Have you ever entered a competition not feeling very confident about your ability to achieve your race goals that day? We’ve all been there, to be sure. And what likely happened was that your race didn’t go the way you wanted—that is to say, you were slower than you had hoped to be. The reality of triathlon is that if you don’t truly believe you can maintain a certain pace, you won’t give your best effort because you assume you’ll blow up. That’s why, on race day, confidence is your most important mental muscle.
What Is Confidence?
I define confidence as how strongly you believe in your ability to perform your best and achieve your triathlon goals. Confidence is so important because you may be physically capable of racing at a certain pace, but if you don’t believe you have that ability, then you won’t attempt that pace.
Your goal is to develop prime confidence, a deep, lasting, and resilient belief in your ability. Prime confidence keeps you positive, motivated, intense, and focused when you need to be most. With prime confidence, you can stay confident even when you’re not at your best on race day. You aren’t negative and uncertain in difficult race conditions and you’re not overconfident in easy races. Prime confidence also encourages you to seek out challenging situations and to view difficult conditions and a tough course as challenges to pursue. Prime confidence enables you to perform at your highest level consistently.
Confidence Is a Muscle
A misconception that many triathletes have is that confidence is something that is inborn or that if you don’t have it at an early age, you will never have it. Confidence is a muscle, much like your biceps and quads, that can be strengthened.
Actually, your confidence muscle is made up of two muscles, a positive one and a negative one. If you are very negative in your thinking all of the time, you are strengthening your negative confidence muscle, so when you race, that negativity is what will come out and it will hurt your efforts.
To change negative “muscle memory” and strengthen your positive confidence muscle, you must retrain the way you think. You must train your positive confidence muscle so that it becomes strong, and allow your negative confidence muscle to atrophy so that your natural reaction is to flex your positive confidence muscle.
It’s easy to stay confident when you’re having a great training or race day, when the conditions are ideal, and when you’re feeling rested. The real test of confidence, however, is how you respond when things aren’t going your way. I call this the Confidence Challenge. What separates the best from the rest is that the best triathletes are able to maintain their confidence when they’re not at the top of their game. By staying confident, they continue to work hard rather than give up because they know that, in time, their performance will come around.
Most triathletes who perform poorly get caught in a vicious cycle of low confidence and performance. Once you slip into that downward spiral, you rarely can get out of it in the short term. In contrast, triathletes with prime confidence maintain their confidence and seek out ways to return to their previous level. All triathletes will go through periods where they don’t perform well. The key is not getting caught in the vicious cycle, being able to get out of the down periods quickly, and returning to a virtuous cycle of high confidence and performance.
There are several keys to mastering the Confidence Challenge.
- Develop the attitude that demanding situations are challenges to be sought out, not threats to avoid.
- Believe that experiencing challenges is a necessary part of becoming the best triathlete you can be.
- Be well-prepared to meet the challenges.
- Stay positive and motivated in the face of the difficulties.
- Focus on what you need to do to overcome the challenges.
- Accept that you may experience failure when faced with new challenges.
- Most importantly, never, ever give up!
Why Triathletes Lose Confidence
Anything that counters your belief in your ability to achieve your goals will hurt your confidence. The greatest disruption to confidence is failure. Failure can mean not being able to finish a workout, having a disappointing race, being beaten by someone you really wanted to beat. Failure will cause you to lose faith in your ability and to become tentative or cautious. There is nothing more harmful to confidence than failure because it provides evidence that any confidence you may have is unjustified.
Symptoms of Low Confidence
To help you further your understanding of your confidence, here are several symptoms of low confidence that are common among triathletes.
Self-doubt. Triathletes with low confidence just don’t believe in themselves. They express this self-doubt in negative self-talk or negative talk to others. Before a competition, for example, these triathletes will be thinking things like, “I’m just not going to do well today.” Or “The conditions are just too rough for me.” Not surprisingly, this sort of talk becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that sets triathletes up for failure.
Anxiety. Triathletes with low confidence experience intense pre-competitive anxiety because they don’t believe they can perform well and achieve their race-day goals. As such, they are placing themselves in a situation that is incredibly threatening to them, namely, almost guaranteed failure. This anxiety contributes to a vicious cycle in which the highly unpleasant physical symptoms of anxiety—sweating, muscle tension, shortness of breath, racing heart—send the message to your mind that confirms the low confidence, triggers a flight reaction, and prevents anxious triathletes from focusing adequately on what they need to do to perform well. Additionally, these symptoms almost ensure performance failure because anxious triathletes’ bodies are simply not capable of performing at their best.
Insufficient effort. Low confidence has the expected effect of reducing triathletes’ motivation to put forth their best effort. From their perspective, what’s the point of trying hard when they know they will fail? This toxic stew of low confidence and motivation acts as an anchor on race day because, without sufficient belief in their ability to succeed and their lack of effort, these triathletes have zero chance of being successful.
Tentative performance. Triathletes with low confidence create a “perfect storm” of psychology and physiology that sets the stage for competitive performances that are cautious and tentative. These performances lack full commitment because of the absence of both confidence and motivation. They are missing intense physical effort and exertion because their bodies aren’t physiologically capable of performing their best. The result is performances that are uncertain and lacking in determination and energy.
Four Tools for Prime Confidence
The ultimate goal of prime confidence is to develop a strong and resilient belief in your triathlon ability so that you have the confidence to give your best effort, perform at your highest level, and believe you can achieve your goals in the most important races of your life. I have identified four tools that you can use to create a virtuous cycle that will lead to prime confidence. Each tool alone can enhance your confidence, but if you use all of them together, you’ll find your confidence growing significantly stronger and more quickly.
Preparation Breeds Confidence
Preparation is the foundation of confidence. This preparation includes the physical, technical, tactical, equipment, and mental parts of your sport and means putting in the necessary time and effort into every aspect of your training. If you have developed these areas as fully as you can, you will have faith that you will be able to use those capabilities gained from preparation to give your best effort on race. The more of these areas you fully address in your preparation, the more confidence you will breed in yourself. My goal for you is that, when you arrive at every race, you can say, “I’m as prepared as I can be to achieve my goals.” And that statement alone exudes confidence.
Adversity Ingrains Confidence
Exposing yourself to adversity offers so many psychological and emotional benefits to triathletes. Confidence is one mental area in which adversity can be a powerful tool for its development.
To ingrain confidence more deeply, you should expose yourself to as much adversity as possible in training. Adversity can be environmental obstacles such as cold or rough water on an open-water swim or a strong headwind on a bike ride. Adversity can also involve a workout that is going to be really painful.
Training for adversity has several essential benefits. Adversity increases your belief that you can respond positively to difficult conditions because you’ve shown yourself that you can in training. It shows you ways to adapt to the adversity so you can make those adjustments in competitions; for example, changing your breathing pattern in choppy water or shortening your stride on a long climb. Training for adversity also familiarizes you with hard conditions, so when you get to a competition with such demands, you’ll be confident enough to stay positive and motivated in the face of it. Plus, training for adversity just makes you feel tough!
Take Risks (and Succeed)
Risk taking is essential for triathlon success. The ability to get out of your comfort zone and push the limits of your capabilities is a requirement for any triathlete who aspires to be their best. Risk taking is a valuable tool for stretching yourself beyond your self-imposed limitations and, in doing so, bolstering that virtuous cycle of confidence and performance.
Risk, by definition, involves pushing outside your comfort zone and performing on the edge of failure. After succeeding from a risk, you come to believe that you can do more than you thought you could and, by extension, your confidence in those newly expanded capabilities grows. There is also a strong emotional component as it produces a rush of fulfillment, pride, inspiration, and excitement from the accomplishment. You feel stronger mentally and are empowered to continue to take risks and succeed.
Success Validates Confidence
All the previous steps in building confidence will go for naught if you don’t then perform well and achieve your goals. Success demonstrates that your belief in your ability is well-founded. Success further strengthens your confidence, making it more resilient in the face of adversity and poor performance. Success also rewards your efforts to build confidence, encouraging you to continue to work hard and develop your capabilities.
But when I talk about success, I don’t mean just competitive success, that is, the “big victory,” at least not right away. I often hear triathletes say things like, “I just need a good race to get my confidence back.” But I would suggest that the chances of a win are very low if you lack confidence. Your initial goal is to create little “victories” every day in training. After a workout, you should be able to say that you just “won” that day by doing what you needed to do, for example, work hard; improve technically, tactically, or physically; or keep at it even when it really hurts. With each small victory in training that you accumulate you gain incrementally more confidence until it is high enough so that you are ready for that big victory on race day.
Do you want to take the next step in training your mind to perform your best in training and on race day? Here are four options for you:
- Read my latest mental training book: Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation to Achieve Your Sports Goals.
- Listen to my Train Your Mind for Athletic Success
- Take a look at my online mental training courses.
- Schedule a 1:1 session with me.
Jim Taylor, PhD, psychology, is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of endurance sports. Jim has been a consultant to USA Triathlon and works with Olympic, professional, and age-group endurance athletes in triathlon, cycling, running, swimming, and Nordic skiing. A former alpine ski racer who competed internationally, Jim is a 2nd-degree black belt in karate, sub-3-hour marathoner, Ironman, and USAT nationally ranked triathlete. Jim is the author of 17 books, including The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training (with Terri Schneider) and Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation for Achieving Your Sports Goals. Jim is also the host of the Train Your Mind for Athletic Success podcast. To learn more, visit www.drjimtaylor.com.