Sports Psychology: The Self-Confidence Rollercoaster

Kristine L. Krueger

Self-confidence is one of the most important characteristics a player can possess during a match, especially if the outcome of the match is uncertain.  During a match, even the most successful professionals experience fluctuations in their level of self-confidence.  Since these changes in self-confidence will occur, how can a player minimize their flow in the negative direction?

Self-confidence in sport is defined as an athlete’s expectation for success.  This expectation often varies because it’s based on sources outside of the player’s control.  For example, many players’ confidence goes up and down with the score of the match.  As a coach, it is important to emphasize self-confidence sources that are within the control of the athlete.  For example, a player can’t mandate how the opponent will play, so self-confidence shouldn’t be based on this variable.

The following are some strategies that coaches can use to help players gain more control over their level of self-confidence during the match:

  • Teach players that they are in control of their self-confidence. Players choose whether or not to act, think, and be confident.  If confidence goes away during a match, it is not because the opponent took it away, it’s because the player gave it away when he stopped believing the match could be won.  Help players discipline themselves so that they think in ways that give them the best opportunity to play well and win.
  • Help players create “realities” that make them feel more confident as the match progresses.  For example, if the warm-up is going badly, a great player will believe that she is saving all the great shots for the match.  Conversely, if the warm-up is going fantastic, the great player will believe this level of play will carry over into the match.  If Pete Sampras is not serving well, he trusts that this skill will be great the next time he hits it regardless of whether or not he double-faulted the previous point.  In other words, teach your players to strive to maintain the same confident attitude regardless of the results. 
  • Challenge your players’ assumptions regarding an opponent or a match situation.  For example, if your player loses the “pivotal” seventh game of the set, does he believe the set is lost?  If your player is behind 0-6 in a tie-break, does he believe the set is lost?  Make your players aware of assumptions they hold, and provide real-life examples of when the assumption is invalid.
  • Teach players to continually look for ways to win during the match.  Help them develop their strategizing skills and then evaluate how your players use these skills during a match.  Teach them to overcome obstacles that occur during a match, and encourage them to compete until the last point is played.
  • Develop playing styles and patterns that fit each player’s ability, strengths, and personality.  Constantly working on weaknesses may keep a player in a match longer, but it will undermine overall self-confidence.  A player’s strengths will win points during critical times, not just keep the rally going for a few more strokes.  Players need to believe that their skills (mental, physical, and emotional) are better than their opponent’s skills in some way in order to believe they will win the match.  The player’s style, patterns, and strengths are what gives the player the basis for this belief.
  • Help players remember why they play tennis.  Revisit the joy and passion regularly so that players keep a perspective on the game and their relationship to it.
  • Help players to separate their personal identity from their results on the tennis court.  If self-worth is linked to results, the pressure associated with each match becomes tremendous.  Help your players recognize that tennis is something that they do, not who they are.
  • Teach players to think about where they’re going, not where they are now nor where they were in the past.  For both winners and losers, the good (or bad) news is that every day brings a new opportunity to compete.
  • Emphasize who your players should believe in.  Ask them, “Who do you believe in more? Yourself or someone else?”  Help players commit to never losing another match because they didn’t believe in themselves.
  • Tell players to surround themselves with people who have great attitudes.  Help them find peers who accept them as they are and who help them to be in their best mindset to play great tennis.  Before and during play, help your athletes to learn to look for inspiration everywhere.
  • Encourage players to watch the professionals and notice how they handle adverse situations and losses in self-confidence.  If you couldn’t see whether a professional’s shot was in or out, could you guess at the result by looking at the player’s reactions?  Do professionals win every point or every match?  Do they stop using their strengths after these skills “let them down” a few times?  Help your players to recognize that missed shots and losses happen to athletes at all levels of competition.  Help players realize that the response to these “negative” situations is what separates the successful from the unsuccessful.   

In conclusion, any source that gives an athlete confidence is good, although some sources may be better than others.  Coaches need to teach players to base their confidence on sources within the player’s control, and to help players take ownership of their confidence.  This approach will result in a more consistent level of play and the best attitude for success.

Kristine L. Krueger is a former intern with the USTA Sport Science Department.

 
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