Less than a week away from running the Napa Valley marathon, I need a good, healthy dose of self-confidence. Without it, I know that it will be neither enjoyable nor successful.
Mental preparation is crucial in endurance events (and life). Flashback 4 years to Chicago. Running a marathon in my hometown surrounded by friends and family fresh off of a Boston Qualifier finish months prior, I should have been ready. It was a fast, flat course, after all! However, the marathon ended up not only being my worst time-wise but also “feeling-wise.” In short, my mental state was underprepared. My training had been rough—sickness, injuries, and an incredibly demanding work schedule took its toll. Even though my body was arguably ready, my mind was not. And I suffered the consequences. I finished the race, but it was a fight every step of the way; I was miserable. For someone who smiles through races and completes marathons because I truly enjoy them, this was bad. That experience re-taught me something I already knew: Mental capacity, especially confidence, must be carefully trained with the body.
Mental preparation is generally underrepresented in training and fitness plans for “regular” people. Professional athletes performing at the highest levels spend a significant amount of time mentally preparing for big events, using visualization and other techniques. For the recreational athlete, however, this is generally not a focal point of training. However, I know from experience (think: Chicago) that if my mind is not prepared for a race, it will not be enjoyable and likely unsuccessful. So what gives? How can people avoid this painful fate?
All athletes, from professional to student to recreational—benefit from building TRUE self-confidence beyond the “You can do it” mantra. This is especially important when developing fitness in young athletes. Building meaningful confidence at a young age not only helps in fitness but also in life; confidence inevitably pours into other aspects of a person’s life, helping create a well-rounded, happy, and productive human being.
Following are 3 starting points to begin building meaningful self-confidence in oneself and others, acting as a framework on which to build positive habits.
#1: Change the language. Get specific.
Avoid “you can do it” and other vague language. It is SO easy to fall into this pattern because it is easy and usually comes from a very well-intentioned place. However, this kind of praise can be detrimental, doing more harm than good. Instead of saying “You can do it,” get specific. Depending on the audience, humor can also be extremely effective. Below are some examples of some specific, motivational phrases. Many point to prior accomplishments in order to build confidence based on past success. Having a “buzz” word representing a larger concept established beforehand is also a reassuring (and quick) way to motivate someone mid-pursuit.
- Think of that hill repeat workout! Remember how exhausted you were? You dug deep and made it. Channel THAT!
- Remember the 14 miler that almost brought you to tears? You did not give up then, so don’t now.
- 6 months of training have prepared you for this moment!
- Think GRIT! [potential buzz word]
- FOCUS on your goal [or state actual goal]
#2: Clearly define the purpose.
Creating purpose matters. By having a larger purpose behind every workout, motivation increases and confidence has room to better develop. Every class/workout should have a clearly defined purpose with both short- and long-term goals in mind. With greater understanding of the WHY, children and adults alike will better understand HOW they can achieve and track their progress. In turn, they are more likely to have confidence in what they are doing because they understand the reasoning (short- and long-term) behind the actions. Athletes and students of all ages appreciate the transparency of a clearly defined purpose.
- (Vague): Run for 30 minutes today to prepare for the 5k race.
- (Clearly defined): Today’s skill is STAMINA, focusing on pushing through the “wall” of self-doubt. Run 5 minutes easy and 5 minutes at 80% effort (fast pace) for 30 minutes. These intervals help build the stamina needed to pick up the pace when you are tired toward the end of the upcoming 5k race.
#3: Celebrate the effort!
Celebrating success is a well-known and largely used technique in athletics, academics, and life. However, the goal should not be to simply celebrate the end accomplishment but rather the effort along the way. By praising and celebrating the effort (despite the outcome), children begin to see the value in the work and understand how it can help them be successful. Psychology shows the importance of developing a growth mindset, focusing on praising the specific effort. As a general rule, the more specific, the better. Give kids a safe space to push themselves harder than they ever imagined, celebrating their efforts along the way. In time, this will not only build confidence but also important character traits such as perseverance and determination.
Confidence is crucial and can be developed and increased over time. Parents, coaches, and educators of young athletes have an opportunity to develop healthy, meaningful self-confidence through the use of fitness-related goals and pursuits.