Genuine confidence

Do we need a rethink of how we look at confidence? Sport Psychologist, James Newman, discusses how changing our perspective might help our performance...

*Credit to Dr. Russ Harris for introducing many of the ideas promoted below*

Confidence (also known as self-efficacy) is essentially a prediction. It is the answer to the question: do I have the resources to perform the actions required for the upcoming situation/challenge? It is commonly assumed that if we feel less-confident - we will perform worse, whereas if we are full of confidence, we will perform better.

Because of this, we find athletes, coaches and psychologists spend a lot of time chasing confidence. However, I'm not sure we always get this quite right. Could it be that manufacturing confidence is quite futile? Is there another way?

Confidence is the answer to the question: Do I have the resources to perform the actions required?

Renowned researcher, Albert Bandura, created 'Self-Efficacy Theory', which remains a key source of understanding the things that make us confident. Bandura highlighted four sources of confidence:

  1. Performance Outcomes: previous experience of success in the relevant domain

  2. Vicarious Experience: seeing role models, or other similar people achieve things

  3. Verbal Persuasion: important others (e.g. coach/parents) telling us we can achieve things

  4. Emotional & Physical States: How we feel (e.g. nervous/butterflies) can influence confidence


My experience (and indeed my early practice) is that this theory has led people to try and 'build confidence' by 'talking the athlete up' or by trying to work on their emotional and physiological states with relaxation techniques. As such, there is work done to change THE FEELINGS OF CONFIDENCE.

However, there are two problems I see here:

  1. By far the greatest source of THE FEELINGS OF CONFIDENCE is experience of performing well in the past. However, if you have lost the last five tennis matches or only ever failed at a routine, your feelings of confidence are likely to be pretty low

  2. My experience is that trying to 'talk up' confidence or 'manipulate emotional/physical states' is ineffective and short-term

If points one and two are accurate - we are left with a situation where confidence is largely outside of our immediate control.

If our confidence is mostly based on my past experience - that is something I cannot change. Indeed, my past work with athletes on THE FEELINGS OF CONFIDENCE has led them to be frustrated and ingenious in pointing out how they really should not have reasons to be confident! I often felt I was working against the tide of: 'but he's so good', 'but I did practise terribly', 'but I haven't scored in two months'.

It felt like I was swimming against the tide, because I was. You can't 'fake' THE FEELINGS OF CONFIDENCE.


At this point you might be a little down? 'What, am I really stuck with low confidence if I haven't got that past experience of performing well'.

No - I am not saying that. I used an important word early. Confidence is a PREDICTION. Not a fact. Just because I believe I might lose - does not mean I will. If I haven't won in 5 matches, it doesn't mean I'll lose tomorrow. Confidence is a guess - and it is often inaccurate.

Feeling confident is a prediction. Not a fact.

Even so, you might be thinking 'I know it is just a prediction, but I want to be more confident'. The good news is, you can be, As confidence is made up of two parts:

THE FEELINGS OF CONFIDENCE (As we have discussed)

THE ACTIONS OF CONFIDENCE (Which we will discuss now...)

This distinction, to my knowledge first presented by Dr. Russ Harris in his his book The Confidence Gap (read it!), is an important one.


Whilst THE FEELINGS OF CONFIDENCE are overwhelmingly weighted by our past experiences. THE ACTIONS OF CONFIDENCE are not.

Kathy Delaney-Smith became head coach of Harvard's women's basketball team in 1982, a position she still retains. She coached successfully in high-school before taking over at Harvard and breaking all records and winning numerous championships. The interesting part of the story is that Delaney-Smith was a swim-coach with no basketball experience. In her words she had "no clue about how to coach basketball, but I knew I had to act as if I knew exactly what I was doing."

Herein lies the key. We spend so long trying to manipulate THE FEELINGS OF CONFIDENCE when actually we should simply look at what actions will give us the best chance of success.

For Delaney-Smith going into her first job, she had no experience or basketball coaching skills. Her actions were to learn, to 'play the role' of a coach. For athletes, their priority should not be to spend ages on trying to feel confident, but on what actions they need to take to give themselves the best chance of a good performance. This will be different for each athlete but it might involve something like this:

"I don't feel confident. But, if I'm going to give this my best shot, I need to prepare well, I need to be willing to take risks. I need to step on the field with my chest out and my goals clear. I need to accept things will be tough but that I'm tough enough to cope - win or lose."

This sample quote is something I work on with my athletes. It is not a question of 'faking it' till you make it, it is a question of seeing opportunities to ACT towards your goals or values. Confidence often makes us feel helpless, actions can be taken to relieve that feeling.

I can't guarantee you will always 'feel' confident, I can guarantee you will 'act' it.


In my experience, THE FEELINGS OF CONFIDENCE come after THE ACTIONS OF CONFIDENCE. It seems far more worthwhile to focus on actions if we want to drive better performance.

If you want help with your confidence, we offer a free consultation in-person or by Skype and online booking.

James Newman is a Sport Psychologist & Mental Skills Coach offering online support by phone or Skype. Online booking is available here.