Outcomes of Confidence in Sport Training Settings : Strength & Conditioning Journal

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Outcomes of Confidence in Sport Training Settings

Gilson, Todd A PhD, CSCS

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Strength and Conditioning Journal 32(5):p 91-96, October 2010. | DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181dfcab7
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While strength and conditioning coaches focus much of their attention on physiological factors that impact performance, psychological factors also deserve consideration. One of the most salient psychological factors for performance is confidence because research has shown that confidence is the most important psychological factor that differentiates more successful elite athletes from less successful ones (20,24). Simply defined, one's confidence (referred to as self-efficacy by researchers) is the belief that an individual has capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action necessary to produce given attainments (3). This form of confidence is important for sport because it is a “state variable” that fluctuates based on the challenge at hand and can be manipulated by coaches.

For example, an athlete may be very confident in his or her ability to successfully perform a power clean at 97% of his one repetition maximum (1RM); yet, when attempting a new 1RM in the power clean, this same athlete may be uncertain of his or her ability to successfully drop low enough and correctly catch this new heavier weight, possibly contributing to failure. Although there is no doubt that physiological factors are important for the success of this hypothetical athlete, confidence is also a critical piece because to be successful, this athlete must execute the skills he or she has perfected under challenging conditions among others who are also highly skilled. In this environment, the smallest variations in confidence can determine triumph or defeat (2).


How athletes develop their confidence level, when engaging in tasks, is mainly through 4 sources. The first, and most important of these, is mastery experiences. Here, athletes cognitively remember past experiences in the task at hand and determine if they have what it takes to succeed (3). For instance, an upperclassman athlete attempting an agility exercise will be more confident in his or her ability to successfully complete the exercise correctly, as compared with an incoming freshman athlete, if he or she has correctly performed this drill previously.

Besides mastery experiences, athletes can benefit from vicarious experiences or watching someone else in a similar situation. When using a modeler athlete for other athletes to observe, coaches should understand that novice athletes will generally learn how to successfully perform a task sooner if they view a proficient modeler (9); however, when a skilled athlete is struggling with performance, a coping modeler, who overcomes difficulty with a skill, may increase motivation to persist at a task (15).

The third source of confidence is verbal persuasion or quite simply being told by significant others that one has the skills necessary to be successful. For example, it has been shown that being ambiguous or telling participants they are lifting less weight than they actually are can increase performance (13,41); however, when employing this strategy over time, one must also be cognizant that the credibility and expertise of the persuader is important (9). Thus, using this strategy too many times may result in athletes not trusting the source of the information in the future (3).

Finally, confidence is derived from physiological perceptions. For instance, a freshman preparing for his or her first game as a member of the basketball team may experience sweaty palms and queasiness in his or her stomach while sitting in the locker room. Nevertheless, it is how these physiological reactions are interpreted (e.g., “I'm so nervous… I'm going to fail” versus “I'm excited, prepared, and ready for this new challenge”), not the reactions themselves, that affect confidence (7).


Briefly, research with athletes in a vast array of tasks and competition settings has generally shown that increased confidence is positively related to adaptive behaviors (6,14,21,23,25,31,41). In one of the most conclusive works to date, researchers examined high school wrestlers at summer sport camps, who were competing in “challenging sport conditions,” defined as overtime matches, in which the winner was determined by the first point scored. Psychological indices, including prior performance, goals, satisfaction, and confidence, were all measured. Results revealed that for these competitors, who were evenly matched, one's confidence was the only determinant for success (21). Furthermore, when investigating all studies in which confidence was accurately measured and performance was a dependent variable of interest, a positive correlation between these variables of r = 0.38 has been found, further confirming the importance of confidence on impending success (27). The Table provides a summary of findings on confidence related to performance.

Summary of findings on confidence

Besides sport in general, a number of studies have examined confidence in a weight room setting, with the most frequently studied topic being manipulation of perceived weight and resulting performance. For instance, results from several studies have found that subjects' performance increased when they were not aware of the amount of weight placed on the bar or when they were deliberately told they were lifting less weight than was actually present (13,28,41).

Based on the tenants of confidence previously described, these actions would raise participants' confidence level because of new mastery experiences (3). Another research avenue that has been explored, in relation to confidence and performance, is the immersion of subjects into competitive settings. In these studies, both confidence and 1RM performance were increased by facilitating competition against another person or by manipulating the arousal level of the individual to “psych up” for the best performance (29,42). Important to note is that providing a brief review of the completed work regarding confidence in weight room settings should not be interpreted as an endorsement of any of these techniques because other scholars have questioned the long-term implications of these suggestions (3,12).


Explaining why confidence is related to performance and success over the long term requires insight into how confidence levels interact with individually set goals. Specifically, goals and confidence have a joint relationship because athletes with higher confidence levels set more challenging goals, and once those goals are accomplished, confidence levels increase further, as does the difficulty of future goals (21,22). In athletics, this simply means that if 2 athletes are competing against each other and are relatively equal in their abilities, the athlete with higher confidence will set a more arduous goal and once met will continue to push to new heights (3).

However, rarely does any athlete training for a sport enjoy a smooth path to success where every goal is always accomplished. Instead, many setbacks are usually encountered on the road to eventual achievement. Confidence and goals will also impact the amount of effort that athletes display at a task. For example, a series of studies involving muscle endurance tasks have shown that individuals with higher levels of confidence persisted longer at the task in the face of discomfort (38-40). In addition, research has confirmed these notions in more discrete skills (i.e., the sport of baseball); as specifically, higher perceptions of confidence related to both increased batting performance and increased reported effort athletes displayed when actually performing the skill of batting, over the majority of games examined (14). Thus, the overriding principle is that athletes will generally try to avoid situations in which they do not feel they can cope and for physical skills one engages in, the higher one's confidence level, the greater vigor and persistent effort will be displayed (1).


Even with the abundant research previously discussed, strength and conditioning coaches will question the notion that higher confidence will always produce greater performances because of anecdotal evidence supporting possible complacency associated with overconfidence. Research with National Basketball Association (NBA) players has provided foundational scientific evidence to support this claim. Specifically, it was found that all else being equal, an NBA team that wins the first playoff game of a series increases their chances of losing the next by 12% (26). Consequently, some researchers subscribe to the belief that reducing confidence, so it is mildly negative, will elicit greater results (32). However, the previous basketball study did not measure the confidence levels of the athletes when drawing conclusions; moreover, recent work supporting the line of reasoning made here has only been published in academic and computer simulation settings (33-36,43). Even with these findings in other domains, many scholars point to the methodological flaws that exist in these computer simulation studies, the lack of generalizability to physical sport settings, and contend that a coach cannot discount all previous works-specific to the sport and training world-simply because a handful of studies have found a negative relationship between confidence and performance over time (4,12).

In the only known study to pit these 2 contrasting theories that explain confidence and performance directly against each other in a sport setting, results showed that confidence was positively significant when related to 1RM squatting performance of Division I collegiate football players over an 8-month period when simultaneously compared with their own previous performance and to their teammates aggregated performance (16). Thus, the best overall suggestion for strength and conditioning coaches to date is to possibly reduce athletes' confidence during times of routine training and practice to stave off complacency and increase athletes' confidence levels during 1RM testing and competition to improve the chances of success (4).


Making a statement to athletes that increases in their confidence levels will result in a greater performance is relatively easy to make; however, providing practical strategies and techniques on how this can be accomplished becomes more difficult. For the strength and conditioning coach, there are several steps that one can take to aid in the robustness of one's confidence level. Specifically, when working with a novice athlete, a coach may want to implement instructional aids. Athletes view this technique as one of the most effective ways that confidence levels can be improved (37), namely, because strength training settings (in particular, Olympic lifting) require that many complex skills be replicated under challenging conditions. Thus, by breaking down complex motor skills into manageable parts and guiding the athlete through the requisite skills, confidence can be enhanced (8,11). Additionally, when assisting a relatively unskilled athlete through skills, the feedback a coach provides can either augment or erode confidence levels. Although previous work has shown that being especially vague or inaccurate with feedback may increase lifting performance over the short term (13,28,41), generally, strength and conditioning coaches are encouraged to offer feedback that is noncomparative in nature (12,30). Moreover, coaches working with athletes should provide feedback that is performance contingent, so the athlete in question knows what they need to correct for future trials (8). For instance, a strength and conditioning coach who tells one athlete that he or she needs to be more technically proficient during speed work, whereas telling another athlete the same thing and also offering suggestions on how to improve technique is implying lower expectations for the first athlete and an increased valuing of the second athlete's performance.

On the other end of the spectrum are the more experienced athletes, who have the motor ability to succeed in their sport. Because of these athletes' talent levels, and the fact that past performance may be more important than confidence in weight room settings over multiple trials (13), strength and conditioning coaches should use slightly different strategies to increase confidence. The first of these is aiding in goal setting. As discussed earlier, the confidence and performance relationship is partially mediated through the process of goal setting. Consequently, professionals should modify the goals of athletes' that have become too controlling. An example might be the hypothetical athlete who is recovering from a lower-body injury and has just been cleared to lift after missing 3 weeks. Although this athlete undoubtedly had goals related to how much he or she wanted to squat in the upcoming 1RM tests before injury, it is the failure to modify these goals if they become unattainable that may make strength training stressful, unpleasant, and potentially reduce confidence (17). Additionally, all athletes can benefit from coach guidance in the goal setting process. Specifically, having a significant other suggest a goal that an athlete should strive for (e.g., a weight, a time, a technique improvement, etc.) has been shown to increase confidence, more than having that same coach suggest a goal of simply doing one's best (5). This is because when a professional assigns a goal to an athlete, that athlete will view the goal as an affirmation statement about what he or she can successfully accomplish and work harder to meet those expectations.

Although there is little debate that injuries and failing to modify goals can lower perceived confidence levels of individuals, for most experienced athletes, psychological struggles are more likely the result of a series of mistakes that need to be corrected. However, dwelling on past mistakes will only produce additional failures in the future (3). Because all athletes will make errors during training, simply projecting an aura of confidence to others can impact future performances. In particular, when athletes displayed positive “body language” toward others, they were viewed by others as being more aggressive, experienced, focused, and fit than those who displayed negative “body language” (18,19). Thus, the old adage of “fake it ‘till you make it” can positively affect future sport performance and training sessions by increasing the perceptions that others hold of a particular athlete or team.

This relationship not only holds true during first-time impressions athletes make toward each other but also may work during 1RM testing or competition, when players have lost momentum, made a critical error, or begin to doubt their abilities (12). Compared with all the other previously listed strategies, perhaps the greatest benefit of this technique is that athletes can be taught and trained by coaches to display 100% confidence at all times, even when they are not feeling optimal before (or during) an important physical test or competition.


Regardless of the field that one partakes in, confidence is an important psychological variable for goal setting, effort, and performance (12). However, both athletes and strength and conditioning coaches must understand that confidence will only contribute toward these behaviors if one has the necessary skills for correct motor production and optimal motivational levels to perform the task or skill competently (3). Thus, if an athlete sees no purpose or benefit in completing a hip abduction/adduction warm-up before training legs, the confidence of this athlete during warm-ups is a moot point. Additionally, confidence is a dynamic variable that fluctuates based on cognitions (12). An athlete's confidence level may be drastically different at the end of a heavy lifting week, when compared with the beginning, based on what transpired during training. Therefore, strength and conditioning coaches need to also assess their athletes' confidence levels regularly, to gauge the perceptions of each athlete in relation to upcoming training sessions and drills. By developing a relationship with each athlete, strength and conditioning coaches can correctly use strategies to aid in the development of confidence and take advantage of the research, which has shown that the confidence athletes display toward a task or a required behavior is an important predictor for success (10).


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confidence; performance; sport; training

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