The ability to control emotion in particular within a sporting context can be a defining characteristic between success and failure. Imagine lining up a putt in golf, or taking a penalty in football, or serving for a match in tennis … these are things that those performing the task have worked at for so long. I will argue here that success in such a circumstance is more likely to be predicted by one's ability to control emotion than technical ability.
I once spoke to a tennis player who, despite serving well for the majority of a match, produced a double-fault when facing match point and lost. I asked what he did in his next training session and he responded by telling me that he practised serves for hours. He even scoffed and laughed as he said it, so certain was he that his serving ability had cost him the match. I suggested that maybe it was actually his ability to control his nervous emotion when facing match point that cost him the match and he soberly agreed. I then asked what he did in training to improve this skill … he had no answer. From then on we concentrated on how to develop pressurising training conditions and manage emotion in them.
One of the great lessons that sport can teach us is responsibility and accountability. For those performing in individual sports, this lesson comes at a very young age. We are responsible for our own fortunes. We cannot afford to simply wait for fortune. Even in team sports this lesson
can be a stark one. Successful teams have individuals who are prepared to take responsibility for tasks that can maximise team success rather than waiting, or hoping, that a teammate or a coach assumes responsibility. Moreover, sport teaches us to be accountable for errors. When we accept such responsibility and accountability, we can pursue ways of ensuring that we minimise the risk of making the same errors again. By assuming such responsibility, we are learning how to gain life control.
When working with sports performers, psychologists will often discuss controllable and uncontrollable issues. For example, in a sprint race, how fast your opponents run, if the weather conditions are conducive towards quick times, or if the starting equipment becomes faulty are all uncontrollable factors. Therefore, because these factors cannot be controlled, they cannot be changed. However, being aware of how fast you are likely to need to run to win, setting goals to achieve that time, training, knowing what time you are likely to finish in, being prepared for inclement weather, and having a coping strategy for faulty equipment or unexpected delays are all controllable factors. By taking control of these, our performer will feel much more like success is in their hands.
A mentally tough performer believes that they have control over many aspects of their life, certainly inside of a sporting context and often beyond. For sport, the belief that that we produce our future is essential. If we believed that success was down to luck, what would be the point in training? The exaggerated stage that sport sets once again provides an ideal example for a transparent view that success requires hard work, which is an attitude that would serve a young person well outside of a sport domain.
Sports commentators, pundits, supporters, and performers all recognise the importance of confidence and its effect on a sports performance. When we have a greater belief that we will succeed, we expend more effort and persist longer. More effort and persistent of course leads to improved performance. This is something generally accepted by the populous, but also shown time and again in research. I could list endless studies that have related increased confidence to improved sporting performance but this is a somewhat obvious relationship. Instead, I will consider the benefits of sport and how it may help to
develop confidence in young people, considering both components of confidence in the four C's model; confidence in abilities and interpersonal confidence.
There are a host of theoretical approaches to understanding selfconfidence in sport, largely related to perceived competence and one's belief that they can successfully execute a desired behaviour. Bandura's self-efficacy theory (1977; 1986; 1997) suggests that the biggest predictor of efficacy expectations (self-confidence) is performance accomplishments. This means that if we have performed the desired action successfully before, we are more likely to believe that we can do it again. This seems perfectly appropriate and one of the benefits mentioned earlier is that sport provides an exaggerated level of challenge. With more challenge, one would expect more success and therefore, more confidence in reproducing that level in the future. However, this is true only of a very specific situation, such as performing gymnastic movement correctly, making a putt in golf, or making a free throw in basketball.
Vealey (1986; 2001) explained that while state-specific selfconfidence exists (i.e., being able to perform a given task at a given time), there is also a trait element (i.e., a more stable personality characteristic). This type of self-confidence is more transferable across domains. More recent research of confidence in sport considers the sources of this confidence. In particular, it appears that confidence is often derived from feedback. In sport, we obtain constant feedback from ourselves, teammates, coaches, supporters, and the statistical representation of our performance (e.g., goals scored, tackles made, greens in regulation, runs per over etc.). Therefore, by performing in sport, a young person is exposed to more feedback than they would be normally. It is from this feedback that confidence can be drawn. There is of course an important caveat here regarding the quality and nature of feedback provided! In senior positions within a team or in a coaching context, it may be the young person that offers feedback to others. This can build a more interpersonal type of confidence.
Interpersonal confidence is the extent to which we are prepared to assert ourselves and our preparedness to deal with challenge or ridicule. This can be developed through sport in a number of ways including taking on leadership roles and accepting responsibility. Consider a team environment, which could be for a specific team sport or a group of performers from an individual sport such as a development squad/ academy. This group will have complex dynamics and individual
members assume certain roles. By assuming some of the more leading roles in the group, we learn to assert ourselves more. In time, this may become a team captain role or even a coach. This requires a significant amount of communication skill, team building capability, and strong decision-making. All of these are desirable attributes outside of sport but are routinely developed inside sport by taking on leadership roles. Considering the second part of the definition of interpersonal confidence, being prepared to deal with challenge and potentially ridicule is inherent in all competitive sport. By exposing oneself to such challenges and the potential for things to go wrong, over time we clock up more successes. With more successes, comes greater confidence.
By its very nature, sport provides challenge, which leads to prevailing circumstances. Sport requires great commitment in training to reach ones potential. It presents high-pressure situations, which require great control, and it pushes people to their limit, which requires great confidence. It is for these reasons that sport is a prime way of developing mental toughness in young people.