Anxious vs. Confident: How to Instill Confidence in Your Athletes


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A volleyball coach is all too familiar with the dread that can affect a player in serve receive during a tight match. Coaches see it on the athlete’s face and the athlete certainly feels it.  The face seems to be saying, “Please, don’t serve it to me. I can’t pass it.

Now picture a serve receive drill during practice in which everyone gets to serve and to pass. How often do you see that look of dread? Hardly ever. In both instances, though, the task and skill are the exact same – serve receive. So why does this become more challenging in games?

This is the difference between an anxious player and a confident player. Anxiety happens when our thoughts drift from positive and realistic to negative and imaginary. Simply, we start to convince ourselves that we do not have the skills to complete the task at hand.

Go back to the thoughts of the anxious players in serve receive during a tight match, “I can’t pass it.” Their confidence is so low, they are convinced their passing skill suddenly has been taken from them, even though it is the same skill they have demonstrated hundreds of times in practice! And as coaches and players know, this anxious mindset is not restricted to serve receive; it also occurs, for instance, when serving during close matches, and in general for athletes struggling overall to perform well; what is commonly known as a “slump.”

Is it possible, then, for an athlete to feel confident in these instances as well?  Of course it is. 

When an athlete’s perceived skill level matches the perceived challenge at hand, then the athlete is confident. For instance, in the first example, confident athletes would see a serve receive pass as a simple task, and view their serve receive skill as high. They know the serve can be passed.   

How does an athlete get to this confident state? By changing his or her mindset.

Here are 3 ways to instill confidence in your athletes:

  • Encourage Positive Self Talk: Most anxiety stems from the things we say to ourselves. In order to feel confident, an athlete needs to reject negative thoughts when they occur (I’m going to miss my next serve), and turn the negative thoughts into realistic and positive thoughts (I know how to serve and I’m going to make it).

  • Have Your Athletes Write Down Positive Thoughts: Athletes can work on confidence simply by physically writing out things they tend to say to themselves during matches that are negative, crossing those out and writing the positive version of those thoughts instead. For instance, “I can’t pass this serve” becomes “I will pass this serve.”   Then, in practices and games, this thought-changing process becomes habit, with the mind “crossing out” the negative thought.

  • Give Specific, Positive Feedback: Coaches can help the confidence process by giving players specific, positive feedback. Point out the things that all players are doing well by telling them specifically what you saw them do well. A general phrase such as “nice hitting” can be improved by saying, “That was a really nice swing”. A negative phrase such as “Don’t drop your elbow when you serve” can be improved by saying “Make sure to keep your elbow high”. These more positive phrases help athletes achieve greater confidence on the court.  

For related reading on mental toughness and mental training, click HERE. For additional reading for coaches click HERE.

About the Author

Mary Gonring (Bizzie) has been around the game of volleyball for 17 years. She played 8 years of club volleyball for Milwaukee Sting Volleyball Club, 4 years of high school volleyball for Dominican High School, and 4 years of college volleyball for NCAA DII Assumption College. She holds a Master’s Degree in Psychology, with a concentration in Sports Psychology, from Boston University.  Currently, Bizzie is the assistant coach for Milwaukee Sting 12 Gold and works full time as a school therapist. She also works as a mental performance consultant for athletes striving to improve their total athletic outcomes. In her spare time, Bizzie loves to watch sports, eat pizza, and hang out with friends in Milwaukee. To contact Bizzie about your team email her at mgonring@bu.edu


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