How to maximise self-confidence for racing success

Self-belief is a crucial part of racing success - here’s how to cultivate and sustain it. Words by Josephine Perry

In sport, a factor that consistently sets apart the successful from the unsuccessful is confidence. A combination of self-belief and positivity, confidence allows athletes to fully focus on executing their physical, psychological and perceptual skills.

It increases competitiveness, facilitates greater effort and persistence, and improves the implementation of successful strategies.

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You can spot cyclists lacking in confidence quite easily. The energy that should be going into their performance is instead spent fighting off anxiety, nerves and negative thoughts, which results in taking overly safe decisions; for example, finishing in the bunch rather than in a break.

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Elliott Newell, a performance psychologist who works with GB athletes, says, “Working to understand and nurture your confidence will allow it to become more robust, enabling you to draw from a range of sources for different events or situations.”

The essentials

  • Having confidence makes everything else in racing easier
  • No one has infallible confidence — it needs to be worked on
  • There are many sources of confidence
  • The strongest sources of confidence are mastery and preparation
  • Learn what gives you confidence and work on it

Research has identified multiple sources of confidence, including focusing on your skills and chances of success, preparedness, appearance, support (from coaches, team-mates, etc), familiarity with the course and conditions, and even your luck.

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The most robust sources, according to psychologists, are those that home in on your mastery — how well you have mentally and physically prepared. Outcome-related sources, such as focusing on a recent race win, are the least reliable, for the simple reason that they don’t always apply.

In cycling, you find yourself in many different race situations, so Newell advises, “The more types of confidence you have, from a range of sources, the more robust your overall confidence will be and the better your chances of performing.”

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Research published last year from Sheffield Hallam University highlighted ways in which athletes can work to develop and maintain this robust confidence. A key finding was to develop an awareness of what gives you confidence and then build routines to help you nurture it.

What you should be taking to every event

Key points

Do: Log evidence of how you are doing. A training diary is a good place to do this. After big sessions or races you can reflect on what parts of the experience have given you confidence. You can watch videos or look through data files to see what you did well.

Do: Spend time focusing on your strengths. Never get so fixated on your weaknesses that you overlook what you are good at. Being aware of your strengths during a race can be a great confidence-booster, keeping you positive.

Do: Learn and use psychological skills. Skills such as goal-setting, imagery and creating strong pre-performance routines provide you with reassurance that you have your physical and psychological preparation well covered. You can draw on these in a race to boost your confidence levels.

Do: Manipulate your training environment. If you work with a coach or in a team, work to manipulate your training environment so you are able to build confidence in new areas in a controlled way. You can practise tactics safely and learn what works for you.

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Don’t: Copy team-mates. The ways you gain confidence are specific to you and your environment. What gives someone else in your club confidence may be unsuitable for you.

Don’t: Leave confidence-building to the last minute. Just like physical training, mental skills need to be practised and worked on over time. If you’re thinking about it on the start line when you’re already feeling nervous, it’s too late.