a larger scale and inclusive of multiple tasks or areas of life (i.e., confident in
the training facility). Self-efficacy is viewed more narrowly on one single task at a time (i.e., ability to execute a particular lift). The distinction between the two constructs is tangential to finding ways the strength and conditioning staff can better assist athletes. There are a variety of models or theoretical frameworks that could be used to aid the development of athlete self-confidence. One approach is to consider sources of sport confidence and attempt to address as many areas as possible (12). Another approach would be to divide an athlete’s sport confidence into physical, mental, and resilience-based components (10). There is also a specific model of self-efficacy that extends well beyond sport that is frequently used in sport research (2,11). It is this last option that will be used for this article as the framework of how strength and conditioning professionals can systematically build athletes that are not just physically stronger, but mentally stronger as well (2).
The model suggests there are four primary means through which self-efficacy can be improved (2):
1. Mastery experiences: accomplishing tasks that provide direct evidence of completion.
2. Vicarious experiences: observational learning and social modeling.
3. Verbal persuasion: input from self or others.
4. Physiological and affective states: a general sense of how an athlete feels mentally and physically.
￼These four sources are presented in descending order from most to least influential. This particular framework is easily identifiable when considering specific athletes in specific situations. The athlete that shows up to train feeling run-down from school and sport practices will not likely show much self-confidence. Athletes that adopt negative self-talk or have others cut them down rarely perform well. Additionally, attempting to complete a task that they have never performed previously, and perhaps have never seen, is daunting to most athletes and coaches alike. The benefits to strength and conditioning coaches adopting these four means to enhance self-efficacy is that each of those identified sources are areas the staff already addresses, even if it is not done for the expressed purpose of increasing athlete self-confidence.
Goal setting may well be the most straight-forward approach to generating mastery experiences for athletes. A properly designed systematic goal setting program yields multiple opportunities for athletes to accomplish a specific task every day (5). Even better is that those successes are recorded and logged as part of the goal setting process so at any point an athlete can look up their goal attainment showing progress across a variety of tasks. It is difficult for athletes to examine their own goal sheets, see that they have been successful at accomplishing 85% of their goals over the
past season, and then report feelings of low self-confidence. That becomes a double benefit for any athlete that experiences feelings of anxiety related to performance improvement because of the inverse relationship between anxiety and self-confidence.
Vicarious experiences can be more challenging to engineer. From a mental training standpoint, imagery is often utilized to target this source of efficacy belief. While powerful, building imagery into the work the strength and conditioning staff already does is likely to be a bit cumbersome. Research has shown potential with the use of imagery during training, which makes it worthy of consideration and further exploration into its utility (4). Apart from imagery, there are still myriad ways to develop athlete self-confidence through vicarious experience. Using videos to teach lifts is an excellent way to incorporate some observational learning. It is important to use videos of similarly trained athletes. The purpose of the video is to prompt a “Hey, I can do that” thought in the mind of the athletes. If the athletes view the lifter in the video, or in person, as significantly more advanced, the thoughts can quickly turn to more of amazement rather than positive social comparison for the athlete’s benefit. In a collegiate setting, giving upper-class athletes the task of creating videos that demonstrate lifts for the under-class athletes is a viable option that may add to athlete motivation by improving teammate relatedness.
The use of cue words, pictures, and slogans also fall into this category. For these cues to work, words and images must have a
purpose that is clearly explained to the athletes. A power rack with the word “Power” on the wall facing the lifter is seen frequently in facilities. An improvement is to display “Explosion Coming” near the weight rack where athletes get the plates to be used in the power rack. The strength and conditioning staff will have already primed the athletes that the power-based lifts are to be performed explosively; therefore, placing the cue word by the rack allows the athletes to mentally prepare for the movements. Athletes spend a lot of time looking up while training and while at rest in the facility, so think about the option of placing cue words or pictures on the ceiling. As a staff, make sure to explain the message behind cue words and pictures. Do not assume it is obvious to athletes and do not let the message, cue words, or pictures become stale—change them up, move them around, or adjust throughout the season.
The verbal persuasion component is viewed as less impactful
than both mastery experiences and vicarious experiences (11). Nonetheless, there are some noteworthy pieces that can help build athlete self-confidence as well as limit the debilitating effects of negatively worded verbal persuasion. The strength
and conditioning staff needs to listen to what the athletes are saying as it relates to training. Athletes who are overly negative, or overly positive, likely indicate some concern and this pendulum can quickly swing from one extreme to the other. Perhaps the most challenging part here is that these sorts of verbal messages can spread through a team and facility rapidly. For example, one coach leads a workout that is received poorly by the athletes. The athletes begin to discuss the workout and soon a downward spiral takes shape where the athletes refuse to put forth effort when training with that specific coach. The negative spiral may not be coach-related at all. It could be a specific exercise, time of day, location, or context conflict (e.g., multiple teams at once or mixed genders training at the same time). The overall point is for the strength and conditioning staff to be mindful of what the athletes are saying. If a group of athletes begins to be overly negative towards a coach, a training component, or other athletes, it can become difficult to put forth high energy in training. The message is not to coddle the athletes or “give in” to their complaints; the message is to be aware of what the athletes are saying and reflect on whether adjustments are necessary to put the athletes in the best position for success.
PHYSIOLOGICAL AND AFFECTIVE STATES
The final component is the most general. The simple summation of physiological and affective states is that it is difficult to be self- confident when tired, feeling ill, overly distracted, or otherwise not ready to train. High-level strength and conditioning coaches report an understanding that athletes need to know the staff cares about them (6,7). That notion includes reminding the athletes about how important sleep and proper nutrition are to training and competition. Strength and conditioning coaches often have more information on how the athletes are feeling than the sport coaches, athletic training staff, or other campus-wide support personnel. Reminding athletes about how to take care of themselves can be especially critical for younger athletes, those with less local social support, and those living away from home for the first time. A simple question or reminder by a strength and conditioning coach can go a long way in the mind of an athlete, such as, “how are you feeling today?”
Moving from the bottom up the four levels of sources of self- efficacy shows a glimpse of how they work together. An athlete who feels burnt out is more likely to complain about the intensity of a workout. In that state, the work the strength and conditioning staff put into engineering the environment and utilizing goal setting to foster improved self-confidence may not matter. Recalling the triangle and numbers analogy, this approach is not about propping athletes up with false flattery or making things easy. On the contrary, the objective presented here is to foster
an environment where athletes can put in work during training and be rewarded with performance increases. Athletes who are more confident in training will put forth greater effort (2). With that greater effort, improved performance will follow. Getting a whole team to train harder and see progress will lead to better performances on the court, in the pool, and on the field.
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ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Andy Gillham owns and operates Ludus Consulting, LLC, which focuses on performance enhancement for athletes, coaches, and business executives. Of specific note is his work with coaches and athletic administrators on improving systematic coach evaluation and providing targeted coach development opportunities. Gillham is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and
a Certified Consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (CC-AASP). He serves as a sport psychology consultant for collegiate teams and coaches as well as individual athletes competing at high school and college levels in the United States and Canada. Gillham is an Editorial Board member for two peer- reviewed journals, the International Journal of Sports Sciences and Coaching and the International Sport Coaching Journal. Gillham earned both his Bachelor of Science degree in Fitness and Master of Science degree in Human Performance from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. He received his PhD in Education with a Major of Sport and Exercise Psychology from the University of Idaho.