Finding Your Self-Belief

Above strength or speed, talent or technique; self-belief separates the best from the rest in the sporting world. 

UFC Lightweight Champion Conor McGregor is a prime example of an athlete who has unbreakable faith and trust in their ability. Prior to his career skyrocketing into UFC superstardom, McGregor lived off unemployment benefits spending all day training in a run-down gym, before going home and visualising every aspect of becoming the champion, until it manifested into reality.

While Conor McGregor’s reputation has been built on the strength of his character, many athletes have struggled to overcome their doubts and insecurities. Ian Baker-Finch won golf’s Open Championship in 1991, before suffering a complete collapse of his game and losing the will to play. Sam Stosur has carried the label of ‘choker’ following a series of first and second round losses at the Australian Open, and despite appearing to have all the required attributes, Jack Watts has failed to live up to the expectations of being selected with the first pick of the 2008 AFL draft.

“Probably the single biggest mental obstacle to success is fear of failure. Fear of failure is not something that sits within our nature. It is something that is learned.

And it is learned when our seniors react negatively to a mistake or a failure or something that goes wrong. In sports teams people don’t actually have a fear of failure as much as they have a fear of repercussion from the failure, whether it is from the media, from the coach, from the fans.

When coaches reprimand, shout, gesticulate when somebody makes a mistake, when a captain gesticulates on a field at someone who misfields or drops a catch, the player then becomes terrified to make that same mistake.

And when you have become scared of making the same mistake, you actually put yourself in a [state of] physical readiness to make that mistake.” – Paddy Upton, Coach of the Sydney Thunder

The Pyramid of Self-Belief

The five stages of Self-Belief detailed below represent the levels an athlete must progress through to master their inner confidence.

An important role for coaches is to recognise where your players sit within the Self-Belief Pyramid and the knowledge of how to support or challenge them accordingly.

Step One – I Can’t

The bottom level of the Self-Belief Pyramid represents an athlete that thinks they can’t’ achieve a goal or perform a skill. This stage is characterised by a fixed rather than growth mindset. A fixed mindset believes one’s talents and abilities are determined or set it stone; a growth mindset values the process of learning and experimenting to develop resilience. Progressing from Step One is achieved by changing your thinking to believe while you may not succeed at first, you can always learn from the experience.

‘I don’t fail, I only learn how not to do something’.

Step Two – I Believe What Others Say

In today’s society, athletes have parents, coaches, teachers, and the media all contributing to tell them what they can or cannot achieve. Problems develop when an individual begins to form beliefs based on extrinsic rather than intrinsic sources, meaning a person becomes dependent on others to determine their capabilities. In moving from Step Two, look to set your own ceiling rather than being constricted by the beliefs of others.

I am the master of my fate,  I am the captain of my soul. – INVICTUS by William Ernest Henley.

Step Three – I Talk But Don’t Walk

Following the acceptance of sports psychology practises in modern sport, engaging in positive self-talk routines has been widely promoted for athletes. While turning inner thoughts into positive emotions is beneficial, there is a huge distinction between ‘telling’ yourself something and actually ‘believing’ it.

The progression from Step Three is dependent on repeat experiences and delivering desired outcomes. Through regularly putting yourself in situations to test your self-belief and reaching the set goal, you become more confident in your ability to influence future outcomes. Having a strong sense of resilience is important here, as you must learn from each experience rather than just repeat them.

You haven’t played 100 games, you’ve played 1 game 100 times.

Step Four – Staying True

Once a sense of belief is established, can you maintain this faith as you progress to higher standards and face more difficult challenges? Step Four becomes complicated as you are forced to balance the advice or criticism from coaches, media and fans and assess these against your own beliefs. A cricketing example being the late Phil Hughes and question marks over whether his unusual technique that made so many first-class runs could stand up at Test level.

Be true to yourself, by placing trust in the steps that have taken you this far and seeking advice from people that have shared your whole journey, rather than listening to people providing comment based on a limited view.

Form is temporary, class is permanent.

Step Five – Belief Against Adversity

Upholding your self-belief in the face of challenges outside your control separates the strongest mentally. It is inevitable that you will face injury setbacks, poor conditions and bad umpiring decisions, many will allow these events to create excuses but people who can maintain belief under adversity are demonstrate the strongest character.

From Muhammad Ali’s reclaiming his world title after an imposed four-year exile in his prime, Michael Jordon’s incredible will under fatigue and during the ‘flu game’ of 1997 or Liverpool’s 0-3 come back from half-time in the 2005 European Champions Leauge, sports greatest moments represent times when everyone but the team or individual doubted it was possible.

The body achieves what the mind believes

Coaching Points

A common misconception is a player’s natural talent or ability will match their mental skills. Your ‘best player’ may also be the one who struggles the most from insecurities and doubts in their ability. As coaches we must build relationships with players that enables an open discussion and exploration of their self-belief, allowing you to work together to grow the confidence in their ability.

Our next post will explore techniques to deal with pressure and alternative methods to mentally prepare to perform at your peak. Sign up to our Mailing List or follow us on Facebook to make sure you see it.




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