It’s difficult to put a percentage on it, but so much of sport – elite or grassroots – is played in the head, and the incredible drama of the recent Champions League semi-finals served as the most stark of reminders. Confidence and momentum are both intangible but very real aspects of sport at any level, but how can we even begin to understand how these things work?

You can be a village cricketer having a tough time with the bat, a golfer playing in your local medal or, as we saw recently, the greatest footballer of all-time – if sport gets in your head, there is very little, if indeed anything, any of us can do about it. The batsman walking out to the middle bereft of runs and confidence is a walking wicket – it’s all in his or her head. The golfer playing badly knows they are going to mess their next shot up. Why?

‘Something is happening’

The look on the face of Lionel Messi in the recent Champions League semi-final 2nd leg told a vivid story. Something was happening, and it was apparent from the moment Divock Origi tapped home the first goal early on. Something was happening, and not even the greatest footballer of all-time could do anything about it. The enormous momentum Liverpool had, the confidence draining from Barcelona before our very eyes – it was all there. TV cameras zoomed in on the faces of Messi, Suarez, Busquets, Pique and the rest as they stood in a daze, bewildered, bemused, confused and, ultimately, apparently nigh-on powerless, as goal after goal flew in. How could this even be happening?

The very next night, to many observers, that late, late Spurs goal was always coming. Something, yet again, was happening. Ajax, in total control a mere 30 minutes prior, were retreating in fear and even as the clock ticked beyond 95 minutes, you felt something was happening. And it did. Spurs had incredible momentum and belief. Ajax, the opposite. It is quite amazing what can happen in the heads of people playing sport.

Understanding Confidence

The dictionary definition of self-confidence is:

‘a feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgement’

On the flipside, everyone who has ever played sport has experienced anxieties, that feeling of uncertainty. Even someone like Tiger Woods – the man of the colossal iron will and self-belief – experienced a crippling loss of confidence. Batting collapses in cricket are always a good case in point (especially English ones) – how do you explain top batsmen walking into the middle in the midst of a batting collapse almost knowing they’ll soon be walking back to the pavilion? The enormous momentum carried by the bowling side is intangible – you can’t see it, you can’t touch it, but you can certainly feel it and you know it is there.

Those voices in the back of our heads that lead us to make mistakes we wouldn’t ordinarily make; they are borne of a lack of trust in our ability to execute a skill during a match, exacerbated by a range of circumstantial doubts and anxieties.

You might have been low on self-belief when a coach has told you to “be more confident”, but what nonsense that is. You cannot just summon confidence, nor turn it on like a tap, but it can be steadily developed.

Developing Confidence

There is no science to developing confidence, but one source is imagery – visualising successful outcomes, picturing previous good performances. Research has shown that evoking those feelings associated with good performances and outcomes is a powerful tool when it comes to developing confidence.

Another obvious source is from your coach or manager. Subtle differences in language can make all the difference to athletes. Young athletes, in particular, rely heavily on adult feedback and it is important that that feedback is positive and constructive.

And another is focusing only on things you can control. There are so many other factors – conditions, the referee, team mates, opponents – and we can feel anxious about them all. But we can’t control them – so ignore the uncontrollables.

We All Fail in Sport

Ultimately, success in sport – at any level – is about learning from and coping with previous disappointments. No one has ever had it all their own way, and every success has, at some stage, been preceded by disappointment. Messi has endured plenty. Tiger Woods too. The great Michael Jordan said:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. MICHAEL JORDAN

Confidence, momentum – it is all linked to our sporting failures and successes, our fragile humanity, no matter what level you play at. So if, this weekend, you find yourself in the eye of the storm – maybe a batsman taking you apart, or getting thrashed on the hockey pitch – worry not. It happens to the best of us.


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