A guest post by Corwin Duncan
I was feeling good. I had spent three years working towards this day, two weeks at camp preparing, (and then taken some time away from fencing to clear my head) and just the day before my teammates and I had won the team event. There was no one in the room I couldn’t beat if I fenced my best, and I knew I could win this competition. I knew I could lose it too — I had to be careful, to walk that balance between confidence and overconfidence — but, well, I was confident I could do that.
It certainly seemed that way in pools, where I won all my bouts comfortably. Moving into DEs I kept that same energy, and while there were a couple of challenging bouts near the beginning, I held it together and won each of them. As I progressed through the tournament, I could feel the energy in every part of my body with the intensity of my belief — what my therapist would call a ‘deeper knowing’ — that I could do this. A feeling of supreme confidence.
My bout in the top 8 was tough, but I won comfortably. The semifinal was also against a good fencer, but somehow I was fencing better than I had all day and I won 15-6 or so. Going in to the final I felt everything I had been feeling all day — but more so. The intensity, the anxiety, but also the knowledge that I was prepared, the feeling of my body being more ready than it had ever been, and my mind being totally focused. I knew that if I kept my cool, I could win this tournament. As I got on guard, I was supremely confident.
The event was junior national championships 2008, and if you read the first post in this series I’ve written for the Academy of Fencing Masters blog, (about setting goals) you know what happened next.
It felt amazing — and as I referenced in that previous post, I had set that as a goal years before, and this was the payoff from those years of hard work. But what happened that let me be so incredibly confident going into that tournament, all the way to the final? And why was that confidence so important?
In this post I’m going to outline some of the reasons confidence is important for athletes, (fencers especially) some of the factors that go into feeling confident, and how you can build your own confidence.
Why confidence is good
What is confidence?
First of all, what is confidence? I consider confidence to be certainty in decision and action, a feeling of empowerment to act, and the belief that you will get an outcome you are okay with. That said, confidence is an emotion, a feeling, not an observable fact, and it may feel different for you. If there’s a feeling you have that you think of as confidence and it doesn’t match what I said — that’s totally fine; you are the expert on your own experience. Most importantly, confidence is the feeling that you can do the thing you’re setting out to do.
So, why is it important?
Most people will agree that being confident feels good and helps you perform better, but there’s more to it than that. Research has shown that higher confidence is associated with better performance, achieving flow state, and even feeling better about being anxious.
Simply put, confidence makes you better. Of course, that can go too far — I’ve lost more bouts than I’d like to admit from being over-confident — but generally, being confident has been shown to improve performance.
Another thing researchers have discovered is that confidence is correlated to getting into a flow state — what’s known as being ‘in the zone’, or a state of performing at your best while being relaxed, focused, and at ease.
The other bit of the research findings that really struck me when I read it was that confidence actually changes the way we feel anxiety. When you aren’t confident, anxiety (characterized by sweating palms, trembling, racing heart, etc.) is likely to feel awful and unpleasant. When you’re confident, the same physical signs are more likely to be interpreted as excitement — which I think is pretty, well — exciting! But maybe that’s just because I’m feeling confident.
So ultimately, not only does confidence improve performance, but it also helps you enjoy what you’re doing and have less of that uncomfortable anxiety.
What goes in to feeling confident?
There are two factors that go into confidence that I want to talk about here. The most obvious is the belief that you can accomplish what you’re trying to do. Another factor is that you feel like you have the power to influence the outcome.
How to use that information
Since knowing you can accomplish what you’re trying to do will help you be more confident, find evidence that helps remind you of that. Focus on objective facts when you can like ‘I’ve beaten this person before, so I can do it again’, but really anything that helps you remember you can do it is a fine thing to say to yourself.
The other thing to do is remind yourself that you have power in this situation. In this case, focus on areas where you really do have power or control. For example, for my final bout of national championships I focused on keeping my knees bent and staying in a good on guard position. I knew I could fence well, if I remembered to do that. That was something in my control, and it gave me confidence to focus on it. For you, it may be a specific preparation or action you know you do well, something you do before you get on strip, or really anything you can fully control. Remember — you don’t have to control the outcome as long as you control the process.
An example of this was when I gave one of my clients, Hannah Provenza, certain process goals to work on when I was coaching her at a competition. The result was that she was relaxed and confident the whole way through, and ultimately won the final despite a sprained ankle. (If you’d like to learn more about process goals and how they can help you, contact me at the SharperMind Training website for a free consultation, or subscribe to my newsletter)
Other ways to improve
One other technique I recommend is visualization training. Visualization has been shown in research to improve confidence, and practicing this skill regularly can make it easier and more effective to mentally walk through an upcoming bout.
For more detail on visualization training see the SharperMind Training blog and the recent post about confidence — you will find step-by-step guides for two quick exercises that will help you go into your next competition feeling on top of the world.
SharperMindTraining offers mental skills training clinics, online classes, and one-on-one coaching. It was founded by Corwin Duncan, (3 times National Champion and Junior World Team member) and Jason Pryor (National Champion and 2016 Olympian). Go to sharpermindtraining.com to learn more, sign up for our mailing list, or email direction at firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about mental skills coaching.