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Building and managing self-confidence for matches

This is an excerpt from Rifle: Steps to Success by Launi Meili.

Building and Managing Self Confidence

Self-confidence is the realistic belief that you are capable of accomplishing the task at hand. When you think about an upcoming match, do you feel confident that you can achieve your goals and shoot at a level that coincides with your training scores? If you do, then you have self-confidence. For shooters, the task at hand is the next match, the next position, the next set of 10 shots, the next individual shot. When broken down like this, the task becomes manageable and controllable. Having a plan for each step in the process enhances self-confidence, which comes from training correctly, gaining match experience, and developing a focused plan that helps you perform to your full potential.

Many athletes have a misconception that self-confidence is what it takes to win, that if they go into a competition absolutely confident that they will defeat the opponent, they will do it. If it were that easy, competition wouldn't be necessary. Winners could be declared by judging who is the most confident. Luckily, competition is more than that. It comes down to the overall performance, which includes managing and believing in yourself, to determine who wins.

When athletes use self-confidence to focus only on winning, they develop a habit of evaluating performance based only on outcome and not on the elements within their control. Athletes who focus only on winning fall into a trap of overconfidence or cockiness. These athletes talk the talk but can't walk the walk. Acting overconfident is really a cover-up to hide insecurity. Cockiness may be all that they have to show that they are competitive and really want to win. After the competition begins and their performance doesn't back up all the hype, these athletes fall quickly and often perform far below their ability level. You should avoid acting overconfident even if others are or because you think that you need to psych out your opponents. You are falsely lifting yourself up. If you don't have realistic performance goals to hold yourself up, you will crash back to reality with a major letdown. Let your scores speak for themselves in competition. Do not let your ego get ahead of itself.

At times you may feel overconfident because your scores are way ahead of the competition. If this is the case and you are less motivated because the match doesn't seem that hard, look up your long-term goals again. Think about where you want to be at the end of the season. Think about the kind of scores you will need. You don't want to waste a competitive opportunity. Raise the bar for yourself. Instead of thinking, "I need to shoot at this lower level to win this match" (and trust me, you will shoot at this lower level if you don't change your mind-set), think about replicating the main match that you are working toward that year. Lay it all on the line and see how close you are to shooting the scores that you will need to accomplish your season-ending goal. Learn to challenge yourself and create the kind of competition that you need to succeed long term. You will be well on your way to mental toughness.

Athletes often face confidence problems, usually low self-confidence or the feeling that their true ability isn't high enough to prevail over the task at hand. These problems can be devastating. Often they come about over time because of negative feedback from parents or coaches, a focus only on winning, unrealistic goals set by others, self-doubt in their abilities, lack of training, fear of failure, negative images of themselves, a tendency to be easily intimidated, or feelings of anxiety and low self-image. It takes time for athletes to lose their self-confidence, and it will take some time to undo the damage and regain it.

The key is to prevent this downward spiral from the beginning. Feeling a little doubt or worry can be constructive for some athletes because it fuels motivation and raises the desire to succeed in the face of challenge. The problem occurs when doubt and worry become destructive and start to affect self-confidence, self-worth, and performance. Identifying when doubt and worry have a negative effect on performance is critical. Some athletes continue to think that their ability level is simply poor and that they aren't competitive or worthy. They begin to ride that downward spiral. They need to see that the doubt and worry are affecting their ability level and that they have it within their control to lessen the effect or eliminate it altogether.

Goals to Build Self-Confidence

You can always rely on your goals. As discussed earlier, when you set realistic yet challenging goals for yourself, you can go into a competition with excitement and confidence. You know that you have shot close to your goal in the past and that the training you completed should propel you to the higher end of your goal range. Goals can be the foundation to self-confidence. If goals are unrealistically high, you will probably face self-confidence issues. You need to set goals that are only slightly challenging if you have self-confidence issues. You want to go into a match with a mind-set that allows you to breathe freely, not one that ties you up with worry and fear of failure. If someone else, such as a parent or coach, sets unrealistic goals for you, reset them in your performance journal and rely on what you've done in the past and what you are realistically capable of doing in the future as your points of reference. When other people set your goals, they usually base them on what it will take to win or beat another competitor, not on your true capabilities. If you can't confront others to let them know what your goals are for yourself, at least you have them in your performance journal, where the true athlete who you are has a voice.

Positive Self-Talk

Self-talk is the running conversation that goes on in your head nearly 24 hours a day. Even when dreaming you have self-talk. Most of the time you don't really listen to or pay attention to what you are saying, but the words that constantly spin around in your head can have an influence on the images in your mind and your attitude, mood, self-worth, determination, and attention. People may simply be born optimistic or pessimistic, and their self-talk reflects that attitude toward life. But I hope that isn't the case for pessimists, because living constantly in a negative mind-set can't be much fun (or healthy). Athletes excel at beating themselves up through self-talk and negative mind-sets. Sometimes you need negative self-talk to refocus so that you pay attention to the right thing, but self-talk can become destructive and starts to hurt self-confidence if you allow it to continue. Read these two versions of a shooter's self-talk and think about the image or place that you see:

  • "I can't believe that last shot was a 7. I have no idea how that happened. What will my coach think? That's really going to hurt my score. I'm letting the team down. I have to shoot three 10s to recover. I hate this. Oh great, my hold is getting worse."
  • "OK, that last shot was a 7. I overheld and tried too hard. I'll set the gun down the next time that my hold starts to look like that. The gun didn't stay in the 10 ring after the shot. I'll take the shot as it's going into the center. I'll focus on following through past the shot and mentally staying in the 10 ring. I'll be sharp and ready to react to the perfect hold and sight picture."

These thoughts are common for shooters. One version is destructive, and the other is constructive. In the first version, the shooter is not using information from the past correctly and is worrying about the future (the next three shots). In the second version, the shooter is putting the shot in the past, using what happened as information to readjust the tactics for the next shot plan, and focusing on the present. This shooter is not worried about what others think, what will happen with the next three shots, or what the total score will be. This is an example of putting energy into the things that you can control. Self-talk leads the way for this to happen. How would you rate the level of self-confidence of these two shooters? One has to dig out of a hole mentally and physically. The other doesn't allow a poor shot to shake her or his self-confidence. This shooter knows and believes in a plan for the match and keeps using information in a constructive way to make the next shot better.

Many shooters beat themselves up mentally after a bad shot. The key is to recognize that this is happening, use it as a kick in the pants when needed to get back to working on the right things, and change it up when the self-talk is starting to be destructive. When self-talk is having a negative effect on performance, tell yourself, "Stop it!"; that it's garbage in, garbage out (as the computer programmer saying goes); and that the garbage is ending up on your target.

After you stop the negative or pessimistic self-talk, take stock of the situation. Think about where you are in the match. Think about your match plan and what you should focus on to start making it work or at least improve it. Learn from the past and then close it off. Shut the door on it. Don't let the past carry any weight into your present. Think about what you can accomplish with the shots and time remaining in the match. What kind of shooting will prove to you that you can overcome this challenge? This challenge may come up again, so press on and finish strong, incorporating what you learned into your new plan of action. You always have something to learn and a goal to reach; even with your last shot you can accomplish something. Never give up and never stop trying to improve. Self-talk can lead the way to higher belief in your ability and, ultimately, your self-confidence.

Personal Affirmations

Affirmations are self-talk statements that create an image, thought, or positive mind-set. Affirmations should be realistic and focus on something within your control. Use them to overcome shaky self-confidence.

Here are some examples of a shooter's affirmations:

  • "I perform well under match conditions."
  • "I love to perform under pressure. It brings out the best in me."
  • "I shoot great in the wind. Bring it on."
  • "I am mentally inside the 10 ring."
  • "I am the 10 shooter."

I used some of these affirmations in the Olympics Games and in the matches leading up to them. They shifted my focus toward challenges that I needed to confront, and they set up the framework through which I would execute my shot plan. Knowing that I had to deal with the wind, for example, I'd think about the wind with a perspective that gave me energy and excitement to separate myself from the rest of the pack. To do that, I had to analyze the wind condition for every shot, exercise patience to adjust my timing to shoot not only when the shot was right but also when the wind was right, and maintain that level of concentration throughout the performance. Affirmations can set up the framework for all of that as long as they deal with the present and carry enough resolve to have a positive effect.

If you are just starting in the sport, using the affirmation "I am an Olympic Champion" probably will not boost your self-confidence for an upcoming match. This kind of unrealistic affirmation is not in the present or under the shooter's control. It represents a challenging long-term goal, but trying to imbed it in your subconscious now will only instill false confidence and not help you learn to use affirmations in a positive way to influence the present. Keep your affirmations focused on the current situation and make them reflect a certain aspect that you know is true. Otherwise, they are just wishful thinking without any resolve. Use affirmations in practice so that they have a positive effect on your mind-set during a match.

This is an excerpt from Rifle.

More Excerpts From Rifle: Steps to Success