Picture yourself on the starting line of an important race. As you stand there, simultaneously not wanting the race to begin and wishing they would just get things going already, you review your goals for the race. Do those goals seem attainable if you execute your race plan? Or do you wonder what delusional person thought you could do such a thing?
If your answer is more often the latter, you’ll come closer to reaching your potential by improving your self-confidence. As with any psychological skill, you can purposefully nurture and develop self-confidence. It’s not a psychological characteristic you should consider fragile or in a constant state of uncontrollable flux. Instead, by drawing on controllable sources, you can set about building a sturdy level of self-belief.
What is self-confidence?
Even at the highest levels of sport, confidence is considered the most important psychological characteristic required for success.
What exactly does “confidence” mean in this context? It’s not cockiness, or self-delusion. Blasting off the start line at a pace that’s well outside your physical capacity is always going to end badly, no matter how sure you are you’re up to the task. Rather, self-confidence is a grounded belief that we have the abilities required to achieve a certain outcome. In running, this might be our belief that we can hold a certain pace throughout a race, or place ahead of the runners around us in the second half of a race. In other areas of life, self-confidence might mean believing we can successfully pass an exam, get a job that we apply for, or manage a large work project.
Before we get to specific ways to improve self-confidence, let’s consider something about confidence that isn’t always obvious. We’re not going to tell you what it feels like to be high or low in confidence—you probably know both sides of that coin already. Instead, what we’d like you to reflect on is this: Feeling more confident isn’t as random as a coin toss. It’s not a quality that relies on luck—something we can’t control, that just happens, or that inexplicably comes and goes. Building confidence can be a controllable process; you can learn to flip the coin in your favor by nurturing your self-belief with the best sources of confidence available. This is what makes self-confidence more controllable than you might previously have considered.
Here’s another potentially surprising thing about self-confidence: The beliefs that underpin our self-confidence have less to do with what we’re actually capable of, and more to do with what we think we can do with the skills we possess. Sometimes we can be crippled by self-doubt, even for tasks that we’re more than capable of completing. You might doubt your ability to answer questions in a job interview, for example, despite having the knowledge and information required to do so. Your doubts might even mean you avoid applying for the role to begin with. Similarly, you might avoid signing up for races because you think you’re not fit enough, even though your training has been solid the past few months.
But the opposite is also true. If our belief in our abilities is higher, then we are more likely to try harder or persist for longer on a task than an equally skilled person with lower self-belief. In this way, our beliefs create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We try harder because we first believe we can accomplish a task. And we ultimately achieve it because of our increased effort and persistence, not just our abilities. Thus, our beliefs are fundamentally important to how we act, and higher self-confidence—without changes in ability or skill level—has been shown to improve performance in both athletic pursuits and the challenges of day-to-day life.
Again, this doesn’t mean we can fake it. We’re not talking about make-believe and fairy dust here! Instead, to build self-confidence—the unshakable kind—we need a solid foundation to start building on.
Specific steps toward self-confidence
Many of the general things you probably already do as a runner will build your self-confidence. These include setting challenging goals and striving to accomplish them, focusing on controllable actions, and talking to yourself in a constructive way. While these are helpful, here are four more-specific techniques for tapping into the strongest sources of self-confidence.
1. Meticulously record your preparation and milestone achievements.
Previous accomplishments, good preparation, and mastery of the skills of running are key to building robust self-confidence. But the process can crumble when you fail to make the connection between the work that you’ve done and the challenge that lies ahead. For many athletes, keeping a diary is one way of logging progress. Doing so can increase feelings of being well prepared and self-confident when an important event nears. Nothing helps to ease worries and dampen doubts more than evidence of the work you’ve done to prepare for an event.
Simply keeping a diary isn’t enough. It’s also important to prominently record the progress and achievements that you make during the weeks, months, and years of preparation. This might be highlighting training sessions that went well, flagging a successful experience like using a new mental tool to stay focused, or celebrating a performance milestone, such as setting a personal record.
No matter how you choose to record snippets of information about your progress and achievements, the important bit is to draw on them regularly to feed your self-confidence. You might note them in a diary, but you might also attach them to your refrigerator door, or store them in a confidence jar beside your bed. Whatever the format, reading about them—and recalling each event— can help you overcome doubt-filled moments. The key point is that you ensure that your self-confidence is secured to controllable preparation and milestone achievements. These nuggets will provide the strongest sources of evidence as you methodically build and develop that confidence.
2. See it to believe it.
Mental imagery can serve many different purposes, each of which can improve self-confidence. Athletes use their imagination to rehearse specific skills and routines. You might, for example, visualize yourself in the second half of a race running fast and relaxed. Performing these actions successfully—even in your mind’s eye—can have a positive impact on your self-belief.
Equally, when trying to achieve a goal, you might imagine working toward that goal, step by step, and making good progress. You might also imagine the emotions that accompany a stressful situation, and imagine managing these emotions to remain calm.
Finally, you might imagine overcoming challenging situations and coping with difficult moments while staying focused and avoiding distractions. This might seem counterintuitive. After all, we often prefer to avoid thinking about things going wrong in the hope that everything works out fine. But imagining negative scenarios—the “what-if” moments—and mentally planning how to respond to each in the best possible way can be a powerful tool in our confidence-building kit. Elite runners regularly do these mental exercises, such as thinking through what they’ll do if they miss their drink at an aid station, or briefly lose contact with the pack they’re running with.
3. See others to believe it.
Learning from others who have traveled a path similar to the one you hope to follow can raise your belief about what you’re capable of. You might, for example, pick the brain of someone in your running club who progressed from your current PRs to your goal times. What was her training like? Did she steadily chip away at lowering her times, or have a breakthrough after seeming to plateau? You might learn that you’re more ready to reach your goals than you thought you were. Remember, self-confidence beliefs are more about what we think we can do with our skills rather than an objective measure of the skills we possess.
By learning from others, you might grasp how they cope with setbacks, or how they overcame the same disadvantages that you might experience. Even learning from their failures can increase your belief that you can overcome similar obstacles in your life.
4. Get a good support crew, including yourself.
Finally, getting a good support crew around you can be helpful to develop self-confidence. Support might come in the form of positive feedback and encouragement from training partners, a coach, even non-running friends and family members who might believe in you more than you do. If enough knowledgeable people tell you you’re capable of reaching your goals, odds are they, and not your inner doubter, are correct.
Excerpt from The Genius of Athletes: What World-Class Competitors Know That Can Change Your Life. Copyright © 2021 by Noel Brick, PhD, and Scott Douglas. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available everywhere books are sold.
Scott is a veteran running, fitness, and health journalist who has held senior editorial positions at Runner’s World and Running Times. Much of his writing translates sport science research and elite best practices into practical guidance for everyday athletes. He is the author or coauthor of several running books, including Running Is My Therapy, Advanced Marathoning, and Meb for Mortals. Scott has also written about running for Slate, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and other members of the sedentary media. His lifetime running odometer is past 110,000 miles, but he’s as much in love as ever.