Steering the little voice – Controlling Confidence

Confidence is a funny thing.

A little voice inside your head that tells you what you are able to do and what you are not. A voice belonging to someone that has observed and taken in evidence, experience, advice, environment and then judges your physical, mental and emotional boundaries – at times judging with complete disregard for all of that input. Some people have it, others seem to have it but are in fact lacking and some just have too much. There are those who struggle to find it, those whose ebbs and flows and the rare breeds who find confidence only when they need it. We all want to be confident but there are so many variables that can impact our process of gathering it.

Confidence is an element of our consciousness that has such enormous power over our actions and yet can often be so easily swayed, skewed, spiked and stunted. And that certainly rings true when it comes to triathletes. Most triathletes would know what it feels like to be confident. We all started somewhere as triathletes and from that somewhere we improved. Whether that improvement came from the process of building physical fitness or actually learning the basic skills of either swimming, cycling or running (or all three!) – along with it came an increase in confidence. Most of us would also know what it feels like to lack confidence. Easy example: the day your first decided to do a triathlon!

Both of these points on the confidence scale make sense. There’s reason for the tri-newbie to lack confidence and the improving athlete accumulating theirs. But what about when confidence doesn’t make sense? When the little voice begins to stray from the script of gradual parallel increases of ability and confidence? When the improvements slow down or plateau and the little voice begins to question the reality of the goals you’ve set?

A champion in triathlon, as in all competitive sport, cannot be made without confidence. No triathlon world champ that I’ve met or heard about ever went into their event believing they couldn’t win it. Using the same premise, I argue that no athlete can perform their best unless they possess the confidence that their best is within them. So, how can you put forward to the little voice, an argument so strong that it has no choice but to agree that your best is within you? Here are a few things I’ve learned as an athlete and coach:

• Confidence can be gained from any situation. I am naturally a glass-half-empty kind of person but something I learnt through my racing career is that even from the poorest performances in competition and training there can be elements that can add to confidence – you just have to actively search for them. Making mistakes or displaying weakness is like taking a thousand-word dictionary and highlighting just three or four words. From that whole dictionary you now know the few words you need to spend time on learning. By having the poor areas of performance highlighted and committing to their improvement, confidence can be gained from becoming closer to “bulletproof” next time around.

• Perspective is everything. You’re approaching your target event and in a repeat cycle session you’ve been nailing for weeks, the numbers you’re used to seeing rise higher are suddenly super low. Or in the final few days of training taper you feel a niggle in your calf that you haven’t felt before. Your confidence wavers instantly. I did it as a younger athlete and I see it in athletes I work with now. The closer to big events we get the narrower out focus tends to become. The rhythm of progress becomes acute and any break in that rhythm can knock confidence easily but the key is to step back and look at the whole tune. Weeks and months of work to get to that point constantly building and refining. Often our focus becomes so narrow it’s like we’re looking for things to go wrong, whereas in reality the numbers in that bike session are still a solid effort and fatigue from yesterday’s long run probably took effect. And that calf niggle, it would have been felt any time in the past four weeks if you’d had two straight days off running and will disappear with a light jog pre-race.

When it comes to perspective the greatest tool you can use is your coach and training partners. They are as intimately aware of the rhythm you’ve created but will have an easier time of seeing the big picture when a single wrong chord is played. Allow them to step back and remind you of your full symphony.

• Whole Reflection. This is a big one in high-performance sport at the moment. Commonly referred to as “Critical Reflection”, whole reflection is a skill that has been identified to be possessed by the best of the best athletes in the world. They have the ability to take a performance, whether in training or competition and honestly assess which realistic aspects they set out to achieve and were unable to and which aspects they attempted and made stick. There are a few key dimensions to this process that few athletes do instinctually. The first is identifying weaknesses and actively scheming to improve them. We train and race to improve. To improve we must attempt, fail, address the failure and then reattempt.

The problem with this process is that the third step – address the failure – is often not fully thought through or it’s completely skipped. With this step not a full element of the cycle, all that is left is “attempt” and “fail.” The effect of this sequence on confidence doesn’t really need explanation. The second dimension is the reflection on aspects we have done well. We’re wired to identify our weaknesses because that is the space improvement is made. But if we only ever search for the things that need improvement all we will find is our shortcomings.

Athletes who reflect wholly are able to take any performance – a single lap of swimming, a fartlek run session or a complete Ironman race – and from that performance identify what they were able to do as well as they had planned, what they were not able to execute as planned and also begin to plan how they can do all of these aspects better next time. At the end of this process, a great sense of confidence can be felt as the future can only be viewed as progression.

• Self-talk. Pretty self-explanatory and I know you’ve done it before. Never underestimate the power of your own voice, be it a repeated physical cue you use in training in your mind, a whisper reminding yourself of why you do what you do or a literal: “C’mon [insert your own name here].” You know the positivity is within you, give it a voice and let your confidence hear it!

Confidence can be fickle; it’s not the physical preparation work you put in or the effort you exert on race day, a solid structure of fitness, being built up brick by brick. It is determined by the infinite amounts of input from our daily lives and ultimately, it is us who controls how all that input is processed. We choose what information we want to use as evidence, the environment in which to improve, the advice we wish to take and the experiences we want to draw upon. Making the right choices to control our confidence is a skill that can be learnt, like riding a bike. After all, that little voice in the back of your head is essentially on loop, with your thoughts feeding its words.


Brendan Sexton

As a youngster, Brendan’s life ambition was to be the fifth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. That didn’t quite pan out. But triathlon did. A decade on, he’s still at it.
Follow Brendan
Twitter: @kung_fu_sexton

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