Why the notion of confidence in endurance sport is flawed

by Michael Inglis


We’ve all been there, waiting on the startline of a race or big gran fondo, worrying about how we’re going to go. “Will I be able to stay with the bunch?”, you think to yourself. “Will I be able to get the result I want?” “Will I be able to finish within the time cut?”.

It’s easy to be filled with feelings of self-doubt, to lack confidence in your ability to achieve the desired outcome. But it’s also unhelpful and, thankfully, avoidable.

Michael Inglis is a sports psychologist who’s worked with professional and amateur athletes across a range of sports, including cycling. In this article he explains how to stop getting bogged down in self-doubt, why you shouldn’t worry about whether you’re feeling confident or not, and how you can refocus your mental energy to get the best out of yourself.


A famous sporting coach once said “you can’t go down your local street and buy a box of confidence”. You might giggle at such a quote, however the reality is that many athletes crave the recipe for confidence. It would be in the top three presenting issues for athletes seeking mental skills training.

It makes sense — having confidence is a beautiful thing. Everything comes naturally when you’re confident: the body feels lighter and is mostly stress-free. By contrast, self-doubt and a lack of confidence typically lead to feelings of dread, anxiety of competition, and a constant comparison of one’s self to others.

Everyone wants to feel more confident, feel less bad, have fewer negative thoughts, be able to relax, and be in “the zone” so they can perform better. But is it futile to hope to avoid discomfort whilst performing?

Chasing confidence

By definition, confidence is knowing you can overcome the challenge in what lays ahead of you. For example, to feel confident in completing a tough gran fondo, you would need to have already finished it in a previous year. If it’s your first attempt at it, it’s likely you will experience self-doubt and that you won’t feel confident.

The reality is that, as athletes, we haven’t achieved many of the things we hope to achieve. So how do we expect to be confident when approaching them?

It’s easy to get caught up in the need for confidence, believing it’s required to perform. It’s a desirable trait — the best athletes don’t appear to suffer self-doubt. At the startline of a race or gran fondo, we can look around us and quickly create social comparisons about how calm and ready people look compared to how we feel.

However, in my experience of working with athletes at a high-performance level — as well as a recreational level — ‘the best’ have as many doubts about their abilities as anyone. I would suggest a proportion have more doubts, and that’s what drives them so strongly to succeed (but that’s a topic for another article).

The elite are those who are best able to manage self-doubt and learn psychological skills to overcome both their doubts and previous mistakes they have made along the way.

The best in the world have self-doubt as well; normally they’re just better at managing it.

In that sense, the idea that we need confidence to perform is flawed. And if that’s the case, what should we focus on instead? The three things I recommend are effort, process and values.

Effort

If you get to a point where you’re concerned about your confidence or self-doubt, ask yourself this: “Have I done everything I can to be best prepared for this?” If you can answer “yes”, this in itself should provide confidence. It reinforces that you have done everything in your control to be best prepared.

If the answer is “no”, this elicits doubt because deep down you know what shortcuts you’ve taken, what training you missed and what distractions you allowed to impede your progress. This deflates confidence and creates self-doubt in knowing you did not do the work required.

Focusing on effort creates confidence, but it also decreases our anxiety about the result — it gives us a focus point we can measure. Effort focuses on the process of performing, not the result.

Process

The process is the combination of significant technical skills that, in the present moment, lead to performing at your optimum. Confidence is subjective and causes us to focus too narrowly on the outcome and worry about the result. This creates anxiety and increases self-doubt.

Values

Values, or in this case performance values, are effective as they cause us to think about how we want to perform, not just what we want to achieve. When athletes focus on the results and outcome, it causes them to think “will I or won’t I” which leads to a conversation about confidence and self-doubt. Values cause us to focus our mind on the process, including factors such as persistence, patience and team-orientation. This allows us to consider the step-by-step process of our performance which aligns with effort, no matter whether we’re feeling confident or not.

A common presentation in cycling is a lack of confidence in descending and cornering, two key technical components of the sport. The first question I ask riders is, “How often do you practice it?” Usually the answer is nil or opportunistically when on their usual ride where they descend after a climb. Going back to the definition of confidence, repeated practice is required to increase confidence in descending and cornering — to show ourselves that we can do it.

And it also comes back to effort. We assign training time to the specific skill or possibly even get coaching to work on the specific technique required to descend effectively.
Understandably, cyclists want to feel confident when they are at the start line whether it is a competitive or recreational event. However, focusing on how confident we are typically increases anxiety about our performance and potentially delves into self-doubt.

In summary

Sport psychology has moved away from a need to ‘think’ and ‘feel’ right in order to perform — we can think and feel various ways but still perform at our best. Instead of worrying about how confident we are, we can instead focus on effort, process and how we want to perform (values), therefore guiding our concentration to give us the best chance of the performance we desire.

About the author

Michael Inglis is an endorsed and accredited sport, performance and exercise psychologist and has been working in the mental health field since 1999. Michael leads the sport and performance team at The Mind Room, a mental health and wellbeing centre he co-founded in Collingwood, Melbourne.

Michael works with athletes, coaches and teams to build and enhance performance, wellbeing and leadership skills. Some of the teams Michael has worked with include the Holden Cycling Womens’ team, the North Melbourne Football Club and the Melbourne Rebels rugby union team. He is a keen cyclist and father to three active boys.

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