3 Steps to Overcoming Self-Doubt in Sport
Hi everybody. I’m coach Rebecca Smith, and today I’ll be talking about overcoming self-doubt. Now, there’s a common misconception about self-doubt, that is that you need more confidence so you should try harder, work harder, try it again, do it better. I’m going to tell you right now – trying harder is not the answer. It’s actually the opposite. If you are up against self-doubt, if you’re experiencing a plateau in your sport, or you’re just in a stuck place, trying harder is not going to work.
Today, I’m going to give you three steps to overcome self-doubt. Before I do that, I’m going to tell you about a figure skater who I have been working with over the last two years. To protect her privacy, I’m going to call her Angela.
Angela’s Story of Self-Doubt
In October 2018, Angela’s mom reached out to me for support. She said that she was freezing up before her jumps and it just wasn’t going well. As soon as the music turned on, it was like her confidence disappeared. She was okay in practice, but when her music went on for her program and it was time to perform, she was overcome by overthinking and self-doubt. She had had an injury and she was fully cleared to go back, but she had this fear of getting hurt again. What was really happening was she was overthinking it. Right before her big jumps or big elements, she got tense. She felt the pressure getting to her, she started shaking, and she almost gave up. She hated competing because she got to this place where it was just too much.
“If I Just Try Harder” Myth
What she had been doing up to this point was she was trying really, really hard. She really cared and she really wanted it. I see this all the time where athletes want it so bad, they believe, If I just try harder, if I just go at it better, if I just do it again, then I’ll get my mojo back. But what happens is they get frustrated instead.
If you’re a gymnast going for a skill and you’re freezing up or it’s not working, and then you try again and fail again, or you’re a skater and you’re falling or popping, you eventually fall apart. You’ll start to think, “Okay, I’ll come back tomorrow and try harder.” Then you fail and you fall apart. If this happens enough days in a row, you actually start to believe that you can’t do it. You lose your self-belief, confidence, motivation, and you lose your effort. You’re trying something over and over that isn’t working, but what you need to do in that situation is try doing things differently.
You can’t keep doing the same thing and then expect different results.
Just Let It Happen
It’s not a matter of “do the same thing harder”, it’s that you have to do something different. If what you’re doing is ending up in frustration, the main thing you need to do is stop forcing it. You have to start letting it happen. I know that’s easier said than done. Just letting things happen is the end of the journey. You still have to journey from where you are to the place where you can just let it happen.
Mental Block Rollercoaster
There is a missing link for young athletes who are on what I call the “mental block rollercoaster”. This is where they’re having a good day, a bad day, good day, bad day. When those bad days start racking up, the doubt comes up and it gets stronger and results in negativity. You start to think, is it going to be a good day? Is it going to be a bad day?
So the missing link for athletes in that situation is the ability to trust your training, trust yourself, your coach, trust that you are right where you’re supposed to be. I’m going to tell you how to get there, what that journey entails, but first, I want you to think about the best performance that you’ve ever had. I’m going to ask you, did you force it or did you let it happen? Did you over try or did you let it happen? For most people, the answer is going to be that you let it happen, that you let your training shine through. You can have a decent performance where you aren’t really trying to be perfect and trying to force it, but most of the time when you approach it that way, you are not getting the best of yourself.
If you can perform decently under those circumstances, imagine what would be possible. If you could drop into the flow and just allow your body to execute its muscle memory, without anything extra happening in your mind, it’s like freedom.
Critical Steps Before “Just Let it Happen”
So how do you do it? How do you get to trust? Well, there are three steps and trust is the third one. There are two critical steps you have to get through in order to get to that place where you can just let it happen. The first one is awareness.
With this figure skater, Angela, she started to become aware of what was not working. The way you do this is you start paying attention. We have coaches in our coaching program that are highly trained at helping you learn how to pay attention, but it’s not something you need a coach for. You can do this with a journal, you can do this by just reflecting with a parent if that’s something the athlete wants to do. I know plenty of times that’s not the move. Athletes typically don’t want to talk about it, but you have to become aware and you have to figure out what’s not working.
Once you identify what isn’t working great, you cross that off the strategy list. Once you have a good idea of what’s not working, you go back into those previous performances and go, “Okay, well, what is working,” and then you start paying better attention. That’s something that I train my athletes to do – how to pay attention to what’s working and what’s not. Instead of just thinking, it’s not working, I’m the problem. No!
You are not the problem. Your strategy is the problem.
So you have to first get aware. This is usually when people abandon ship on mental training is in that first month or two. I just got an email from a parent whose daughter is in her second month of mental training and she is derailing because she’s starting to notice how negative she is. She’s starting to notice how her deadlines that she’s imposing on herself are not working. That’s the point where the real change happens – when you get so frustrated with the way that you’re operating, that you finally say, “Fine! Okay. I get it. This is not working. I want more for myself. I want better for myself. So what do I do?”
Finding What Makes You Tick
That’s the awareness piece – you get real clear on your own strategies, you cross off the ones that aren’t working, you add a few in, and you refer to the past, those best days – what worked for you? Then, once you’re aware, and only then can you start building your confidence. A lot of people try to say, “Let’s do some affirmations. Let’s visualize,” but you cannot start building confidence if you’re not deeply aware of what makes you tick.
Once you’re willing and you haven’t jumped ship, you want to get better and want to transcend the patterns that keep you stuck – trying to be in control, trying to over-control, or trying to be perfect – all of those things that probably set you up to become an amazing athlete are things that will hold you back in life if you don’t get them figured out.
2. Confidence Building
Once you’ve got your patterns sorted out, you move into step two – confidence building. This is where we start to give you new strategies, not just the ones you already have that work, but new strategies that will help you to build momentum on that awareness, adding in some things that will help you gain more confidence. Then, once your confidence has increased, once you’ve built some momentum and started to do things in a new and different way, you have a tool bag of things you can use to up your confidence. You’ll use those tools to help you realize, “I need to prep in this way so that I feel ready.”
So then we go into phase three, which is trust. You’re at a point where you’re deeply aware of when things are on track or off track. You also have tools to make it so that you can get back on track and boost your confidence when you need it. You can get your focus in place and you can get present in the moment. Then with all of that, you’re ready to trust yourself. During this time you’ve been building up your muscle memory, you’ve been building up your mental strategies, and then you finally get to this higher echelon of mental training where you can let go.
You can let go of all those things you think you need to think and all those corrections you think you need to make, and you can just execute. It just takes a leap of faith.
Just as you leapt into the confidence-building phase, you have to leap into the trust-building phase. I’ve been talking with tons of athletes about this this week, because we’re getting closer to the gymnastics competition season. There is a point where your muscles are ready and your mind is ready to, and it’s time to leap, and that is a calculated risk where you have to go, I’m going to try to trust. I’m going to try right now and I’m going to do the best I can. Then you’ll cycle back to awareness. Afterward, you go, Did I trust it? Did I not? If I didn’t, why not? If I did great, how do I repeat that?
That’s the three-step process. That’s the process that I teach in PerformHappy, and that’s the process I work with and all my coaches work with with our one on one clients – awareness, confidence, trust – in that order.
Follow the Process
Don’t give up at the awareness piece. If you’re uncomfortable, then your job is to accept that what you’re doing is not working. If you try harder at the same strategy, you will only get more frustrated. You might get a little success sometimes, but ultimately, each backslide, each time that you go back in that like self-deprecating negativity, try harder, be perfect kind of mindset, you lose hope more, and more, so you have to start paying attention, acknowledge that it’s not working, and then make a commitment to change. Then you can start building that confidence, and then you get into self-trust.
Where is Angela Now?
Over time, Angela figured out what wasn’t working. She built her confidence, slow and steady, she learned her strengths, she learned how to be present, and she let go of the pressure. Now it’s so exciting. She trusts herself and knows how to turn on the fire in competition. Anglea knows how to use any potential negative that would have derailed her, like jealousy, perfectionism, competition, or insecurity – any of those, she turns them into the fire that makes her amazing. She lets go of mistakes quickly and she is not a perfectionist. Right now, she qualified for Worlds. She’s a serious contender for the 2022 winter Olympics and she’s not feeling pressure about that. She’s excited to compete. She’s consistent, confident, and she trusts herself.
That is why I do this. I want to see that story more and more and more. These athletes that come to me stuck, freezing up and doubting themselves, they end up blossoming into these amazing athletes. It’s electrifying to watch this process happen.
If you want more information, I have a free Sport Confidence Roadmap that goes into more detail on the exact formula that Angela followed that tons of other athletes are following. You can download it for free by clicking here. The roadmap goes more into detail around the three-step process. For today, start with awareness. Realize what’s not working and make a commitment to do something different. All right. Thanks for joining me. I’ll see you soon. Bye.