What have been the most effective psychological coping strategies for elite athletes during the covid-19 pandemic and what can we learn from their experiences? SPB looks at new research MORE
The majestic self-confidence of Jonny Wilkinson – or how expectations can make or break your performance
The image of Jonny Wilkinson majestically kicking his way into the history books during last November’s Rugby World Cup final will live long in the memories of English rugby fans. The decisive drop-goal, scored with just seconds of extra time remaining, demonstrated not just immense skill but the confidence of a winner.
It is easy to forget that Wilkinson had failed with three previous attempted drop-goals up to this point in the match. These failures might have dented the confidence of a player with a more brittle temperament, resulting in more tentative and indecisive future actions. But in an interview following the final whistle Wilkinson revealed that, having missed the previous three attempts, he felt he was going to make the fourth one count. The rest, as they say, is history.
This one example encapsulates the importance of confidence and self-belief to the sports performer.
Of course, having high levels of self-confidence is no guarantee of success and will not compensate for lack of skill, but in situations where competitors are evenly matched it can be the crucial determinant(1). In research, confidence has been shown to consistently distinguish between highly successful and less successful athletes (2). Although many people mistakenly assume that confidence reflects performance – ie we become confident once we have performed consistently well – it is becoming increasingly evident that confidence can be established beforehand.
Sport psychologists define self-confidence as the belief that you can successfully perform a desired behaviour (1). Confident athletes expect success and have a high level of self-belief that appears crucial in determining how far they strive towards their goals. It is largely confidence that determines whether people give up or remain committed to their goals following a series of setbacks.
For the sake of simplicity, we may consider self-confidence as conceptually opposite to cognitive anxiety (negative beliefs and performance worries). Both are related to our beliefs and both, ultimately, influence our performance.
Coaches can often see fluctuations in the balance between these two opposing states reflected in the behaviour of their athletes. While confident athletes are not afraid of making mistakes, often taking calculated risks in order to take charge of a situation, self-doubters often avoid responsibility, becoming over-conservative and paralysed by fear of failure. Think of the football striker who has not scored for a number of successive matches and is riddled with self-doubt. When presented with a half-chance which would usually result in a snap-shot, he may elect to avoid responsibility and pass to a team mate.
According to psychologist Albert Bandura, performers’ situational-specific confidence, or ‘self-efficacy’, is based on four primary sources of information, represented graphically in Figure 1 below.(3) The first and most important factor is past performance accomplishments. What we have achieved in training and competition forms the basis of future expectations of success or failure. Repeated success naturally leads to positive expectations of further success, higher motivation and enhanced self-belief.
Unfortunately, the flip side of this principle is that repeated failures can give rise to a downward performance spiral and a ‘snowball effect’ whereby a performer starts to believe that success is unattainable. Of course, such an athlete does not mysteriously lose his or her physical skills and talents, but without confidence in these abilities high-level performance is rarely achieved.
The implication of Bandura’s work for coaches is that it is vital for them to make sure their athletes achieve success, even if this means renegotiating overly ambitious goals. The athletes’ perceptions are of overriding importance.
Research has suggested that athletes can also gain confidence from viewing the successful performances of others at a similar level (1). This second source of information is known as ‘modelling’ or ‘vicarious experience’. For example, a tennis player lacking confidence in her volleying might find it useful to have a peer who has overcome similar difficulties demonstrate the skill. By viewing others, we begin to see that, with effort, success is attainable. The very common use of celebrities in fitness videos is an example of modelling.
A third way for coaches to help build confidence is through verbal persuasion. By means of careful reasoning, athletes can be shown that other people (ie the coach) have confidence in their abilities and believe they can achieve set goals. Coaches may even use deception to persuade their athletes that goals can be achieved – of which more later. Verbal persuasion can also take the form of ‘self-talk’, whereby the athlete convinces himself that success will follow.
Finally, Bandura suggest that emotional arousal can influence confidence. Although this is the least influential factor, it is important that physiological symptoms are perceived positively rather than negatively. Confidence can be enhanced by perceiving increases in heart and respiration rate as the body’s natural preparation for top performance rather than as triggers for anxiety.
Clearly, confidence is enhanced by good preparation, planning and a sense of optimism. Conversely, negative thinking and pessimism can undermine performance and limit progress. By expecting failure, we set our belief system to a negative channel and start favouring information that is consistent with these beliefs.
During a training session we may have done some things well and struggled with others. When we have a negative mind-set we tend to focus only on the things that went badly, leading to what psychologists call negative self-fulfilling prophecies and psychological barriers.
The four-minute mile was the classic example of a psychological barrier; runners were consistently achieving times of 4:03, 4:02 and 4:01, but no one could apparently run under four minutes. This led to a common perception that running a mile in less than four minutes was physically impossible. Remarkably, though, within 18 months of Roger Bannister’s famous breakthrough 16 other athletes had managed the feat. Did these athletes suddenly get faster and train harder? No: the floodgates opened because Bannister had breached the psychological barrier and demonstrated what was possible, so athletes were no longer limited by their beliefs.
The power of hypnosis – how thoughts can spur you on or hold you back
Often we are capable of far more than we do, but we restrict ourselves by our beliefs. Can you identify any thoughts that are holding you back? Hypnotists work with this system by planting beliefs in our minds which our bodies will automatically follow. In one study, hypnotised participants were unable to lift a pen after being told it was too heavy to be lifted (4).
Clearly they were physically capable of lifting the pen but for some reason were unable to perform the task. Psychologists studying electrical activity in their biceps and triceps found that the participants were unconsciously contracting their triceps muscles and working against the biceps to restrict movement. It appears that there is a strong unconscious drive for our bodies to react consistently with our beliefs. The question most interesting to sport psychologists is whether beliefs can be positively manipulated to enhance performance.
The fact that expectations influence performance has been demonstrated in controlled experiments and case studies. In medical settings, giving patients a sugar pill (placebo) and telling them it is morphine has been found, in some cases, to produce as much pain relief as the real thing (1).
Deception has been used in similar ways in sporting studies. In one, 24 participants had their arms strength-tested and were then asked to arm-wrestle an opponent (5). Before each match, the researchers deceived both participants into believing that the objectively weaker participant was actually the stronger – and in 10 out of 12 contests, the ‘weakest link’ actually won! Clearly, the outcomes were not predicted by physical strength but by belief.
Similar results were obtained from three experiments that manipulated the beliefs of weight-lifters (6,7,8). In each study, researchers first ascertained participants’ one repetition-maximum (1RM) for the bench press. After a rest period, the participants performed further lifts when they were deceived into thinking the weights were either heavier or lighter than they actually were. Remarkably, in all three studies participants lifted more weight when they thought they were lifting less.
Deception allowed the participants to improve their 1RMs – an effect that was probably due to their (false) belief that they had already lifted the weight in question. Although deception appeared less effective with experienced weight-lifters, performance increases were still noted(8).
Another interesting study showed that expectations could influence perceptions of effort(9). Forty female participants performed a cycle ride at 80% of their maximum oxygen consumption after viewing one of two videos depicting similar others performing the task. One depicted the task as strenuous but involved a woman who was coping; the other showed a woman who was clearly finding the task difficult and distressing.
Participants who viewed the ‘distressed’ subject gave significantly higher ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) during the ensuing ride. It is likely that viewing the distressing images made these participants expect the task to be harder and selectively attend to physiological cues (ie fatigue) that were consistent with these beliefs.
So how can coaches and athletes use this information to expect success and build confidence? I am not suggesting that coaches should deceive their athletes in pursuit of this goal, as this can backfire and damage trust, but Bandura’s model (see Figure 1) does provide many other answers to this question. Nothing breeds confidence like success (performance accomplishments), so coaches must nurture their athletes by ensuring success in training and competition, which in some cases may mean redefining success or making it more achievable.
Success can be defined in two ways: in relation to others or in relation to an athlete’s own past performance. If a marathon runner, for example, measures success only in terms of objective outcome, coming third may be perceived as failure and so damage confidence. But if the same runner measures success in relation to his own performance and notes that his finish time was over a minute faster than his PB, the perception is quite different. Athletes have more control over performance goals than outcome goals.
During training, coaches may need to work with their athletes on perceived weaknesses. To ensure success and build confidence they might simplify the skill or skills in question. Think about a person who decides she cannot do press-ups after a negative circuit training experience. To build confidence, the instructor may show the participant a simpler form of the activity (eg press-ups on knees) and allow strength (and success) to be built up over the next few weeks. As the athlete gains confidence, the instructor can work towards introducing the full press-up into the circuit. As a series of goals are steadily accomplished, performance and confidence are built.
Simulated practice conditions can also be used to boost confidence by exposing the participant to performance conditions. In this way an athlete can develop confidence from the knowledge that he has overcome problems in practice. Mental preparation via competitive situation imagery is a particularly useful technique.
It is vital for athletes to know that their coaches believe in them. Although coaching often involves correcting mistakes and giving constructive criticism, it is important to give positive feedback and praise where appropriate in order to create a positive pre-competition environment.
Confidence does not always mean you will perform at your best, but it certainly increases the likelihood of reaching your potential. Remember that confidence can be nurtured. Outstanding performers like Jonny Wilkinson are not simply born with confidence; they develop it through hard work and effective training. The start point is challenging yourself to think confidently. If you believe you can win, you become a very difficult person to beat.