Confidence comes with success... but success only comes with confidence

We had a lot of feedback and responses to last week’s blog, it is no surprise that many of you can relate to the Evaluation Apprehension Theory and how it affects you (and your family), not just in sport, but in the workplace too. If you didn’t read last week’s blog, read it now by GOING HERE.

In the last blog, we described Evaluation Apprehension Theory and its effects on performance. Based on the responses we received since then, we would like to raise an additional point which is ‘self-efficacy’.

It is fundamental that you, as an athlete, have a strong sense of self-efficacy. For those unfamiliar with this concept, self-efficacy was coined by Albert Bandura (cognitive psychologist) who defined it as 'how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations’. In other words, self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to succeed in a particular situation.

In the last blog much focus was spent on discussing how you feel and respond based on other’s judging you. Do you feel anxious because you think others are watching your performance and judging you based on your results? The other critical question that needs to be asked is, how do you judge yourself? Psychologists know that people with a low sense of efficacy in any given domain or environment may withdraw from difficult tasks. They have lower aspirations and a weaker commitment to the goals they choose to pursue. They do not concentrate on how to perform well. Instead, they spend much of their time and energy focusing on limitations and failures.

On the contrary, people with a high sense of efficacy may approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered. They set themselves perfectly challenging goals and maintain a strong commitment to accomplish them. Efforts are sustained in the face of failure, and they attribute failure to insufficient effort or opportunities to further develop their skills. These types of athletes quickly recover their sense of efficacy after failures or setbacks, essentially, they see this as part of their journey to success.

So how do we form self-efficacy beliefs? How do we stand on the start line confident that we are about to succeed? Well, we might gain that confidence by comparing against others. If you know based on previous results that you’re better than everyone else on the start line, then you’re likely to feel confident and ready to showcase your skills. But as the last blog highlighted, this could also cause problems for many athletes, especially if you are a novice and have no experience of ‘where you will finish’ or you’re an experienced athlete who could be out-performed by a rival competitor.

It's important to note here, that the development of self-efficacy beliefs seem to be more influenced by mastery experiences than information formed by social comparisons. Let’s put that into simple terms… Stop comparing yourself with others and focus on doing what you need to do, more importantly, focus on doing it well. The experience of ‘mastery’ influences your perspective on your abilities and internalises what is termed the ‘locus of control’. The locus of control is the extent to which a person believes that they, rather than outside forces, determine the outcome of events.

As an athlete, what are some ways to help facilitate successful mastery experiences? First, it is important to have realistic, yet challenging goals. They help direct attention and motivate athletes. It is important that the goals are challenging enough to help develop confidence, but are still achievable. Long-term goals with process-oriented goals that serve as check points along the way are useful. Don’t sign up to an Ironman with 12 weeks to go expecting to qualify for Kona when you have never ridden a bike before.

Second, develop a constructive way to handle successes and failures. As the saying goes, ‘you win some and you lose some’. However, both wins and losses can help you develop momentum towards your goals. Re-framing failures is important because it prevents athletes from focusing on negative aspects of sport that can be detrimental to self-belief. A success helps build confidence and create more challenging goals in the future.

Third, reflect on your training. Reviewing progress in training and consistency in workouts can help athletes learn and reduce competitive anxiety, which in turn may increases their belief in their abilities. Training is an important physical part of the sport, but it is also an opportunity to strengthen your mentality and belief.

Emotional states and self-efficacy

Physiological changes your body experiences pre-race need to be understood as completely normal, in fact, I bet everybody waiting at the start line is experiencing the same feelings, if not more intensified than yours. Butterflies? Racing heart? Anxiety? Yep… we’ve all had it.

Critically, it is the way an individual ‘interprets and evaluates emotional states’ that is important for how they develop self-efficacy beliefs. The anxiety ‘can charge you up’ and make you ready to race, if you perceive it as a positive emotion (remember our aim is to reach our optimal level of arousal). However, if it simply makes you think even more about what others think of you and how badly you think of yourself… then we have some work to do. Reframing and controlling anxiety is critical, that is why relaxation techniques, imagery, mindfulness strategies, avoiding negative self-talk and normalising any feelings are recommended. These techniques take time to master and practise is absolutely essential.

One last thing… These reactions are a bit like a broken record. If you’re learned to become anxious at races, it’ll most likely just keep happening through a stimulus-response association or a conditioned response. It has become a fixed, habitual emotional response and it won’t go away unless you do something to break the cycle. The best approach for this is what psychologists would call ‘systematic desensitisation’, we could also call this ‘graduated exposure therapy’. This is based on the principles of classical conditioning (remember the Pavlov’s Dogs experiment? The one’s who drooled everywhere when the bell rang and they got food?).

This is an evidence-based therapy approach that combines relaxation techniques with gradual exposure to help you slowly overcome an anxiety producing event or experience. Anybody can try this. Essentially you gradually expose yourself to your fears, for example, take part in smaller races to prepare for the big ones. Do you think it’s realistic that you can’t turn up to the local pool triathlon without getting anxious, but you’ll be ok on Ironman day with 3000 people and supporters? If you’re worried about open water racing, then you have to practise swimming in open water surrounded by people and make the scenarios specific to you (you know who you are).

But here’s the critical thing that you need to understand… practice will NOT necessarily make things better, it may only make them worse as you’re simply throwing yourself into the same situation and you’ll get the same habitual response. So just jumping into a lake with others, because it makes you nervous isn’t the answer. YOU MUST have an additional coping strategy which helps you to deal with the problem. Systematic desensitisation requires not only the ‘exposure’ to anxiety-provoking stimuli, but the application of strategies to relax yourself and take control of the situation.

That’s a lot of information over the last 2 blogs, so here’s a recap of things we’ve covered so far:

Evaluation Apprehension: How anxiety is caused by fear of what others think of us

Self-Efficacy: How anxiety is caused by what we think of ourselves

Mastery: Self-efficacy tends to be stronger when we focus on mastery of the task and not what others may think of us or where we will finish

Goal setting: Set challenging but achievable goals to direct your attention and motivate yourself

Emotional states: reframing and controlling our emotions is critical

Systematic Desensitisation: Race morning anxiety is like a broken record, it’s a recurring habit. To treat it, you need to practice in similar environments (smaller races) and apply techniques to help you

In next week's blog, we'll begin the practical steps to help you race better, starting with goal setting. 

Dr Mark Chadwick is a Chartered Psychologist registered with the HCPC, a GB age-grouper and was voted 2018 Wigan triathlete of the year. Marc Laithwaite is an Ironman Age Group champ, owns The Endurance Store and has coached triathletes for 20 years. He did not win 2018 Wigan triathlete of the year despite guiding a blind fella round an Ironman... but he's not bitter and has got over it.