Quick commercial blurb: Stephen’s book on the science of cycling, “Cutting-Edge Cycling,” written with Hunter Allen, has hit the bookshelves as of late April 2012. You can order a copy signed by both authors through Peaks Coaching Group.
Confidence is intricately tied to peak athletic performance. In any sport, we can find examples of success breeding success. Whether it’s a goal scorer in hockey finally breaking a scoring slump and then piling on a net-load of goals, or a team with “momentum” or “playing loose” in the midst of a winning streak, there’s a positive spiral of success leading to confidence leading to more success.
In cycling, despite all the poker and bland interviews being given by Bradley Wiggins about the Dauphine being a stepping stone in building for July and Le Tour, you can bet that his and the rest of Team Sky’s dominant performance gave the entire team a huge boost of confidence and momentum leading to their big target.
Of course, the more important thing is to take lessons from elite performers and hopefully apply them to our own riding and racing. Keep in mind that everybody responds differently and has different needs in stoking their confidence levels, but a generally consistent finding is that individuals with high confidence in their abilities are able to perform better under pressure, and focus more on the process of performance rather than any self-doubt about their inadequacies. At the same time, low confidence exacerbates the negative aspects of anxiety. Also, high confidence isn’t restricted to affecting solely our racing, but has been shown to increase our persistence and our willingness to set and achieve challenging goals, helping us train better too.
As is true in most human experiences, there is comfort in knowing that we’re not alone in experiencing something, whether it’s a positive or a negative experience. Therefore, it can be comforting to know that top professional athletes are not robots, but subject to peaks and valleys in their confidence and mental performance.
Hays et al. 2009
In 2009, an UK research team interviewed 14 elite athletes in detail to examine the ins and outs of sports confidence (1).
13 of the 14 subjects had medalled in a world-class competition (World Cup, World Champs, Olympics). Athletes have been at world levels for 6-16 years, so definitely not newbies.
7 males and 7 females, as prior research has seen some general trend differences between males and females in factors affecting confidence.
Males included 1 team sport athlete and six individual sport athletes from 5 different sports. Females included 1 team sport athlete and six individual sport athletes from 4 different sports.
In general, the interview focused the athletes on their state of mind during their most confident performance, and also their worst-ever performance in terms of confidence.
Effect on Focus
One of the main benefits of high sports confidence amongst all interviewees was that being confident helped them to better manage pre-competition anxiety, routine, and focus. It especially seemed to help them focus on the process rather than the end goal, other competitors, or potential outcomes. An excerpt from a diver was illustrative of this:
I was a lot more negative than I would normally be, I was a lot more distracted by other athletes and what they were doing. Normally I follow a routine and I just stick to that and concentrate on it, but this time I was following my routine but I wasn’t buying into it as I normally do.
and here is the same athlete’s most confident performance and focus:
I ignored everyone else, I was just following my routines, being aware of the crowd but not being distracted by it, not thinking ‘‘Oh who’s doing what? Where am I? What’s the scoreboard saying?’’ All the kind of distractions which I was distracted by before. Just focusing on me and what I was doing.
In summary, confidence seemed to provide an inward, process-driven focus rather than worrying about others and the potential risk/failure/pressure of an outcome. In some ways, it acts as a shield from external events or pressure.
Stay Near the Front!
Reading through the interviews and the results and extrapolating to cycling, another common catalyst for confidence appeared to be your position in the pack. One swimmer noted that “when you’re in the lead you can be quite logical and quite positive about things…” Riding near the front of the pack has this magical effect of making it appear as if you’re more in control of the situation, while riding near the tail end of the pack puts you in a situation where others are controlling you.
I’m sure you’ve felt the same feelings before. When near the front, even if you’re not at the very front, there’s this feeling that you’re in control and able to affect the pace and your own effort. In contrast, riding at the back, your thoughts often turn to your discomfort, how fast other riders are, or how hard the course is.
This theme also emerges when athletes talked about their behaviour when confident and not confident. Many talked about the psychological games they would play with their competitors, whether it was staring them down or their body language. Remember “The Look” by Lance to Ullrich and the others at the base of l’Alpe d’Huez in 2001? Massive confidence and subsequent behaviour and psychological control in action! This also made Lance’s play-acting beforehand, when he was bluffing by riding at the back and appearing to his rivals to be in distress, even more brilliant as an acting job, as the very act of being at the back and acting tired had to have had a subconscious mental effect on him.
Even when not high in confidence, one way to get yourself back on track is through changes to your body language, and its positive affect on your own self-confidence while possibly decreasing those of your competitors:
I think even if you’re not confident inside, you need to present yourself as confident on the outside because that’s half the battle won; firstly with yourself, because if you present yourself as confident then you immediately feel more confident, and also for your opponents, if you look confident then you’re obviously a little bit more scary, perhaps they don’t feel as confident as you look and might be intimidated by that.
Good Nerves and Bad Nerves
One huge role for sports confidence appears to be in how the athletes interpret pre-competition “nerves.” Note that high confidence doesn’t make nerves go away – I don’t think that’s the point and it would probably ruin the thrill of competition for many of us – but it does change how you might interpret those same stress factors. Here’s a great quote from one athlete on bad nerves and good nerves:
I find I get good nerves and bad nerves . . . Bad nerves is like I say the panic, the anxiety, the worry, and once that door’s open then all the other stuff flies in . . . And then the good nerves is the stuff where you feel indestructible . . . And it’s like they’re in there and they’re making you go to the toilet all the time but they just feel good. . . it’s just enjoyment, excitement, and belief.
Self-confidence and Performance
There seems to be a strong relationship between confidence and actual performance, as all the athletes performed very successfully when their confidence was high, and not as well when their confidence was low. Interestingly though, two athletes were still able to perform very well even in the situation where their confidence was very low. These “outlier” performances are interesting, so let’s see what we can learn from them.
The first (track) athlete overcame poor confidence with good racing tactics:
You’ll go down there and you’ll ask the pacemaker to run through in 54. Now the others will think ‘‘I can’t handle 54’’ but you go with the pacemaker. . . and they sit back running their own race, you’re not in that shape but you’ve already got the lead and they’ve left it too late to get that lead back. That’s sometimes just playing the game.
Moral of the story? Plan your race and don’t over-think your way out of a great performance!
The second athlete was just so exhausted that the flow state came automatically. They hadn’t slept well at all and was so stressed from that that they couldn’t eat the morning of the competition, yet still had a personal best. Thus, while this certainly isn’t the preferred route to a great performance, note that it can still be done, so don’t let one hiccup in your plan or preparation mentally doom you to a peak performance.
Finally, let’s see what common themes there were in terms of things than had a detrimental or crippling effect on the athletes’ confidence:
• Poor performances. Losing unexpectedly, or a string of poor or sub-par performances, added to self-doubt and loss of confidence amongst 11/14 athletes. A poor start in a race can also have the same effect.
• Injury and illness contributed to the poor confidence and performance in 8/14 athletes.
• Poor preparation. Somewhat surprisingly for me, only 6/14 noted being physically under-prepared as a negative issue with their self-confidence.
• Coaching issues. Having a problematic relationship with their coach was a factor for 6/14 athletes.
Pressure and expectation factored into poor self-confidence for 6/14 athletes.
I believe that there are lots of interesting ideas for us to consider from this discussion on confidence and what works and doesn’t work for these elite athletes. What I found most interesting were the effects of confidence on focus and body language. As they’re both a two-way street, they’re good ways to change our confidence levels during a ride or race, so consider working on ways to rapidly shift your focus and your internal/external body language and self-talk.
Ride fast and have fun!
1. Hays K, Thomas O, Maynard I, and Bawden M. The role of confidence in world-class sport performance. J Sports Sci 27: 1185-1199, 2009.
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 60 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s Cutting-Edge Cycling, a book on the science of cycling, came out April 2012, and he can be reached for comments at email@example.com .