Most athletes believe that confidence is either something you have or you don't have, almost like something you're born with. But that's not exactly true.
I talk about the importance of being uncomfortable with athletes on a regular basis. As humans, we often gravitate toward what's comfortable and familiar. It makes sense to some extent. If it's familiar, even if we don't necessarily like it, we know how to respond to it. We've been there before and know what to expect. It's a way for us to conserve our resources.
But here's the obvious, yet frequently overlooked, thing. It's the new stuff that brings new challenges. New challenges bring new insights. New insights mean identifying skills we can develop. Earlier this year, I went to a triathlon training camp in Tucson, AZ. Let's just say it was completely, totally, 100% out of my comfort zone. I'd never met any of these people in real life, never been to Tucson, and our coach didn't give us a detailed schedule (apparently on purpose...she's AMAZING but that was sneaky!). Yet, the most uncomfortable part of all: descending Mount. Lemmon. Nope, not riding UP Mount Lemmon. Descending it. As in going downhill for 26 straight miles. This might not seem like much, but people, I'm a Eastern North Dakotan. It's completely flat, like pool table flat. Let that sink in.
Maybe it's not always easy to see challenges as a way to build our skills, but that approach can help build our confidence. As athletes, we usually have great work ethics and determination to reach our goals. When we encounter discomfort, we can learn to use that determination to push ourselves to get used to and overcome the discomfort. Of course it's uncomfortable: it's new! Discomfort doesn't mean something bad is happening. It just means it's unfamiliar. Back to Tucson. I jokingly (?) told my coach I was taking an Uber down the mountain. I knew I needed to descend the mountain for my own benefit (and my coach knew this, too), but I did NOT want to do it. Talk about a strong desire to avoid the unfamiliar!
So many athletes want to extinguish discomfort, anxiety, anger, etc. Yet, we miss the point if we want to disconnect from emotion (because that also means you'll disconnect from emotions like happy, too...you don't get to pick). It's learning how to work toward our goals while the emotion is there and not being distracted by it. It's learning to reach our goals while we are uncomfortable. I was certainly anxious descending Mt. Lemmon, but I couldn't focus on that (because it made it much, much worse, trust me). I also couldn't make the anxiety go away. It was there to stay. Rather, I focused on my breathing and how I was gripping my handlebars. I worked on noticing and modifying negative self-talk. I laughed when I thought about explaining this situation to friends who had never been on Mt. Lemmon and know I'm a flatlander. Talk about extensive anxiety-reduction practice!
As it turns out, this entire experience was quite eye opening. Considering I already experience myself as pretty insightful, this was interesting to me. I realized that I live a pretty structured life (somewhat out of necessity, somewhat out of preference). What a great opportunity to practice learning to deal with the unknown, which is a great life skill. Descending Mt. Lemmon also taught me that I'm not always going to be perfect. I was not descending the mountain exceptionally well; I was just getting down the dang mountain! I'm at camp with a bunch of people I didn't know, and they witnessed my least-developed triathlon skill (mountain descending). Yet, no one cared as much as I did, and even that was short-lived. I also realized my anxiety-reduction skills were already pretty well-developed, and I could call on them in the event of a "crisis." The increase in confidence came from doing difficult things, feeling the emotion, and coming out on the other side stronger because of it.
There are numerous examples in sport of athletes overcoming intense emotion to reach awesome goals. Take Gwen Jorgensen, gold medalist in women's triathlon at the 2016 Olympics, as an example. She is not a fan of fast descents on a bike, so her team worked with her to "prevent fear from usurping all of Jorgensen's controls—not to banish fear but to put it in its place."
The next time you find yourself wanting to avoid the uncomfortable, remember that it can be an opportunity to grow. Or even purposely try something new that makes you a bit uncomfortable. For example, seek feedback from a coach with whom you aren't as close. Strike up a conversation with a teammate you don't know as well. Practice in conditions that are difficult for you or practice a skill that's not your favorite. Train for a race that's more challenging than usual or a distance you don't usually race. Run or ride with a new group in your community. It's going to take some practice getting used to being uncomfortable, so do this several times. Make note of what you learn and how you can grow confidence from it. Learn and practice skills to help you manage discomfort. I suspect you'll learn quite a bit about yourself if you're open to it. I certainly did.
Dr. Erin Haugen is a licensed clinical psychologist and sport/performance psychologist located in Grand Forks, ND. She specializes in helping college student-athletes excel in sports and in life. She is a former basketball player, current triathlete, and LOVES dogs.
Disclaimer: You should consult an appropriate professional for specific advice tailored to your situation. If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, you should call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.