Top five ways to increase confidence in athletes By Donald La Guerre

1. Control the Controllables - This means encouraging athletes to put all their attention whether it is in practice or during competition into the act or skill they are executing at that particular point in time. A defender in football might have the task of marking an opposing striker. Some of the things the defender can control include: how fast he or she moves, their height when jumping, deciding whether the best thing to do is to man mark or zone, stay relaxed and composed, keep an eye on the ball and be aware of his or her immediate surroundings. Often when confidence is low, the opposite occurs and the defender may begin to focus on the weather (rainy, too hot and humid), fans, ball watching, bad calls from the referee and preoccupied with whether or not he or she will be taken out of the game by the coach. These are the things that cannot be controlled. It is important to bring their focus back to the things that can be controlled for optimal performance. A common tool is using a cue word that will remind them of the task at hand. Another strategy is for the athlete to write a word or phrase on their footwear, helmet or armband.

2. Self Talk - Often athletes speak to themselves during the execution of skills. This might be aloud or to themselves. Individual sports such as tennis illustrate some clear examples where we see self talk. Self talk can be positive of negative and both affect how athletes perform. Coaches, parents and other sporting professionals can apply the following with their athletes: When we sit and think about the most fun we ever had in our lives, most of us will begin to smile, laugh or feel some level of tranquility and happiness. Similarly, when asked to recall a nightmare, we remember having sweaty palms, an increased heart rate, tightness of the body etcetera. These two areas portray how the mind and our thoughts affect our bodies. The former affects it in a productive manner and the latter in an unhelpful way. This happens on the court, course, field, track and in the pool (a variety of sporting environments). When athletes say things like, I cannot do this, I am going to lose and this is the worst I have played, it reflects in their body language, how much effort they give and in the way they perform. What then usually happens is that opponents feed of this and it boosts their level of confidence. One way to counteract this, is to encourage athletes to trick their minds. Yes! Trick their minds! Sometimes our brain is unable to distinguish what is real from what is fake (as seen when we have nightmares) so, we can "fake it til we make it." A common way many Sport Psychology Consultants do this is by changing negative words and phrases into positive ones. This takes practice and application to everyday training is a key component. Frequently practicing this positive self talk will result in it becoming a natural part of an athlete's game and increase their level of mental toughness during competition.

I cannot do this = I can do this!
I am going to lose = I am going to win!
This is the worst I have played = I have and can play better than this!

3. Preparation - Confidence is an outcome or an end result that is preceded by preparation. In other words, how athletes prepare (intensity, duration, physically, technically, mentally and sport specific training) affects how confident they feel going into competition. Michael Phelps' coach made him swim full sprints for two and a half hours prior to his record breaking performances at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, solely to help him increase his level of confidence. The point here is not to over train but after preparing and doing more than is expected, an athlete will feel that he or she is ready to deal with the high intensity of competition. A basketball player who shoots 1000s of free throws outside of team practice will feel better about the chances of making a free throw to win the game in the last few seconds versus never practicing them.

4. Imagery or visualization - Golfers do this a lot during their pre-shot routines. This involves seeing oneself performing an act or executing a skill creating a sensory experience. Most athletes will do this focusing on the end result such as a ball in the goal, running through the finish line, holding up a trophy etcetera. What elite athletes such as Michael Johnson believe is that the process is vital and the result will come. What athletes do during the race will determine the result. To enhance imagery or visualization, inclusion of as many senses as possible is necessary, it must be in real time (no too fast or slow), the image created should be realistic and executions need to be successful every time so, when the athletes visualized something they are doing it correctly. When should athletes perform imagery? Before, during and after practice will allow them to make this part of their training routine. Imagery or visualization creates a mental blueprint of the desired skill to be executed.

5. Just do it! - Sometimes when pressure gets to athletes or they are having a bad day, advice from the coach and changes to their game plan do not work. This is when they have to simply find a way to win, find a way to play to their strengths, find a way to counteract the opponent's strengths and capitalize on his or her weaknesses. This is where "bad mind" comes in and they give 110% effort despite being fatigued mentally and physically. Find the thing that they say or do which serves as a reminder of their best performances. Some athletes use cue words such as: "fight", "Come on", "Yes" and other personal phrases unique to them. Others may perform an act similar to: looking at a target, tapping their leg, bouncing the ball three times, clapping their hands, wiping their faces with a towel or jumping around in one place. These are little actions that can have a significant impact on an athlete's performance and they are ways to remind athletes of their goals. Whatever they decide to do, athletes should make sure it is their personal and unique action or word that will remind them that they have what it takes to win knowing exactly how to do it. I'm sure that you parents have found out that Badminton is not the cheapest of sports haven't you? Children can play football completely free of charge out on the green with a couple of mates can't they? Having coached the sport for over 20 years I thought I'd share a coaching point of view with you.

Donald La Guerre is a Sport and Performance Psychology Consultant.

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